Interview: PhD Andrew Hoffman, professor at University of Michigan
Why did you decide to go in the field of sustainability?
Well I started because I cared about environmental issues, that was my primary concern. I started when the word sustainability didn’t exist. And so, I’ve always been focused on protecting the environment, that’s what motivates me. I started as a chemical engineer and then moved into the business.
What are the main issues that businesses have to face in order to achieve sustainable development?
That’s a very broad question, as we talked about in class it varies by the sector, different sectors have different challenges and different businesses have different challenges and there are many elements of sustainable development, climate change and human rights and all that kind of issues.
But overall, the real challenge for anyone that wants to push or be an advocate for sustainable development in business is really framing it in a way that people will respond to. Typically putting it in line with the interest of the company, framing it as a business issue that’s really a high end to start to motivate people to attend to these issues.
Any student coming out of here that wants to go into the business and tries to convince a company to focus on sustainable development has to find the way to make it a business case, find the way to connect it to what the business care about.
Why do you think that promoting education on sustainability is a business matter?
Well, I think that business is the most powerful institution on Earth, if business isn’t solving this problem they won’t get solved. By the same token business is the cause of this problems, it’s the market. I mean, the amount of pollution we create, the amount of consumption we do it all comes from the market. And so, if the market keeps going in the direction it’s going, we are in big trouble.
On climate change the IPCC says we have twelve years and we are in big troubles and this is not caused necessarily by just individuals but is caused by the collective called the market. So, it’s a very pragmatic approach. If you want to change the market, change the businesses within it and to change the businesses within it, change the people within it and you can do it through executive education which is why I do, but also teaching young people how to focus on this issues which is my particular piece that I want to contribute and try find out solutions.
How companies could be more involved in the achievement of this goal (promoting education on sustainability)?
They can begin by promoting it within, teaching their employees about this and they could bring in experts as well. But I think an important thing that the companies need to do more is to advocate for policies, that would really try to drive change.
If you look at the Paris Accord on Climate Change, a big reason why it happened is because business was there in Paris trying to nudge the deal forward. They are not stupid, they recognize what is happening, but they also want a leveled plain field.
So, one thing I would really like to see companies do, is be more involved in constructive policy development to deal with the issues that we face.
What is the academy actually doing to ensure that future generations adapt sustainability concepts into the business strategy?
Well, bringing in to the curriculum. When I first started in 1995 no business school was doing this and now here, in 2018, almost every business school is doing it. They recognize it as a business issue, non-only business because we need to get companies to attend it but companies themselves are asking for more people trained on sustainability.
So, they are looking to you and saying we need more skills from you, as students, to help us understand this sustainability issue. It’s a need they have, and business schools are starting to provide it. I think this is an exciting time that business schools are actually providing value that companies are looking for.
What could be an advice for an entrepreneur who wants to create a company with a sustainable basis?
Number one, know your business fundamentals...a company that goes out of business can’t be sustainable. So, you really need to have a solid foundation of business principals in order to make this work. From there you can layer the sustainability on top of it, but don’t put the cart before the horse.
I have seen companies that address sustainability and start giving their profits away, right away to environmental causes and I think that’s crazy. Make sure the business is viable, solid, then start to maybe tap your revenue stream for other causes. Don’t do it too soon, make sure you got things straight in line.
Plenty of businesses have failed because the business mangers really didn’t know what they were doing. They had good intentions, but if you are not good in business, you are not going to succeed.