MIT Sloan Prof, Richard Locke, Talks Sustainability at Amazon, Intel, Nike

8/12/09Follow @gthuang

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the United States, is having a conversation about these tradeoffs.”

Nike, based in Beaverton, OR, is one Northwest company that Locke has more extensive experience with. The shoemaker’s infamous missteps around labor standards in the 1990s have led it to tackle the issue of environmental impact more directly. “They took some very cool initiatives around getting rid of toxic substances in product development,” Locke says. The company has introduced what it calls the Considered Index, a sustainability rating for eco-friendly products. That has helped guide its product designers, who have come up with breakthroughs like glue-less (and thus green) Air Jordans. “You realize things are beginning to change,” Locke says.

And why are companies doing all this? Locke says some are trying to get ahead of future regulations on carbon emissions and the like. Another reason is these companies have social and environmental activists among their employees. (Environmental tech strategist Mark Aggar of Microsoft comes to my mind.) And lastly, cost savings are a big motivator. “This is good for business,” Locke says. “If we design a shoe that uses less material, less water and energy, that’s good for the bottom line as well as for some aspect of sustainability.”

“The challenge is, how do we communicate to a general public the facts, which are actually quite scary, in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them?” Locke continues. “What we need to do is say, ‘Yeah, this is a big probem. Some organizations are already doing something about it. We need to do more. These are the things you can do. Even though they’re still imperfect, we encourage you to do it, because the only way we’re going to learn what’s right is by experimenting.’” Locke adds, “A lot of companies are experimenting, and they’re afraid to share what they’re doing because they know it’s not perfect. We’ve got to change the climate.”

To that end, Locke and his colleagues at MIT Sloan School have started a course called S-Lab. Its goals are to give MBA students basic literacy on issues of sustainability, to show that sustainability issues can lead to business opportunities, and to apply these lessons in the real world through internships and projects with companies. The projects include things like redesigning aspects of a business to be more sustainable, introducing new human resource management policies for suppliers, or writing new business plans within companies like Nike, Nestle, Disney, and Zipcar.

Enrollment in S-Lab has grown to 90-some students, and Locke is actively looking for companies who might serve as hosts or partners on these projects. “We’re doing these internships, and have created a whole fund to subsidize students to go work on sustainability-related internships for either startups or established firms. If, because of the financial crisis, people don’t have the funds to do it, we say, ‘Look, if you have a good project, we have good students. We will at least co-fund it with you,’” Locke says. “I want to talk to people at Amazon, like I did at Intel, and say, ‘This is what we’re doing, it’s very exciting, and we want to work with you. We want to learn what you’re doing. It’s good for the school, it’s good for your organization, it’s good for the world.’”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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