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M.B.A. programs gear up for green

Eve Troeh Apr 5, 2012

Sarah Gardner: So if green TV programs aren’t inspiring anybody these days, or at least ratings, what about a graduate program in business school?

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Eve Troeh reports on the Green M.B.A.

Eve Troeh: It’s a classic MBA exercise. Students research a specific company problem, and present solutions as they would in a board room.

Reynold Byers: We’re going to start with our HP case discussion.

Today, at the Arizona State WP Carey School of Business, the class looks at HP, the computer company. They’ve studied how HP might squeeze value out of old, broken or returned products.

The team’s solution, as presented by MBA candidate Joseph McCammon:

Joseph McCammon: HP could implement a recycling program. Consumers can bring any kind of electronics, drop it off, so it’s not just dumped off into some kind of a landfill.

By collecting all electronics, HP could get more of its own products back to refurbish, resell or get used parts. Plus, it looks good. HP generously helping people recycle all their e-waste.

Student: As a marketing drive of: Hey we’re visible in that space, of recycling.

And everyone who uses the recycling program could get an HP coupon to drive new sales.

Now, this isn’t a huge money-making idea. But students in this class are seeking something different. They’re after a triple bottom line, a solution with social, environmental and financial gains.

The class title?

Byers: Sustainability and Social Responsibility, and it’s taught in the Supply Chain Management department.

Prof. Reynold Byers was new this type of thinking when he started the class a few years ago.

Byers: It took some time for me to kind of get into this and figure out where the real business opportunities are, but they’re there.

Some companies are fundementally re-booting their business model. They no longer assume the supply chain ends when products land in customers’ hands. Instead they’re asking: How to cut costs on raw materials by recycling their own stock, how to reuse packaging or find markets for used products?

Byers: It’s a huge shift, actually, and I was very surprised to find those companies that were actually able to do it, what looks like successfully.

Byers says academic theory on green business is lagging behind company practice. The push to teach this mindset came from students as they reported back from the corporate world.

Like Elena Medovaya.

Elena Medovaya: You want to speak the language of the company.

She interned with defense contractor Pratt and Whitney, where she saw efforts to reclaim used metals instead of finding new. Other students hoping for jobs at Johnson and Johnson or BP noticed a push to use fewer resources, too. They’re here for the same reasons as her.

Medovaya: It got me thinking there’s a better way to do things, so this class seemed like an opportunity to put it all together.

Judy Samuelson: The impact of business on wider society is profound.

Judy Samuelson heads an Aspen Institute program called Beyond Grey Pinstripes.

Samuelson: I mean business is how we get things done in society. Organizations are how we get things done that are bigger than what individuals can achieve.

Her program ranks business schools on how they teach students to weigh social costs along with profits. Traditionally, she says, M.B.A.s checked their humanity at the door.

Samuelson: Students enter thinking like consumers. They exit thinking like profit maximizers.

That’s not great for people, the environment or the economy in the long run, she says. If more of students graduate thinking more sustainably, we might see fewer oil spills or avoid financial meltdowns. And there’s a new breed of business student who wants to do good.

Samuelson: The kind of cohort of millenials who want to bring their heart and their brain to work.

More M.B.A. programs are catering to that. Beyond Grey Pinstripes has seen a boom in schools that want to be ranked. And companies want to hire that skill set, too, says corporate recruiter Ellen Weinreb.

Ellen Weinreb: The sustainability expertise indicates that they’re passionate about the bigger picture. That’s valuable no matter what the function.

You won’t see tons of corporate job listings with “green” or “social good” in the title, she says.

It’s more subtle than that. Sustainability is taking hold in every department as a lens for looking at marketing, finance or factory management. And M.B.A.s who learn to see that way have an edge.

I’m Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

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