Twelve years ago Interface Inc., the world's largest manufacturer of commercial carpet, set out on a mission to make every process of the company completely sustainable - to ultimately cut its waste down to zero.
"It is absolutely the right thing to do, but also the smart business thing to do," says College of Management alumnus John Wells (IM '84), CEO of the company's subsidiary, Interface Americas, who discussed the corporation's progress toward total sustainability during his visit to the business school February 8.
His talk was the kickoff event of the Georgia Tech chapter of Net Impact, an international network of graduate students and young professionals using the power of business to effect positive economic, environmental and social change.
Net Impact's establishment at the College coincides with a growing emphasis on sustainability and corporate social responsibility throughout the business school as well as the entire Institute. "Net Impact is a club, but not merely a club," explains Management Dean Terry C. Blum. "It is a special one whose purpose is integrated into the mission and vision of the College and Institute."
Students Seizing Opportunity for Change
First-year MBA student Mikey Mulford, a member of Net Impact's leadership team, considers the sustainability movement the new industrial revolution. "We've figured out how to make things; now to we need to figure out how to make them without ruining everything else," he says. "We once had what appeared to be unlimited resources and unlimited space to put waste, but that's just not true anymore, and it's becoming obvious."
More and more MBA students seem to feel the same way. International membership in Net Impact has grown from 3,288 people in 2001 to 13,500 today. Mulford and second-year MBA student Adam Tichelaar traveled to San Francisco in November to attend Net Impact's 2005 Conference where they heard industry experts and gathered ideas for the Tech chapter, which now includes 20 members.
Prior to Wells's lecture on Net Impact Day, group members led guided tours of the Management building, one of only three structures in Atlanta awarded a Green Building rating by the U.S. Green Building Council. They also recently developed a website for the Tech chapter and helped the Georgia Tech Business Plan Competition develop a prize based on sustainable business models.
"Our main goal is to change the culture here so that the idea of sustainability is incorporated into everything," Mulford says.
Professors Addressing Sustainability in Classroom, Research
Mark Ferguson, Ravi Subramanian, and Beril Toktay are three faculty members in Operations Management who are helping lead the integration of the sustainability concept into the school's programs. Assistant professor Subramanian recently introduced the course "Environmental Considerations in Managerial Decision-making" for PhD students while associate professor Toktay created the "Business and the Environment" elective for MBA, engineering, and city and regional planning students.
Toktay also serves as a coordinator of ECLiPS (Expanding Closed Loops in Production Systems), an interdisciplinary focused-research program at Tech, which co-hosted a symposium on "Electronics Recycling Today and Tomorrow" December 9 at the business school in collaboration with the Tech program SISFUR (Sustainable Industrial Systems for Urban Regions).
Scholars, government officials and recycling-industry representatives attending the symposium discussed how to address the widespread problem of collecting and properly disposing of old computers and other equipment, much of which now gets shipped to developing nations where dumping and unsafe disassembly cause severe pollution and health problems. "The main issue is educating consumers and businesses alike about the need to properly dispose of electronics, and encouraging them to return this equipment while there is some residual value so that a robust recycling and remanufacturing market is created," Toktay says.
Management faculty members could help provide solutions to such problems through their research on closed-loop supply chains. "By closing the loop, we mean taking products that have been used by businesses and consumers and turning them into products, parts or materials to be reused," explains Toktay, who (with assistant professor Ferguson) won a $300,000 grant last year from the National Science Foundation to study the strategic reasons why a firm may want to remanufacture its products. "There are some companies like Xerox that have figured out how to do this profitably."
Companies Going Green
Interface, whose sustainability efforts were the focus of John Wells's lecture, is a leader in the remanufacturing field. Operating under the recycling mantra "waste equals food," Interface not only reclaims old floorings for reuse, but also builds factories that eliminate emissions and hazardous waste, finds alternatives to petroleum-based products, and uses renewable energy supplies. The wisdom of the company's philosophy became clearer to many when the price of oil shot over $60 a barrel, Wells notes. "The whole marketplace is becoming more sensitized to these issues," he says.
Managers interested in instituting similar environmental policies can learn from "Doing Well by Doing Good," a chapter written about Interface by associate professor Toktay in the new book Enterprise Transformation: Understanding and Enabling Fundamental Change (Wiley).
ECR Biodiesel Atlanta is another company at the forefront of eco-business. Employing technology developed at Georgia Tech that can turn soybeans, animal fat and food waste into biodiesel fuel, this start-up firm is getting help this semester from MBA students in Mark Ferguson's "International Practicum" course. They are conducting market analyses of Argentina, a major soybean producer, to determine the feasibility of establishing processing plants there, and they will visit that country over spring break.
Management students will have even more opportunities to explore the concepts of sustainability and social responsibility as Dean Blum transitions from her current role in July 2006 to head Georgia Tech's new Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship. Its work will complement that of Tech's Institute for Sustainable Technology and Development. "We will take a leading role in highlighting and meeting the tremendous need for values-based business practices," says Blum, adding that the development of interdisciplinary degrees related to sustainability and social responsibility is on the horizon.