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How can Auburn University reduce its environmental footprint? Students in Beth Davis-Sramek’s Sustainable Supply Chain Management class spent the spring semester learning about companies that build a “business case” for being environmentally and socially responsible in their operations and in their supply chains. The class concluded with students applying what they learned – they developed campus sustainability proposals and presented them to university administrators.
“A cornerstone of supply chain management is to drive down costs by cutting out waste and being more efficient with resources,” said Davis-Sramek, the Gayle Parks Forehand Professor in Supply Chain Management at the Harbert College. “If companies create less landfill waste, reduce the amount of water used in their operations, or find innovative ways to cut energy use, then it’s a win-win. Even with an upfront investment to make these changes, companies get a positive ROI and at the same time reduce their environmental footprint. This is no longer an ‘ought to do’ for the big global brands, it’s a ‘must do’ in today’s business landscape. The key for companies is how to prioritize their efforts and leverage their capabilities to make the most significant impact.
“The overarching purpose of the class is to demonstrate that businesses can use their innovative capabilities and scale to address some of the vexing challenges that lie ahead - resource depletion, population growth, and climate change. The motive isn’t an altruistic one – it’s just good business.” Davis-Sramek challenged her students to apply this business logic to campus operations and activities.
Six student teams worked together to develop sustainability proposals across a variety of areas on campus. Their challenge was to study the issue, research best practices at other universities, and develop a business case that would convince university administrators to implement action plans.
“The topics they researched are real campus issues, and once they came to understand their group topics more fully, they focused on options that can make a difference,” said Mike Kensler, Director of the Auburn University Office of Sustainability, who worked closely with the students throughout the process.
Student proposals included:
The use of solar panels arrays in campus parking lots that would reduce campus energy consumption.
Davis-Sramek said that students learned many things as a result of the project. “First, they learned that sustainability requires behavior change. A composting machine does no good if folks don’t pay attention and deposit their waste in the right container,” she said. “And second, they realized that there are many stakeholders to consider when implementing change. The university has contractual obligations, state regulations make some initiatives like using solar power cost prohibitive, and local recycling facilities are capacity constrained.”
Kensler and Davis-Sramek agreed the project was an eye-opener for students. “Many students commented that they knew very little about sustainability before taking this class,” Kensler said. “That awareness and understanding is so important because in business they will have opportunities to influence decisions that can make a huge difference. Business is the sector of society that has the flexibility and resources to move quickly to address sustainability challenges and seize opportunities that create value while having a restorative impact on society and the planet.”
Why was this project so important for business students? “Because they are the leaders of tomorrow,” Davis-Sramek answered. “If students have the opportunity to learn about the business case for sustainability, then it gives them a compelling reason to implement change when they are in positions of authority. Then we have a new profile of business leadership moving forward.”