WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS


My advocacy comes in demonstrating that environmentally sound decisions can be really good for businesses. They don't have to decide to spend money for what feels like no return except to get Greenpeace off their backs.

Steven Walton, Assistant Professor of Decision and Information Analysis, Business School


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Where the Sidewalk Ends

Georgia on their minds

"I'm a scholar, but I'm also a citizen. I separate the two somewhat, but I think the purpose of acquiring knowledge is to improve the world."
Howard Frumkin, School of Public Health

The Academic Exchange Describe your research.

Professor Steven Walton I look at how companies manage their business processes, their suppliers and distribution systems, to minimize the waste generated. And if there is waste generated, how do they deal with that? Take Delta, for instance. To service the planes at the airport, they used to buy hazardous chemicals in 55-gallon drums because that's the cheapest unit price. They'd keep a fourteen-year supply of acetone. But then they started buying one-gallon cans that the supplier delivered two hours after they placed an order, so they went from a fourteen-year supply to an eight-hour supply. That meant $500,000 to their bottom line, and they reduced acetone usage by about 80 percent. I realized very quickly that companies can save a lot of money by doing things that turn out to be environmentally good. They don't have to do them because of public pressure.

I am the voice of dissent most of the time. Environmentalists often assume that corporations will not act in the best interest of the environment, and my point of view is that nothing's going to change until the corporations change it. There's just a natural tension there. And I'm often alone at the end saying, Let's think about this from the company's side. They're not in business to make everybody happy. It seems awfully self-serving, but the whole reason businesses exist is to make money. The biggest knock against sustainability is it's a beautiful dream, but how do you possibly accomplish something like that?

AE Where do you think businesses are in terms of putting these ideas into practice?

SW They've hardly started. They aren't using it very much yet because the front edge companies are just now figuring out they need to be doing this stuff.

AE Are you drawn to be an advocate, encouraging companies to consider these possibilities?

SW It's a delicate role. My advocacy comes in demonstrating that environmentally sound decisions can be really good for businesses. They don't have to decide to spend money for what feels like no return except to get Greenpeace off their backs, for example.

AE Does the question of business ethics or ethical decision-making factor in to these issues or your teaching?

SW In my classes, it doesn't need to. I think it's a strong enough lever to say I can show you $100,000, $200,000, $500,000 savings, and that's something that's meaningful to the company. While ethics is an important question, it tends to cloud the water. If you take five people standing side-by-side and watching the exact same event, you'll get five different interpretations out of it. So how do you resolve the ethical dilemmas that two of those people feel, while the other three feel like everything went fine?

AE What if the opposite were true, that decisions that are good for the bottom line were not good for the environment?

SW If I were retained by a company as a consultant on these questions and I found two solutions to their problem-one environmentally friendly, one less so but clearly economically the preferred choice, then the role my client has put me in says I've got to tell them what the economically best choice is. I would have a clear responsibility to point to the economic one, but I would build a qualitative argument around the environmentally preferable one. There are things you can't evaluate economically that matter a great deal. The value of the brand, for example; the goodwill associated with your name. Don't mess that up.

AE Where do you think scholarship on the urban environment is headed?

SW There's only one type of organization that's big enough, strong enough, and rich enough to accomplish the kinds of changes necessary for the environmental gains we need, and that's the multinational corporation. The businesses are going to lead the changes, and the last thing they need is someone else beating them up for how they should behave environmentally. In an urban setting or any other setting, only if the business gains will these changes take place. And I patently disagree with the groups that say if businesses make money on an environmental change, it doesn't count. I don't care if they do it for self-serving reasons; the goal is accomplished, and that's the only group that has the power and the money to do it. To me, business is going to be the place where it starts. Business is everybody's life, like it or not.