Dr. Fiona Wilson - Profile in Sustainability
Dr. Wilson is an Assistant Professor of Strategy, Social Entrepreneurship, and Sustainability at the Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics
What role do companies play in advancing sustainability?
The social and environmental problems facing our world are increasing, not decreasing. It is becoming rapidly apparent to many that government and non-profits will not, alone, be able to help address these issues, and that we need fundamentally different approaches.
The business world has tremendous power and influence: for example, business corporations make up 52 of the world’s 100 largest “economies”; just one company alone, Walmart, has annual sales that are greater than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 85% of the world’s countries. Yet business is often seen as part of the problem: focused only on maximizing their profits at the expense of all other stakeholders and the environment. This sentiment was embodied by one of my colleagues at UNH recently who said (only half jokingly) that the business people are the ”evil capitalists.” This perception of business has perhaps become even more pervasive as a result of the corporate scandals and global financial meltdown of the past few years.
While there are, without question, companies that embody those perceptions, there are many leading companies who are understanding that they can be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. In particular, the entrepreneurial and innovation capabilities, together with the sheer scale and power of business, mean that it can perhaps be the most effective force for large scale, permanent progress against social and environmental issues. Importantly, the best leading companies are moving beyond the era of “corporate social responsibility” to an understanding that through their thoughtful strategies and approaches they can both be profitable and help address some of the globe’s most pressing social and environmental issues.
You advise the student organization Net Impact, are a faculty fellow with the Carsey Institute and the Sustainability Research Collaboratory, and are the faculty director of the Certificate in Corporate Sustainability. Why is such engagement important to your scholarship?
Sustainability is inherently complex and will require interdisciplinary collaboration and fundamentally different models for both scholarship and learning. True progress will only come - I believe - from deep partnerships, focused on engaged research, applied and experiential learning, with faculty from across the university, leading businesses and other community organizations, together with students, all working together towards common goals.
What motivates you personally to be involved in sustainability?
I believe that business is a vastly untapped resource in helping address our most pressing global issues, and I want to play a role in helping our future business leaders (our current students) bring this resource more fully to bear through their careers. Despite the fact that I stated above that enlightened leading companies are starting to understand that they can both be profitable and help address some of the globe’s most pressing social and environmental issues, this perspective is still not part of the mainstream.
In particular, higher education and academic research are significantly behind what is happening in business practice. The vast majority of business schools still teach according to the profit maximization mantra, which essentially “externalizes” the unintended negative consequences of their approaches. In this view, profitability and organizational performance are seen at odds with doing any “good” in social or environmental terms, because these actions are assumed to be an extra cost, thereby reducing a company’s profits. In many ways we need to help change conventional wisdom and show how the old approaches present a false dichotomy of doing well versus doing good. I am particularly motivated to help play a role in this change through helping develop curriculum and programs that embody the idea that it is not either/or – but that business, when approached strategically and intentionally, can both create wealth for shareholders and do good for society.
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