Sustainability is more than a corporate buzzword. In order to be successful in today’s business climate, leaders must make critical decisions that balance economic growth with environmental impact.
In Planet, People, and Profit: Careers in Corporate Sustainability, five featured alumni from the Wisconsin School of Business and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies share their insights on the state of corporate sustainability while also highlighting current successes and future areas for growth.
Mike Forbes (BBA ’99)
Chief executive officer, Safely
For entrepreneurs looking to start an enterprise that marries sustainability and business, Forbes says there are some important questions to ask: How do you really stand out? What is the benefit to the customer and the planet? How do you prove that benefit?
Additionally, while some sustainable and altruistic business enterprises may be reluctant to discuss the ‘P’ word—profit—there’s a good reason to be thinking about it.
“As great as your mission might be and as noble as it is, the profit piece matters,” Forbes says. “Because in business, that’s where we can really add value…and really think about giving back then in other ways with that profit.”
Christian Truong (BS ’10)
Head of process engineering, Hooray Foods, Inc.
As a process engineer, Truong sees multiple opportunities for the food industry to incorporate more sustainable practices. That includes developing fully recyclable or compostable packaging for things like the frozen meals that thousands of Americans consume each day.
These vacuum-packed goods pose a unique challenge, thanks to that piece of film which is peeled back or punctured before microwaving. While it might look like a simple piece of plastic, Truong says it’s anything but.
“You think it’s just one piece of film but it’s actually multiple layers,” Truong says. “You have a water barrier, you have an oxygen barrier, you have a UV barrier. If we could find a compromise that’s both compostable and recyclable, with performance against oxygen and water, it would really help the food industry.”
Riley Collins (BBA ’20)
Energies markets analyst, Bright Power
Collins sees renewable energy—like offshore wind and solar—as being key to a more sustainable future. With the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, Collins says there’s more incentive than ever for business to invest in renewable energy technology and infrastructure.
“The technologies and capabilities exist,” Collins says. “I see business’ role in society to help distribute and facilitate those technologies, and to implement them quickly, efficiently, and equitably.”
One success story Collins has seen is community solar programs, which allows local residents to support renewable energy without ever having to install their own solar panels.
Cindy Bohlen (BBA ’88)
Chief mindfulness officer, Riverwater Partners
When it comes to setting specific sustainability goals, it can be hard to know where to start. Every company’s needs are different and competing interests are often at play. That’s where conducting a materiality assessment can help.
In a materiality assessment, businesses seek the input of employees, customers, and shareholders to assess which environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors are most impactful to the business itself and its numerous stakeholders. Bohlen says it’s an important tool for Riverwater Partners—which focuses on sustainable and responsible investing—as they consider which companies to add to their portfolio.
“This is what we’re asking of businesses, so that they’re really focusing their efforts on the most salient ESG factors,” Bohlen says.
Marty Muenzmaier (BA ’88)
Senior director of sustainability, Cargill Animal Nutrition and Health/Cargill Protein and Salt
As one of the largest privately held companies in the United States, and a major player in the global food business, Cargill plays a key role in shaping agricultural sustainability practices across the industry. According to Muenzmaier, agriculture can and should play a key role in addressing climate change, protecting land and water, and sustainably feeding a growing global population.
“These are the areas…we have the greatest impact on and these have the greatest impact on us,” Muenzmaier says.
Some sustainability steps Cargill is taking include reducing operational greenhouse gas emissions, transforming agricultural supply chains to be deforestation-free, and providing training on sustainable agricultural practices and improving access to markets for 10 million farmers by 2030.