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When University of Vermont (UVM) launched its Certificate in Sustainable Business under Continuing Education in 2005, the faculty was building on a curriculum that had traditionally leaned toward teaching environmental stewardship and energy efficiency.
For Matt Sayre, director of UVM's Institute for Global Sustainability, the Certificate felt like the natural next step.
"The work of leading Vermont organizations--such as the University of Vermont Gund Institute for Ecological Economics and Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility as well as numerous Vermont leaders from the socially responsible business community--led to a revolution in UVM's thinking about the upside potential of sustainable and socially responsible business practices," he said in a recent email exchange.
Now in its sixth year, the program has attracted over 200 candidates.
But with a curriculum already heavy on social responsibility content, why another program? Referring to a 2003 meta-analytical review of the literature on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), Sayre responded:
"Several recent studies have brought closure to the long-standing debate about whether it's in a businesses' financial best interest to engage in CSR activities. The 2003 study concluded that a commitment to sustainable business management to maximize corporate social/environmental performance has a significant positive impact on corporate financial performance. Yet, many companies have yet to engage in CSR activities even though the business case for sustainability is clear."
"Our Sustainable Business Program aims to change that."
But much has changed between 2005 and today, including a recession, several landmark mergers, and even more dissolutions. All of these have resulted in one acute realization for schools: Business education needs to change and adapt to the demands of a new normal—a new global economic standard that is pushing private enterprise to solve social and environmental issues with much more aggression than past years.
"Sustainability has become the key driver of innovation across all industries and all sectors. Businesses and organizations of all types and sizes are seeking knowledgeable leaders who can help them shift their practices to be sustainable. Communities need citizens who are prepared to help develop real solutions for the challenges they face. So, in my opinion there is nothing more relevant and valuable today than understanding and promoting sustainability," responded Sayre.
"And there is no better place to learn about sustainability than on UVM's top-ranked green campus...The main goal of this program has been to bring business leaders together in Vermont so they can connect directly with the thought leaders at the university and throughout Vermont who are helping pioneer the redesign of business for the twenty-first century, establish a supportive network of like-minded professionals, and then return to their companies and communities as knowledgeable champions of positive change," he added.
UVM is positioned well geographically.
Vermont is home to some of the country's truly green companies, including Seventh Generation, Ben & Jerry's, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, and NRG Systems. And the program takes full advantage of the available expertise by ensuring a renewed panel of speakers every year. Of late the companies have stepped up by offering internships and mentoring opportunities as well.
But this may also be a disadvantage. Being surrounded by people who get it, has the program been restricted to local interest and participation?
"During the first day or two of the program, participants always ask something along the lines of 'Sure, this sustainability thing can work here in Vermont but do you see it working in other places?' but by the end of the program they are convinced it can and will work elsewhere," said Sayre.
"The business case for integrating sustainable practices is clear and this program helps people understand that. For many people, our program goes beyond a typical learning experience and truly becomes a transformative experience."
For example, he added, "Brendan LeBlanc, a traditional CPA, now audits big companies like Ben & Jerry's to measure their sustainable practices. Creighton Vought transformed his t-shirt printing business without sacrificing viability and profit, and for Tricia Senzel, the program opened doors to a new career and a new way of thinking about her work as a financial advisor and planner."
Senzel went on to work as the CFO of Opportunities Credit Union after graduating from the program.
At the end of the day, every college program is judged on job placement. And with declining employment rates across the country, UVM's challenge is all the more acute: with skeptics abounding, where can graduates hope to take their sustainability knowledge?
"Our graduates go on to multiple environments: At their current employer, at a new employer, or in their own entrepreneurial ventures. All of them agree that our program gave them the tools, confidence and affirmation they needed to progress forward with a career in sustainable business. This feeling of confidence in their knowledge helps them guide sustainability missions and programs where they work, spreading the reach of sustainable business practices."
"It's extremely gratifying to receive feedback that a grad has successfully launched a sustainability initiative. It is equally satisfying to learn that our grads have launched new companies, such as green marketing and finance firms, growing our nation's green job sector."
"And then there are the grads who decide to move from a more traditional environment, such as at a large financial institution, to smaller, community-focused institutions, such as a credit union that focuses on developing the health and well-being of a local community. We're proud that some of our successful alumni also come back to teach at our program. It creates a community of like-minded individuals working toward a greater goal of building a sustainable economy."
[READ: THE SUSTAINABILITY JOBS DEBATE]
Sayre also noted that the program is meant to increase students' professional networks. Students get to work on real-world projects for businesses, "giving them the opportunity to distinguish themselves to growing companies." And some have gotten jobs directly from the project they completed for the program, he said.
CPA Brendan LeBlanc is one such example. After working on a project focused on assessing Ben & Jerry's CSR report, he was hired by the ice cream maker to complete a comprehensive audit of their CSR practices and reporting.
Sayre envisions businesses increasingly becoming driving forces for positive change in society. "Therefore, leaders seeking to expand and maintain their competitive advantage will continue to look to UVM for our internationally-recognized expertise," he said.
Plans to offer more complementary and focused courses within sustainability are on the table.
"We will develop offerings that will be offered both on campus as well as online. These new programs will offer participants an opportunity to go deeper into specific focus area, such as finance, operations, etc. Customized trainings will be offered through our corporate training program, so specific companies will be able to address their unique needs and challenges with the hands-on support of the thought leaders involved with our program."
Ultimately, Sayre sees things heading in the right direction.
"All signs point to growth of businesses that embrace sustainable practices. A 2008 PwC study of the food and beverage industry showed that companies that report their social and environmental performance had higher financial returns compared to those who did not. A recent Cone survey indicated that 85 percent of consumers would consider switching to another company's products because of a company's negative CR practices."
"As these progressive businesses grow, they'll be looking for people knowledgeable about sustainability," he said, and UVM is well-positioned to entertain the projected demand.
Before signing off, Sayre warned of a competitive job market ahead where "everyone will prefer working for sustainable businesses."
What that means to you as a jobseeker, your perception of sustainable business, and how your career goals fit that, will be the ultimate test for educational institutions like UVM.
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