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Meeting the Challenge of Corporate Sustainability

Klaus Weber’s MSES course helps students understand how businesses impact everything from the environment to income inequality, and how they can change to become sustainable. 

Incorporating genuine sustainability efforts into business strategy is extremely challenging, on a good day.  That main message, which Klaus Weber tries impressing upon the students in his Corporate Sustainability and Value Creation course, is intended both as a warning, and a rallying call. 

Weber’s course is part of the core curriculum of Northwestern's Master of Science in Energy and Sustainability (MSES) program. MSES is jointly offered by Northwestern Engineering and the Paula M. Trienens Institute for Sustainability and Energy. 

Klaus WeberWeber has been a professor of management and organizations with Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management for more than two decades. The MSES students he teaches often come to the topic of corporate sustainability from a different starting point, he said.  

“I really enjoy engaging with students who want to meet this sustainability challenge," Weber said, "and who I don't have to convince that this is something they should care about or that's needed.”  

While MSES students rarely debate the need for increased sustainability efforts in the corporate world, there is a great need to understand exactly how difficult it can be to implement those changes so they can be effective change agents.  

Bringing research into the classroom 

Weber's research focuses on two main areas. One is the down-and-dirty details of corporate sustainability — changes to operations, products, measurement, and strategy. This includes how companies adjust their business models and create entirely new ones to transform into more sustainable enterprises.  

The second area Weber researches is the political and cultural environment that drives sustainability. For example, Weber studies environmental movements and how they affect companies, new markets, new products, and consumer behavior. 

Weber draws on that research to teach MSES students about the challenges of implementing corporate sustainability.  

It’s common to presume that change is often stymied by sustainability non-believers. Although that can be true, Weber helps his students understand it doesn’t tell the whole story. What can make effective change particularly challenging is that companies, and the executives who run them, can have the purest intentions to push sustainability initiatives, and still not be able to reach their goals quickly – if it all. For some, Weber said, there is a tension between the cost of sustainability and the economic viability of the company. 

Then, there are those companies who attack sustainability in the wrong manner. As an example, Weber points to a commercial bank that touts its excellent carbon-neutral footprint.   

“But their biggest sustainability impact doesn’t come from their carbon footprint. It comes from where they invest their money,” he said. “Unless they integrate that and consider the impact of their financial products on people's incomes, livelihoods, and the environment, they are off target.”  

Weber knows he’s been successful with his MSES students when they demonstrate an understanding that sustainability needs to be more than a short-term process. Intentions matter, but a long-term commitment is needed to create any measurable effect.