September 15, 2003

Panelists Argue for Sustainable Enterprise

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Over sixty members of the Cornell community gathered in Sage Hall Friday for a panel discussion entitled “The Business Case for Sustainable Enterprise.”

The event, held all afternoon, was part of the Second Annual Sustainable Enterprise Symposium held in the Johnson Business School.

Sustainable enterprise refers to the concept of creating profitable solutions to environmental and social issues in the world of business.

The featured speakers of the day were Stuart Hart, the Samuel C. Johnson Chair of Global Sustainable Enterprise, Fred Keller, Founder and CEO of Cascade Engineering and Paul Myers, executive director of Ten Thousand Villages USA.

Prof. Steven Wolf, natural resources, moderated the discussion.

“This is a heavy-duty chore that confronts all of us,” Wolf said in his opening remarks. “I’m very happy to have the Johnson School recognize this.”

Myers opened the discussion by addressing the social problems businesses must tackle, and how his company, Ten Thousand Villages, was doing so.

“My own thesis is we can no longer afford to ignore the world’s bottom two-thirds of the population,” Myers said.

He spoke of the need for a minimum income and giving more of the profit back to the workers.

“We must maximize employment, rather than solely maximize profit,” he said.

Myers spoke of the “open, transparent dialogue” between the producer and the buyer at Ten Thousand Villages, and the importance of this relationship to the business.

“Focusing on sustainability fundamentally makes you think differently,” he concluded.

Keller addressed the audience next, emphasizing the “readiness idea [for] building social capital”: the idea that employees have to be ready to work and organizations have to be ready to take them.

He explained that a business cannot simply employ those on welfare and expect both the company and the workers to get out of it what they need; rather, a company must supply support services to help those trying to work themselves out of poverty.

“They’re proud to work for a place that truly cares,” Keller said of those workers in such an environment.

Hart spoke next and discussed the historical context of sustainable enterprise and the development of its current role.

He explained that in the 1980s, the “emergence of quality management came on quite rapidly.”

Businesses were finding that they were able to be most efficient and keep costs lowest by “redesigning and improving production processes” in ways that created less pollution and other environmental concerns.

Keller also commented that in the search for growth, those in the business community were beginning to recognize that they had to look to those people whose needs had not been satisfied and who had been overlooked by globalization.

The addresses by each of the panel speakers were followed by a question and answer period with the audience.

Archived article by Amy Green