Heedless corporate trampling of the world’s ecosystems in pursuit of profit is no longer in style. Not only does such plundering raise the risk of legal or civil sanction, the global spread of social media means that even transgressions in remote hinterlands can be caught on video, go viral, and ravage a firm’s reputation. Plans for development in environmentally sensitive areas often meet with substantial opposition, hindering work and costing companies massive amounts of money and resources.
Consider Newmont Mining, operator for more than 20 years of a gold mine in Peru. While the company reports that the Yanacocha mine, one of the world’s most productive, has sent $2.75 billion in taxes and royalties to the Peruvian government, reports of environmental damage and sickened peasant farmers have turned Newmont into a poster-child for ecological insensitivity.
“How do you even sleep at night? You are a disgrace. Get out of Peru,” a woman tweeted to @Newmont after the company’s operations were highlighted in a Huffington Post article in April.
Now, one of America’s most prominent business schools has brought on one of America’s most prominent environmentalists to lead a new sustainability center, and teach new courses. The NYU Stern School of Business announced June 4 that Rainforest Alliance president Tensie Whelan will join the Stern faculty to found and lead what will be the Center for Sustainable Business, starting in January. The center, according to Stern, “will assist future and current business leaders in tackling the environmental and human challenges confronting business and society today.”
BOOSTED NON-PROFIT’S BUDGET TO $50 MILLION
Whelan is both a successful eco-activist and a high-achieving non-profit manager. As president for the past 15 years of the Rainforest Alliance – which provides environmental, social, and economic sustainability certification to qualifying business operations, and funds sustainability initiatives worldwide – Whelan boosted the budget to $50 million from $4.5 million, recruiting 5,000 companies in more than 60 countries to work with the organization.
“What’s remarkable about Tensie is not only her courage and conviction to imagine a world in which profit and principle can co-exist, but also her skill and will to transform that vision into action,” said Stern Dean Peter Henry. “We encourage our students to embrace the tools of business when it comes to tackling some of the world’s most intractable problems. Tensie is the ideal role model to lead by example on issues that are critical to long-term prosperity and economic growth.”
Whelan will work with faculty from Stern and across NYU, along with business and civil-society practitioners, to develop new business courses – at the undergraduate, graduate, and exec-ed levels – focused on experiential learning. The sustainability center will hold annual conventions bringing together groups of companies, stakeholders, and experts, with the goal of finding solutions to a particular environmental and development challenge.
VALUE CREATION, SPREAD WIDELY
Whelan says Stern’s educational approach fits her world view. “Stern puts a premium on value creation for business as well as society, a philosophy that matches my own,” she says. “Coupled with its prime location in New York, home to the financial sector, Silicon Alley, the UN, and NGOs, Stern has an unprecedented opportunity to drive this conversation.”
For students, the new center will provide opportunities to gather knowledge and skills sought after by employers, Stern business ethics professor Bruce Buchanan says. “More and more, society and consumers expect companies to address social and environmental issues in their business models,” Buchanan says. “Corporations, in turn, are seeking new employees who come ready to innovate and contribute. As educators, we have a responsibility to help our students develop their perspectives and skills to meet this new reality.”
Whelan is an NYU alumna, having graduated in 1980 with a BA in political science. She received a master’s in international communication from American University in 1983, before serving for three years as vice president of the National Audubon Society. Before joining the Rainforest Alliance in 2000, Whelan spent five years as executive director of the New York League of Conservation Voters.