Climate change and Coca-Cola’s bottom line: It’s the cause-and-effect scenario that took some fizz out of the beverage company when it started experiencing water shortages from its supply sources in 2004. The company’s struggles were recently highlighted in a New York Times piece on the impact companies are starting to see related to the economic consequences of climate change. The reality of climate change playing a role in day-to-day operations at corporations, essentially becoming an unavoidable “business partner,” is also changing the landscape of sustainability education. The University of Wisconsin’s Sustainable Management program puts this issue front and center by detailing how climate change cycles and business cycles interrelate – and why knowledge of this puts sustainability students in a position to advance in the business world.
“This focus comes up in our introductory course and throughout most of our curriculum,” says John Skalbeck, Associate Professor of the Geoscience Department and Academic Director of the Master of Science in Sustainable Management at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. “We force our students to think about the world in a completely different way, and understand the interconnection of business and climate.”
Skalbeck says that for corporations, recognizing climate change is not always a sudden “light bulb” moment about to change habits as much as a realization of the impact on the company’s bottom line. He says the interesting piece of the puzzle, and a focus in UW Sustainable Management curriculum, is the study and understanding of the connection between business cycles and climate change cycles.
“Business cycles are typically really short. You’re dealing with quarterly cycles, maybe five- or possibly 10-year plans. Science cycles are really long-term,” Skalbeck says. “Now we have corporate leaders who recognize the difference in cycles and are responding because their business models are understandably being affected.”
Part of understanding the impact climate change has on business, Skalbeck says, is understanding the triple bottom line – a key to sustainability. The concept of the triple bottom line is that business success is no longer defined only by monetary gain, but also by the impact of an organization’s activities on society and the environment. He says students learn that the triple bottom line involves consideration of:
- Vibrant communities (People): An organization has a responsibility to its employees and to the wider communities in which it works. A triple bottom line company understands how its practices affect the corporation, its workers, and its wider stakeholders, and it works to promote all of their best interests.
- A healthy environment (Planet): Without question, committing to sustainable environmental practices is good business. Corporations can save money and reduce their environmental footprints by reducing waste, conserving energy, and maintaining environmentally safe manufacturing processes.
- Strong profitability (Profit): Clearly, making money is essential to business success. A triple bottom line company, however, recognizes that its own sustainability rests on its ability to work harmoniously in its social and environmental settings. For this reason, the costs of pollution, worker displacement, and other factors are included in profit calculations.
“Our program attempts to get people to really rethink their world view,” Skalbeck says. “I take the approach that it’s great to be the stereotypical “tree hugger,” but unless you can explain the cause of climate change from a business perspective, you’re not going to get very far. That’s why we push understanding the interconnection of climate change and business.”
As corporations, like Coca-Cola, continue to recognize the climate change contributions to economic and business outcomes, Skabeck says the demand for professionals able to bridge the science and business gap grows – and he’s confident UW Sustainable Management graduates will be on the front lines of employees able to meet the needs of employers.
“Our students and graduates are doing a great job. They are people who are passionate about the issues related to sustainability, including its relation to climate change,” Skalbeck says. “They’re embracing the education and concepts, and that’s what we’re after. We are sending graduates out into the workforce who can help make a difference by understanding how sustainability ties into every aspect of our world.”