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Environmental Sciences

Program Shows Possibilities in Sustainable Business

Release Date: 07-28-2010

Author: Jon C. Reidel
Email: Jon.Reidel@uvm.edu
Phone: 802/656-8206 Fax: (802) 656-3203

sustainable business course

Sweet story: Dan Kiniry, marketing manager of Rhino Foods, Inc., a Burlington-based ice cream novelty producer, shares lessons in sustainability -- and a few treats -- with students. (Photo: Sally McCay)

When Bennie J. Hayden, a businessman and self-described social entrepreneur, searched the internet from his home in Detroit for a place he could learn more about sustainable and socially responsible business practices, he determined that Vermont was where he needed to be. Wanting to learn more, he enrolled in a five-day intensive course in the summer of 2010 at the University of Vermont titled "Sustainable Business: Practices in Support of People, Profits and Principles."

Hayden, who worked in corporate America for 30 years, says he learned a number of strategies in the course from professors and CEOs that he plans to apply to a green marketing firm he's starting called "Marketing for Green, LLC." Hayden was among about 100 business people, entrepreneurs, environmentalists, higher education administrators and students from across the country who came to the university during a two-week period in July to learn about sustainability and innovative approaches to leading and managing private, public, and non-profit organizations in a series of courses offered under a new summer program titled "Leading & Managing for Sustainability."

The program, which prides itself on bringing in speakers from local and nationally recognized companies and non-profits, is designed to address the multiplicity of challenges and benefits of sustainable programs, including developing ecotourism, building public-private partnerships, fostering sustainable college campuses, green-business planning, and devising strategies for community economic development. Next summer's lineup is expected to include the following courses: "Sustainable Ecotourism," "Sustainable Business," "Campus Sustainable Leadership Program," "Greening a Business or Organization" and "Community Economic Development."

"I worked in corporate America for a long time, but once Michigan started going on hard times and I saw that my community wasn't doing so well, I wanted to help," said Hayden. "I've always felt strongly about social issues and wanted to find a way to tie that in with business. I thought what better way to do that than to start a green marketing firm to help organizations of all types transition to a sustainable economy with a focus on social and environmental issues while still turning a profit. I had the work experience skills, but needed help with some of the technical aspects of running a sustainable business. This course has helped me in that area and provided some great networking opportunities."

On the cutting edge of the sustainability movement

As sustainable practices are increasingly integral to a competitive advantage in the marketplace, the number of applicants to these certificate granting courses has risen. Jon Erickson, professor of ecological economics in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, and managing director of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, collaborated with the School Business Administration faculty to start the "Sustainable Business" course six years ago before concepts around sustainability and ecological economics had become more mainstream.

"Sustainable Business" is a five-day, intensive summer program that focuses on design, organization, and management principles and practices that make an enterprise both sustainable and profitable. The program integrates the expertise of many different academic units at UVM, including the Gund Institute, the Rubenstein School, the School of Business Administration, Continuing Education and the Vermont Business Center.

Participants in this summer's program heard from business executives throughout the week including at a dinner in Billings Hall where students could ask questions of Don Mayer, CEO of Small Dog Electronics; Alan Newman, president and founder of Magic Hat; David C. Blittersdorf, who started NRG Systems one year after graduating from UVM in 1981 and more recently started AllEarth Renewables; and Beth Sachs, founding member of the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation. They also met with sustainable business representatives from Gardener's Supply, Rhino Foods, Ben & Jerry's, Draker Laboratories, Green Mountain Coffee, and other sustainable business organizations.

A number of questions focused on how to identify a social mission for a company in a sector that may not be known for sustainability. Mayer provided an example of how Small Dog Electronics, a major re-seller of Apple products, found a way to be environmentally responsible after struggling with the fact that they were producing large amounts of "eWaste" by sending thousands of used computers to landfills. Since starting its annual eWaste Initiative in 2008, Small Dog has recycled more than 350 million tons of used computers, helped pass eWaste legislation, and is now the only company of its kind to recycle more electronics than they sell.

"One of the goals of the course is to provide access to people who know how to bring theory to practice," said Matt Sayre, program developer in continuing education and director of the Institute for Global Sustainability. Sayre helped design the course with Allison Maynard, program developer in continuing education and director of the Vermont Business Center. "They hear a lot of useful information from heads of companies who are practicing these concepts right now. One of the lessons they keep hearing is that in order to make advancements in sustainability they can expect to have some false starts and failures along the way, but that these are really valuable learning opportunities. That's an important thing to hear from people in these positions."

Students also work in teams on "living case studies," some of which have been implemented at leading sustainable businesses. One group of students, for example, worked with Draker Laboratories, a local company that provides high-performance hardware monitoring and software-as-a-service data management systems for commercial-scale renewable energy system. Chief operating officer Rob Conboy, a 2004 graduate of UVM's MBA program, worked with students to find ways for Draker to maintain its original social mission as they continue to grow and take on larger customers.

'Business Sustainability' grad finds success

Brendan LeBlanc, a certified public accountant and certified internal auditor, attended the "Business Sustainability" course in 2008 after working as a manager with PricewaterhouseCoopers and as partner with an internal audit consulting firm. His goal was to start his own accounting and consulting firm specializing in corporate responsibility.

"I had made a decision to marry up my profession with my passion and really wanted to provide audit services to companies that were producing corporate responsibility reports and were interested in more than just making money for their shareholders," he said. "I was hesitant to hang out my shingle and call myself an expert, so I decided to take the course. Within a few hours of hearing Jon Erickson talk about ecological economics I was hooked and knew I could make it work."

LeBlanc returned to his New Hampshire home and started LeBlanc & Associates, where he assists clients with sustainability concepts, policies and programs throughout the cycle of assessment, design, implementation, measurement, governance, reporting, and internal and external assurance. He also made some key connections at the sustainability course including one with a representative from Ben & Jerry's that led to his landing the ice cream giant as one of this first clients.

"So many things came out of that course, which really reaffirmed what I thought I wanted to do," says LeBlanc who returned to campus to speak at this year's program.

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