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Sustainability-Driven Innovation

By Beril Toktay

By Beril Toktay

In the last two lectures in my Business Strategies for Sustainability MBA class, we played the Fishbanks simulation, originally developed by Professor Dennis Meadows, co-author of Limits to Growth (Chelsea Green, 1972). My students take the role of competing fishing companies seeking to maximize their net worth. They buy, sell, and build ships; decide where to fish; and negotiate with one another. It’s a great simulation for thinking through the challenges of managing common pool resources sustainably. As we turn from the identification of challenges to a discussion of solutions, there is always a healthy debate about the role of industry self-regulation versus government regulation, its value and its limitations. It’s a high-energy discussion, and as in every MBA class, what each student takes away is different, shaped as much by the diversity of views expressed as by their prior experiences and beliefs.

I have my own vantage point in this debate, though I typically don’t bring it into the classroom, since my role is to facilitate a full discussion. Growing up in a country with lax environmental regulation, I experienced first-hand what that translates to – the beautiful bay my father had fished and swam in as a child turned into a smelly sludge, an acrid smell in the air every morning, shower water that would occasionally give you hives. I took those conditions entirely for granted though, and later found echoes of that unquestioning acceptance in Paul Hawken’s “Ecology of Commerce,” where he recounts his father telling him the smell of pollution in their home town is “the smell of money.” Yet many did question the status quo in the 50s and 60s in the US,  culminating in President Nixon’s December 2, 1970 Executive Order establishing the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s coincidentally the same year I was born, so that by the time I moved to the US as a graduate student in my twenties, I arrived in a country that taught me - by example - that being a developed country and a leader in environmental stewardship were not at odds with each other.

As my Alliance for Research on Corporate Sustainability colleagues and I argue in a recent editorial, the US’ strong track record has paid for itself many times over in terms of health and economic benefits, and has positioned the US to lead in markets where environmental concerns are growing. Innovation will continue to provide opportunities for both incumbents and entrepreneurs to lead in this space. That’s why one of the key themes our Center emphasizes is sustainability-driven innovation, and I’m excited to continue to challenge our students and alumni to innovate for a better world throughout their careers.

Beril Toktay is a Professor of Operations Management and the Faculty Director of the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business, at the Scheller College of Business. 


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