07/15/2013 08:57 am ET Updated Sep 14, 2013

Building a Research Base for Sustainability Management

The transition to a sustainable economy has begun; and like the process of industrialization itself, we are looking at a transformation process that will last for decades. Economic growth based on extracting resources from the planet and then discarding them after they are "consumed" is a strategy with a limited future. With over seven billion people on the planet, more than half of these people living in cities, and a growing rate of material consumption worldwide, the facts of planetary strain are obvious and visible to everyone.

Well, nearly everyone. There is a small minority of the business community and a larger group of right-wing politicos who refuse to see the facts in front of them. But then there are people who think the earth is flat, the moon landing took place in a TV studio, and the Holocaust never happened. Facts are facts. In my life time, the population of the planet has more than doubled, climate change has accelerated, and the world became predominantly urban.

Humanity has shown some ability to deal with the economic, social, and technological changes we have brought about. Over the past half-century, environmental regulation and technology has helped make the air and water cleaner in the United States and Western Europe. Medical technology and changes in our individual behavior has made it possible for many of us to live longer and healthier lives than those lived by our grandparents and their grandparents. But this progress will start to end if we do not learn how to understand our planet and learn to do a better job of managing its resources so that it can continue to provide us with safe food, air and water.

This view of the world has led me, along with some of my colleagues at Columbia University, to develop educational programs in sustainability studies. I am particularly interested in the field of sustainability policy and management. If we are going to speed this transition to a sustainable economy we are going to need large organizations to integrate sustainability principles into routine management decision-making. Large private businesses, governments, and non-profits, such as universities and hospitals, need to bring issues of resource use, waste management (reduction and recycling) and environmental impacts into day-to-day management decision-making. This process has begun in many large organizations.

To help bring about these changes, many universities have begun to offer professional masters programs in environmental science and policy and sustainability management. At Columbia University, the Earth Institute has developed several of these programs in partnership with some of the university's professional schools. Similar programs are now offered at American University, Arizona State University, Willamette University, Bren School of Management at UC Santa Barbara, Bard College, The New School and MIT's Sloan School of Business (to name a few).

As the director of two of these programs at Columbia and the instructor of a graduate class in sustainability management, I have become concerned about the thin research base supporting this new field. In many respects the practice of sustainability management has been advancing faster than its academic knowledge base. This is not surprising, and I believe very strongly in experiential learning or "learning by doing". The best professional school curricula are based on a combination of practical cases and academic theory. Academics and practitioners need to interact and learn from each other. But at some point the field of sustainability management needs to be built on the norms of academic research including peer review of published research. Best practices in sustainability management need to be based on solid evaluation research and systematic benchmarking studies rather than mythology and anecdotes.

For that reason, I have been working over the past year with a number of faculty colleagues at Columbia and staff at the university's Earth Institute to begin a research program in sustainability policy and management. We are trying to increase our understanding of the public policies and internal organizational practices that encourage and do not impede the transition to sustainability management. We want to analyze regulatory structures, tax policies and grant programs, in order to see what works and what does not. We want to debunk the anti-governmental bias we see by identifying effective public policies along with ineffective ones. Sustainability requires a public-private partnership and we are determined to focus attention on public actions, private actions and the interaction between them. We are also very interested in learning about private organizations and the factors that facilitate and impede the transition to more sustainable organizational behaviors.

In recent conversations that we have held with a dozen sustainability officers at top U.S. and multinational corporations, a few clear interconnected trends emerged:

  1. The absence of agreed-to sustainability metrics makes measuring progress, tracking outcomes, and comparison to peers difficult;
  2. Linkages must be made to business values (i.e. traditional financial indicators); the connection between sustainability and an organization's financial goals must be more clearly understood. Costs and benefits must be more rigorously measured.
  3. A common language needs to be established, and utilized across industries and sectors, as well as across business units within any given organization. If common metrics emerge, or we are able to develop methods to integrate sustainability with finance, this language will be easier to understand.
  4. Many large organizations are looking to engage in sustainability, climate and energy programs, but the lack of certainty on policy hinders long-term investment. They don't know where to invest, where to steer their capital.

There are lots of case studies, consumer and corporate executive surveys, and anecdotal material, but few rigorous academic studies that look at sustainability management and operational issues. There is a significant amount of public relations, green washing and wishful thinking. Fortunately, we are finally starting to also see some hard-headed, realistic financial analysis as well. But we need to do more.

The fundamentals of sustainability require large organizations to think through the long-term impacts of their strategies and actions. It may help the next quarterly financial report if an organization dumps waste into a river instead of learning how to reduce waste and even reuse it. But the cost of cleanup added to the cost of liability impacts will someday need to be paid. A production process that uses fewer resources, produces less waste and charges the same price for a product can be more profitable than one that does not. As large organizations begin to pay higher prices for raw materials, water, energy and waste disposal, they are starting to look at sustainability as a way to reduce costs.

Part of government's job is to use the tax code to adjust the cost-benefit calculus of organizations seeking to implement more sustainable practices. The goal should be to provide incentives that encourage the more rapid development of sustainability practices. This is not a new idea. Our very complex tax code is used to motivate a wide variety of functional and dysfunctional behaviors. One of the goals of our research program will be to examine the success and failure of early efforts to encourage energy conservation and waste reduction through tax and regulatory policies.

The practice of sustainability management requires rigorous analysis, the development of more effective public policies and the evolution of new organizational routines. To do this, we need to learn more, think more, experiment more and communicate with each other. I am hopeful that the new research program in sustainability policy and management we are about to begin at Columbia will make a small contribution to this critical task.