Attacking Climate Change with a Research Dream Team

Sustainability conference series aims to “accelerate progress.”

April 11, 2023

| by Kevin Cool
William Barnett and Dror Etzion standing at a podium next to a powerpoint slideshow in front of a classroom of conference attendees.

Stanford GSB Professor William Barnett and Associate Professor Dror Etzion lead a discussion during a series of conferences organized by the Stanford Initiative on Business and Environmental Sustainability. | Julia Yu

Even after everything we’ve read and heard on the topic of environmental sustainability, it can be astonishing to learn how much stuff we make and then throw away. Example: More than 150 billion garments are produced every year worldwide, and 30% of them are never sold.

That level of systematic waste illustrates the size of the problem in just one area — fashion — and underscores why solving it has become an urgent conversation in the apparel industry.

Now consider the complexity involved in getting clothing manufacturers to stop overproducing, persuade supply chain partners to agree on new practices, and incentivize retail companies to alter their buying strategies.

Making fashion greener is one of the many discussions taking place during a series of conferences organized by the Stanford Initiative on Business and Environmental Sustainability. A collaboration between Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Doerr School of Sustainability, the series features 16 conferences in an eight-month span culminating this May. It involves hundreds of researchers from dozens of universities around the world.

The series is the brainchild of William P. Barnett, The Thomas M. Siebel Professor of Business Leadership, Strategy, and Organizations, who, over the past year has pivoted his research on organizational behavior to land squarely in the realm of sustainability. Both his professional redirection and the impetus for the conferences were inspired, he says, by a simple calculus: “Environmental sustainability is the single most important challenge that humanity will ever face.”

Addressing it, he says, requires immediate, profound changes across sectors and societies, including academia.

The researchers make clear that changing consumer behavior will not be enough.

“The best way to change a university is to expose the professors and students to ideas and phenomena that they cannot ignore,” he says. “Those ideas and phenomena come from all over the world, but they could come together here at Stanford. I felt the best way to highlight research and the cutting edge is to host a conference in each discipline.”

The idea, Barnett says, was to involve faculty in the areas in which they specialize rather than impose an overarching theme that might sideline some disciplines. There are eight different “thought areas” at the GSB and a like number at the Doerr School, he notes — thus, 16 separate conferences, plus a climate impact summit that was held in March. “The finance folks are working on sustainability and finance, so let them have a conference on that,” Barnett says. “Let’s enable our folks in economics and accounting to look at carbon disclosures, and so forth. I’m really enthused to see that so many GSB faculty, both new ones and established ones, are moving in this direction.”

Students and practitioners — “people who can put ideas into practice” — are also at the conferences. Part of the goal, Barnett says, is to “accelerate progress” by illuminating research and inspiring emulators. “One of the things we’ve learned about entrepreneurship is that it often begins with resolving a technical issue, and then the entrepreneur figures out where they’re going to apply that resolution.” Barnett hopes more entrepreneurs will place their emphasis on sustainability.

The roster of research papers presented reflects the energetic pace and growing volume of scholarship on sustainability matters. Among the diverse menu of topics, panels and individual presenters have examined ways to decarbonize cities; considered how a company’s environmental footprint affects its brand; looked at farming seaweed as a source for biofuels; discussed how “green washing” is undermining organic farming efforts in the wine industry. The researchers make clear that changing consumer behavior will not be enough. “Of course, we should be environmentally aware and do all we can as consumers, but to meet the size of this challenge we have to take a producer approach,” Barnett says.

The conferences present an unvarnished view of what’s working and what isn’t. “Every single conference has had some surprises,” Barnett notes. For example, practices that may on their face seem environmentally sound could be contributing to the problem. Although upcycling began as an ostensibly green way of repurposing waste, it actually makes that waste more valuable, and can result in using more raw materials than the original product required. “Sometimes the lessons are sobering.”

There is so much information in each conference that it’s difficult to absorb it all, so Barnett hosts a podcast following each one in which he interviews researchers about the main takeaways.

The conference series is planned for another five years, according to Barnett. “It has been great to see the outpouring of activity [at the conferences],” he says. “Research on sustainability is done globally, and Stanford is placing itself in the center of that global conversation.”

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