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Sustainability on the Rise

Written By: Jaret Waters, Designed By: Lily Wang

Reuse. Reduce. Recycle. Within current conversations about the progression and development of any university, being environmentally conscious is emerging as a critical element of responsible citizenship. However, a larger field is surfacing which encompasses a broader and more holistic set of issues than the “three R’s”: sustainability. Despite the integral role it plays in economic and environmental development, few people truly understand what it is.

“I’m almost always with sustainability students 24/7, so I think all of us are really excited and passionate about it, but it’s always a shock to me when I go out to another industry and always get people that say they don’t know what that is,” says Sarah Fischer, a third-year student studying Environment, Economy, Development and Sustainability (EEDS). “I think a lot of people don’t understand that sustainability is literally about survival.”

Fundamentally, sustainability consists of “business practices that acutely steward natural resources so that we can have durable industry which is required to generate the standard of living that we need”, according to Dr.Neil Drobny, Fisher lecturer and co-director of the EEDS program. Although historically mistaken as another form of environmental science, sustainability actually comprises a multi-disciplinary field which has begun to garner increasing attention within the business community.

Because of the growing priority placed on sustainability, institutions of higher education have been reacting all across the country. For instance, Ohio State has acted in accordance with such a trend, forming the Environment, Economy, Development and Sustainability major in 2012. Although a relatively new program, it is one of the most rapidly growing ones in the university. In fact, Sarah Moore, a 2015 graduate of the EEDS major, is the first graduate of the program to move on to earn her MBA and receive certification from the International Society for Sustainability Professionals in January of this year.

Similarly, in 2010, the Fisher College of Business founded the Energy and Sustainability Industry Cluster, having grown out of one of Drobny’s undergraduate classes at the time. The Cluster is an elective open to students from all across the university which typically consists of 25-35 students who work on experiential projects involving sustainability.

“The combined effect is that you have people of different interests who are in it together for a common goal,” says Hallie Klieman, a third-year operations major with an EEDS minor. “Ideally, what that translates into in the future is that business professionals will be willing to listen and make impactful change.”

The Industry Cluster Program takes place during a student’s third year, where it is segmented into two major segments. During the first semester, corporate partners such as Dow, General Motors, Arconic and Owens Corning deliver presentations to the students about sustainability as it relates to their respective companies. Then, in the following semester, these same companies provide the students with problem-solving projects. Regardless of the success of the projects, they consistently stimulate innovative thinking within the students and corporate executives.

“I get that feedback all the time from companies,” Drobny says. “The student ideas may not be the exact solution they’re looking for, but it gets the company thinking outside of the box in directions they wouldn’t think on their own.”

Drobny also teaches a second Cluster-like course designed specifically for EEDS students. In that case, Hexion, a global specialty materials company headquartered in Columbus, provides 10 projects every year for the 40-50 students typically enrolled in that course.

A large majority of the changes on campus that relate to sustainability have emerged from the student body itself. For instance, the Ohio State chapter of the international organization Net Impact, launched in 2008, serves to “introduce our members to the many areas of sustainability, facilitate professional development and provide real sustainability project experience”. Each semester, the members are divided into several groups, each tackling a different project that contributes to worldwide sustainability. This semester, the projects include PaveGen and Pack H20, among many others.

“Pack H20 is a group that’s working with Greif, Inc.,” Fischer says. “They essentially made a backpack that can hold water and it makes it easier for women and children in developing countries to carry water around. What our group is doing is trying to reengineer it into a drip irrigation system so that it conserves water when they are farming, but it also makes the water more consistent because a lot of those people rely on just the rain to water their crops.” The operations of the project groups range anywhere from working with Ohio State’s administration to approve the application of certain proposals on campus to designing and 3-D printing prototypes of certain features of the projects.

In addition to school-sanctioned projects, several students have begun to take initiative to work independently in effecting change in both their school and community. For instance, Klieman began working with Crimson Cup at the end of her sophomore year to conduct a waste audit on the coffee grinds produced at two of the company’s facilities. As a result of her research, the company is currently working on instituting a compost facility at their headquarters. Klieman, as well has continued her work with Crimson Cup, surveying employees to gauge engagement with respect to future sustainability plans.


“I think Crimson Cup as a local Columbus company has a lot of potential,” Klieman says. “They can have a pretty strong impact on students if they’re able to further this message that they want to be a sustainable company. I think as we move toward the future, sustainability is going to be something that more and more businesses will really have to think about. If you’re a company that isn’t considering sustainability right now, you’re behind the 8-ball.”

Despite both the national push for sustainability and the university-wide actions taken in its favor, Fisher is still in the early stages of the development of a sustainability-encompassing curriculum. “It’s the chicken and the egg,” Drobny says. “Fisher doesn’t attract people, particularly MBA candidates with an interest in sustainability because, other than my course, there are not others with a sustainability focus. And they don’t have a portfolio of courses because there isn’t strong student demand. I think Fisher understands that this is an emerging field.”

Currently, Drobny’s two undergraduate classes are the only two within Fisher which focus exclusively on sustainability. Nonetheless, he believes that the integration of sustainability into the business curriculum is one that will inevitably come with time. Overall, he contends that the merger of business and sustainability is unavoidable not only because of the future necessity of sustainable resources, but also because of the profitable advantages of such practices.

“Sustainability won’t become a separate field,” Klieman says. “Right now, a lot of businesses have a corporate sustainability officer or a division of their company that’s just devoted to sustainability. In the future, the way that business will be taught and the way that business professionals will think will be through a sustainability lens. Every decision that you make will consider the system that you’re involved in.”