Saving the world at business school
The following Q&A is excerpted from the new Ideas Roadshow ebook, "Saving the World at Business School," which features a lengthy interview with Andrew J. Hoffman, the Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business and co-author of "Flourishing."
A friend of mine has long argued that there is an inverse relationship between the popularity of a word and its meaning. The trendier a word has become, he says, the fuzzier it is, until eventually it’s used everywhere and means nothing.
“Sustainability” seems a perfect example for his theory. Once a word primarily associated with dour environmentalists, it’s hard to think of someone these days who does not avidly chatter away about its merits. Politicians of all stripes routinely vie to outdo one another to demonstrate their sustainability credentials. Corporations now have chief sustainability officers. We are all sustainability advocates now. But what are we actually talking about?
Into this yawning semantic void steps Andy Hoffman. A business school professor who regularly rubs shoulders with major players throughout America’s corporate landscape, Hoffman might seem an odd choice to be the driving force for a fundamental re-interpretation of the green lexicon.
- Howard Burton
Howard: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you sprang from a sense of frustration I’ve long had, and I’m sure a lot of other people have had.
I think it’s changing a little bit now, but for a long time there was this image that there are two basic types of people. There were the business people who lived in “the real world” and were saying, “We have to make money, we’re living in a liberal democracy, we have to exercise our right to spread the word of capitalism and be entrepreneurial and be free to drive the market.” And then you had the people who were worried about the environment.
There was really this polarized distribution: you had the tree-huggers on one side and the business people on the other side. And the business people on the other side were busy raping the environment at any cost whatsoever to make a buck, while the tree-huggers were incredibly economically ignorant – in fact, they would even often actively lobby for things that might distort the economy in such a significant way that it might have negative repercussions for the environment.