How Do We Work Together on Sustainable Development?

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How Do We Work Together on Sustainable Development?

Top U.S. environmentalists note that most Americans are "pro-environment," but the lack of a unified approach hinders progress.

In a country where the vast majority of the people say they are pro-environment, few can agree over the best way to make the world a cleaner place. But can progress ever be possible in the absence of a single, unified approach?

Environmentalists hailing from a variety of disciplines in academia, industry, government, and the nonprofit world gathered at Stanford GSB in early December to search for common ground in a common cause. The group examined some of the most persistent environmental challenges like the need to increase recycling of plastics and lower greenhouse gas emissions. And they debated what was needed most: stricter laws, better technology, cooperation from business — or just a change in attitudes among all the world's citizens.

Although all guests were members of the U.S. Business Council for Sustainable Development and vocal advocates for the environment, they found no easy answers to these long-standing questions. The daylong meeting, hosted by Business School's Center for Social Innovation, gave voice to many of the frustrations shared by big business and university researchers alike.

Jim Dray, chief information officer of the RETEC Group, a strategic environmental services firm, maintained that innovation and R&D are the keys to developing more efficient technologies. But Andrew Roberts, a global marketing manager for ConocoPhillips, threw water on that perspective, noting that even the most well-meaning companies did not have the power to single-handedly push new environmental products onto the market. "Before you invent the machine that makes natural fibers," he explained, "you first have to make the big machine that uses the natural fibers." Guests from Hewlett-Packard Co. said they would love to see more of the plastics from HP computers and printers recycled, but that recycling would not be viable until companies set uniform plastics standards. Many other guests suggested that progressive new technologies such as hybrid cars were rarely adopted in large volume without incentives or laws to help speed the conversion.

This back-and-forth debate repeatedly returned to the role of universities in promoting sustainable development. Several Stanford professors exchanged notes with company executives on some newer environmental challenges, such as the push to develop building materials that would biodegrade at the end of a structure's life. And they challenged their counterparts in the corporate world to be frank with them about how academics might rise above theory and make some meaningful contributions.

"My students and I have lofty, idealistic notions about the environment," explained Erica Plambeck, an associate professor of operations, information, and technology at the Business School. "We have learned that pragmatic business management will ultimately lead to innovation and efficiency to move us to sustainable development."

One increasingly popular approach that most guests seemed to support was collaboration. Stanford professors like Sarah Billington, who teaches in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said they were eager to make their research available to the public sector. And corporations said they relied on the work being conducted at universities for the kind of out-of-the-box breakthroughs that would be needed in order to develop vastly cleaner and more efficient products.

In recent years a growing number of universities have formed alliances with business and they have set the bar high on their goals. The Shell Center for Sustainability at Rice University, for instance, says one of its key aims is helping the world shift from carbon-based to non-carbon forms of energy. And last spring, the Stanford Institute for the Environment was created to take an interdisciplinary approach to develop creative solutions to some of the most serious environmental problems like dwindling energy supplies and species extinction.

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