Last month, I joined eight other MBA candidates from the Global Social & Sustainable Enterprise program to represent Colorado State University at the 2012 Net Impact National Conference, held this year in Baltimore, Maryland. Net Impact is a community of over thirty thousand individuals dedicated to a “people, planet, and profit” approach to working and living. At the conference, close to three thousand dedicated undergrads, graduate students, and professionals gathered in the Charm City to engage in panels, workshops, and other events aimed at expanding our communal knowledge of what “sustainability” means and how we in the business community are responsible for its application.
The term “sustainability” is rooted in development discourse, and has come under criticism for ambiguity and misappropriation. Net Impact Baltimore opened another discussion space to contest and contribute to the definition of sustainability as people across industries, at multiple levels came together to address theory and practice. I assert that a healthy cross section of the sustainability space was represented here. The largest corporations, to the smallest non-profits, were all able to lend their voices.
A large portion of the panels and break-out sessions were dedicated to “corporate social responsibility” (CSR), a term that came into use in the mid-20th century and describes the ethos behind corporations taking a fuller account of stakeholders that are affected by business operations. Sustainability is intimately tied into the theory of CSR, and is a point of contention for many. CSR is championed as a panacea for better business by some, and mere “green washing,” by others. Most CSR is voluntary by nature, and rarely goes beyond the concerns of governments and watchdog groups.
Corporations, like people, are a mixed lot. Some do the right things for the right reasons, while some for the sake of public image. Included in the conversation were both companies with proven sustainability records, like New Belgium Brewery, and other companies with conflicted pasts and tenuous footing in this space. In the case of the latter, one is left asking questions. Is this global agribusiness giant truly trying to change its ways? Is this massive beverage conglomerate here for the right reasons? Are they just green washing a tarnished image? Even more to the point, even if their intentions are not the purest, what if they do an amazing amount of good in terms of reduction of pollution, and increasing their care of stakeholders? Ultimately, the scale of their impact becomes as important as their motivations.
This conference was a fantastic opportunity to explore the many views of sustainability, as well as the directions business operators take it. I walked away energized, and with renewed dedication to working towards sustainability goals. Whether you work at the top or the bottom of the economic pyramid, for profit or not, there is room for a holistic approach to sustainability, and it is encouraging to see so many people engaged in the dialogue.