Where Business Meets Sustainability: A Sit-Down With Professor Dror Etzion

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Dror Etzion is a professor in the Desautels Faculty of Management, and has been at McGill since 2008. Originally from Israel, where as a high school student he first became interested in sustainability, he would eventually receive his PhD in sustainability and management at IESE Business School in Barcelona. He notes that he went to a unique high school in the desert of southern Israel with a focus on environmental issues, where students “spent a lot of time crawling in the mud and counting different species of flora and fauna”. He adds that after going into business, he realized he wanted to put those two roles together, at which point he worked in consulting before going into academia.

MSBR had the opportunity to speak one on one with Dror about where innovation and sustainability come at a crossroads in the modern business sector, and how we can all be a part of the solution.

MSBR: Tech is a very innovative sector, as is sustainability. Did working in software for five years help foster your interest in sustainability in any way?

Professor Etzion: My path towards sustainability did not go through software, that kind of shut down the sustainability part of my brain for a little bit. But now I see a lot of potential in the industry. I don’t think it was that apparent back in the day, this was early internet days and people weren’t connecting the dots as much as is possible now.

MSBR: You note that you see a lot of potential in innovation combining sustainability and technology, and tackle at length in your paper ‘Research on Organizations and the Natural Environment’ the various ways businesses can tackle sustainability at the firm, industrial and organizational levels. In addition, you mention innovation as a major factor in industry and its impact on the environment. Do you have any advice on how businesses can innovate intelligently and sustainably in the fast paced time that we are living in?

Professor Etzion: That’s enough for a few books, but the way I typically promote the idea, particularly with executives even more so than students, that sustainability is not something you want to be afraid of. It’s something that’s happening and you can try and ignore and push back against but it’s a losing proposition. With the damage we’re doing, resources are dwindling quite rapidly and at some point the change is going to have to happen. We have to accept the idea that that is the reality, and the way to win in business is to embrace that and recognize the constraints of our current models, through innovation. Innovation is really the life raft, – it’s something that’s essential for businesses in general, and even more so around sustainability. And if you think about the scale of changes that we need to make in our lives in terms of energy consumption and use of water and use of resources and injustice and social issues and poverty, they’re going to be so big that those who innovate well are going to have large rewards. So sustainability is a can’t-lose proposition, and those who innovate will come out way more ahead than competitors who try to wait it out and go on as usual

MSBR: As a professor, do you believe there is a certain way to teach business students and students who work with large industry, which has such a huge impact environmentally, how to think sustainably and in an innovative way?

Professor Etzion: What I try to do is get students to think of different ways of tackling sustainability in business which are a little less intuitive than most of us think. When most of us think about sustainability in business we’re thinking of things like organic tea and fancy soaps and things that people are willing to pay a premium on because they have certain attributes that we find nice and warm and fuzzy, but in my class we find that it’s hard to succeed with that approach. It’s a small market and even if you succeed you’ll probably be bought out by a huge multinational brand like coca cola, so what I try to show is that that’s one way but there are so many other ways you can pursue sustainability. Today we had a class about behavioral economics, and we discussed how  a lot of the things we need to do is just encourage people to think about sustainability and even have activities that they don’t need to spend too much cognitive effort on, but will have big sustainability impact. A smart thermostat that learns your behavior and realizes when you leave the house and automates temperature control through learning and artificial intelligence, that’s a great innovation for sustainability even if you just market it as something that will save you money, or a lifestyle thing like what google has with Nest. So I encourage students to think more holistically and in all sorts of directions.

MSBR: On that note of tackling things from different directions, do you have advice for how to make sustainability more accessible for students who aren’t necessarily aware of or have little interest in their impact?

Professor Etzion: I think there is a lot of awareness, and I think people know the problems. In terms of individual impacts and what it is that individuals should do in terms of adapting or changing or modifying behavior to tackle these things, people could be thinking about things that maybe aren’t the most important. I find that people obsess over relatively minor things like paper or plastic and printing on both sides of the paper, and yes these are all important things but that’s not what’s going to be a game changer, because the problems are so large that if it were just these tiny behavioral changes then it wouldn’t be the huge problem that it is.

I think the challenge is to encourage people to not want to shy away from the enormity of the challenge because it really causes a lot of despair and the more you learn and understand about it, the more you realize how awful the situation really is and how rapidly it’s going to deteriorate even more. So the first thing is to accept that, and then say, ‘I want to do something’, and then you say, ‘what are my levers?’. For example, I personally am not doing anything like starting a business or developing a product to tackle these things, but I find that my lever is educating kids and empowering them to try and tackle these issues in a meaningful way. If you’re a finance student there’s so much happening in sustainable finance to nurture initiatives and empower microfinance in developing countries and encourage sophisticated bonds, and so forth. Or you could be an accounting student and learn how to report your emissions, because people care about how much greenhouse gasses are being emitted. So I think regardless of the profession you’re in, everybody can do an enormous amount through their professional roles.

For most of us, it’s more what we can do in our professional lives than what we can do in our individual lives. Particularly students, because students don’t have a particularly big impact yet before they buy houses and start jetting around, and their footprints are manageable. For students it’s the way they decide to dedicate their careers and develop themselves professionally that’s going to have a huge impact, and that’s how people should be thinking.

Interview conducted and written by:

Carlotta Esposito

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Image Source: https://smallbiztrends.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/sustainability.jpg

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