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

One of MIT’s leading business professors, Richard Locke, came to Seattle yesterday to talk about the “S” word. Yes, we’ve been hearing a lot about sustainability lately, in the context of technology and business. Big companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Boeing are talking seriously about the issue. Smaller Seattle-area companies like Verdiem, Powerit Solutions, and R.W. Beck have been making progress in important areas like energy efficiency and water management. To Locke, and many others, sustainability is much more than a corporate buzzword.

Locke is deputy dean of the MIT Sloan School of Management, and a professor of entrepreneurship and political science at MIT, based in Cambridge, MA. His research specialties include labor standards and practices, global entrepreneurship, and sustainable businesses. I sat down with him at the Westin Hotel downtown to get his perspective on Northwest companies’ green initiatives, and their possible partnerships with MIT. Locke was coming from meetings with Intel in the Portland area the previous day (the Santa Clara, CA-based chipmaker has manufacturing and development facilities in Hillsboro, OR). His other meetings in Seattle included a stop at Amazon to speak to Sloan School alums about the changing face of MBA education, and about sustainability in the corporate realm.

Locke defines sustainability broadly as “using resources today in a way that permits future generations to use them as well.” By this he means not just natural resources—energy, materials, water—but also social resources like people, jobs, and standards. “Let’s redefine sustainability in such a way that we can show the opportunities available, not just the constraints,” he says. “Once you broaden the definition, you expand the scope for individuals and organizations to try to do something about it.” (As I understand it, this definition of sustainability could include managing employees so they don’t burn out, creating jobs that last, and establishing fair labor standards that endure.)

Take Intel, for instance. Locke says the company is pursuing a series of initiatives to reduce its carbon footprint, improve its supply chain efficiency, and reshape the way it uses energy, water, and people. “Are there ways they can make, for example, new chips that might require less energy? They’re having a very interesting internal discussion about chip speed versus energy consumption. I find it fascinating that a large company in an extremely competitive sector, that still does manufacturing in 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 Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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