Student blog on trends in corporate sustainability: Lessons from the 2018 Nicholas School Net Impact Club’s corporate sustainability trek
By Shira Weintraub (MEM/MBA ’21)

By Shira Weintraub (MEM/MBA ’21)

This October, a group of 12 Duke students pursuing master’s degrees in environmental management at the Nicholas School of the Environment traveled to Philadelphia for the Nicholas Net Impact club’s corporate sustainability trek. Our goal? To visit and learn from seven companies leading the way in solving global challenges at the intersection of business and the environment.

The companies we visited included the Dow Chemical CompanySaint-GobainIKEACampbell’s Soup Company, the Philadelphia Navy YardAmtrak, and Comcast. We examined how each company approaches sustainability and how each is progressing against its goals. Along the way, we noticed a few trends:

Trend  # 1 – Several of the companies we visited are aligning their objectives with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. IKEA and others are calculating Science Based Targets to help determine a pathway for reducing emissions in conjunction with the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. IKEA launched its Science Based Targets in June 2018 with the ambition to become climate-positive by 2030.

Trend # 2 - As a company’s environmental sustainability practice matures, its focus expands. Rather than focusing solely on the organization’s direct footprint in terms of energy, waste, water, and materials, “sustainability” comes to include the company’s impacts on an industry, its customers, and the communities in which it operates.

Back in 1995, Dow Chemical formalized its first set of sustainability goals for 2005, which aimed to improve energy efficiency, reduce water use, and minimize safety incidents.

For its 2025 goals, Dow created a host of blueprint goals to define and implement actions that influence the entire chemical industry, both upstream and downstream. The company has identified ten water-stressed sites that are susceptible to water shortages in the future and is developing community water use boards and solutions to treat and reuse municipal wastewater at its facilities.

Many of the companies we visited also had programs to motivate their suppliers to reduce carbon dioxide equivalent emissions and ensure labor standards are being met, which were especially important as some products and raw materials are manufactured or sourced overseas.

For instance, Campbell’s Soup is currently pursuing responsible sourcing goals with a focus on farm-to-fork traceability, supplier diversity, and human rights. The company is addressing suppliers who provide 16 of their priority raw materials by administering social audits and requiring suppliers to disclose information on their policies, procedures, and operations through a standardized scorecard.

Trend #3 - Sustainability departments are increasingly acting as incubators. As we saw at Comcast, the sustainability team is determining a baseline of environmental performance, conducting research on how to reverse negative environmental impacts, and piloting solutions that are then transitioned to the business units if proven successful. It became clear that companies must strike a balance between centralizing their corporate sustainability functions and dispersing those responsibilities within traditional roles across business units.

Having the opportunity to visit these companies and interview employees in person helped us peel back the layers of each company’s sustainability function to get a better understanding of how the groups are formed and what mechanisms they leverage to engage stakeholders throughout the organization.

We’re grateful to the funders who helped make this experience possible, including the Duke University Energy Initiative, the Career and Professional Development Center at the Nicholas School, and the Tori Dauphinot and Ken W. Hubbard Fund for Environment, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (allocated by Jesko von Windheim). 

Shira Weintraub (MEM/MBA ’21) is pursuing a dual degree at Duke University: a master of environmental management (MEM) at the Nicholas School of the Environment and a master of business administration degree (MBA) at the Fuqua School of Business.

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