Thinking Outside the Sustainability Box with Ohio State’s Dr. Neil Drobny

May 20, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome today to Green is Good. This is John Shegerian, and we’re so excited to have Dr. Neil Drobny, who is not only unbelievable green evangelist, but he’s also a good friend. He’s the Director of The Ohio State campuswide major, Environment, Economy, Development, and Sustainability. Welcome to Green is Good, Neil Drobny. NEIL DROBNY: Thank you John, very much. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re so excited to have you on today and Neil has been kind enough historically to have me come and lecture to one of his great classes. His students are so engaged. You are doing wonderful work but since I’ve seen you last in person, Neil, there has been so much evolution at Ohio State and we’re going to get into that and I just want to say thank you for coming on the show. NEIL DROBNY: Thanks for having me, John. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Oh, no problem at all. Let’s start with your journey a little bit, Neil. You are a fascinating man. You’ve worn a lot of hats. Can you share a little bit how you got to this great position at Ohio State, your personal journey? NEIL DROBNY: It certainly wasn’t a plan so you have to follow the opportunities. I know realize I went to college actually, in the ’60s, interested in sustainability but there was no language for that, no courses to take so the closest I could come was environmental engineering and I did consulting in environmental engineering and began to realize a lot of my clients’ issues were rooted in business issues, mainly around unwise decisions made regarding the use of resources, so I learned that a number of business schools were starting to cover this in their courses so I was able to convince the folks at the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State to let me teach a course and I kind of thought it would just sort of stop there but it went well so I got to do it again. Then I got to do a series of courses for undergraduates, which had become especially popular, and then quite recently, within the last year, Ohio State started this new major that John mentioned in sustainability. It’s a campus wide major and after it was all put together, they asked me to be the Director of it and to incorporate my business courses into the major, which has become a major differentiator of the major in terms of what might be available at other schools across the country. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And also become, as we’ve discussed before, very popular. NEIL DROBNY: Yeah, it really has. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well that’s awesome and we’re going to get into that and we’re going to talk more about it and all the accolades you’re getting. Let’s start where the rubber hits the road, the triple bottom line; people, planet, and profits. Talk a little bit about sustainability and business today and why is the triple bottom line so important? NEIL DROBNY: Well, what companies are starting to figure out is that’s a key strategic direction for building shareholder value. When we see a dumpster sitting outside a business, what most business owners are beginning to realize, that’s material we bought and we’re never going to sell and certainly not make a profit on it and we’re going to spend again to have it hauled away from us so if we can move away from generating all this waste and the pollution that occurs, it’s just going to benefit our business. Students have figured that out and they’re selecting companies who have a strong agenda to do those kinds of things and those places to work. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That seems to be where they want to go nowadays, huh? NEIL DROBNY: Exactly. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Talk a little bit about DNA, companies’ culture and DNA. Why is it not okay anymore for companies to do one green or sustainable good thing? Why is it now becoming more of a holistic issue with regards to companies’ adoption of sustainability? NEIL DROBNY: It’s because we need to incorporate sort of a systems mindset when we think about sustainability. Everything’s connected to everything else and you just can’t change the light bulbs or put the copier on default to make two-sided copies. Every function in the business has to work together with all the other functions to pull off this change in culture and change in business practices to deliver really significant value. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it, got it, and you know, there’s a great quote with regarding all the abundance that we have in our nation and how we’ve almost in many ways historically polluted our way to prosperity. Talk a little bit about how can we continue to be a prosperous economy and nation but also start thinking more and acting better when it comes to a sustainable and clean environment? NEIL DROBNY: We have to move as fast as we can into using as much renewable resources as we can and quit burning or burying all of the non renewables like we’ve already done so often with our traditional take, make, and waste model. I’ve heard and seen numbers that since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve buried some $750 billion worth of materials in landfills and I know CEOs, when they think about that in their own companies, they sort of smack their forehead and say, Gee, if we could have figured the downside of this out 50 years ago, how much money our shareholders would now have. Instead, it’s invested and buried in landfills and a more recent number I’ve heard just from the aluminum industry is they say we bury enough aluminum every year to make 25,000 jetliners. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Holy Toledo! NEIL DROBNY: That’s a lot of money and a lot of energy being socked away in landfills and it’s one of the reasons some people are talking seriously about having someday to go in and mine our landfills. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so interesting. Neil, besides the United States, it’s one thing to take a national view of sustainability but when you take a worldview, where are we in comparison to Europe or Asia, such as countries like Japan? NEIL DROBNY: We’re not in a leadership position, where we’ve been so accustomed to being on everything else for the last couple of hundred years. We’ve had this mindset that we’re a land of plenty, which other countries haven’t had, and so we’ve been a little more lackadaisical in not moving aggressively to some of these new renewable and other types of people, planet, profit business models as other countries, who have, from the get-go almost, realized that because they weren’t more careful what they did with their resources and with their land. That’s going to become a differentiator between and among countries. It already is becoming that way and if we’re not careful, we’re going to find ourselves second or third place. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners that are just tuning in, we’re so excited and honored to have Dr. Neil Drobny on from Ohio State. He teaches both business and sustainability and he’s the Director of the whole program over there in terms of environment, economy, and sustainability. I want you to go to Neil’s website, when you have a chance, at Ohio State. It is just wonderful things that he’s touching on over there. It’s www.eeds.osu.edu/ and you know, Neil, when it comes to sustainability, you do such a great job of weaving the importance of sustainability with also business. Can you please share your thoughts on sustainability and business and is it too late and when is the best time for businesses to start making moves in the right direction? NEIL DROBNY: It’s definitely not too late. It’s never too late to solve major problems and almost the best time is when you’re starting a business, before you build bad habits and adopt classical business as usual practices. Start out on the right foot. Of course, most of our economy is built around existing businesses and there it’s culture change and that’s difficult to pull off. One of the things that I tell my students is really important is that the leadership comes from the top in doing something like that and an iconic example I bring to their attention is the late Ray Anderson and what he did at Interface Carpets to turn that business around and he framed this metaphor that he promoted to his company meeting after meeting after meeting that they had to climb this new mountain called Mount Sustainability and they’re making great progress. Others are beginning to copy them but that’s a much more successful model than the CEO delegates the task for someone else to execute on his or her behalf. JOHN SHEGERIAN: When you bring up Ray Anderson, he’s been a guest of us on Green is Good and what a great example, really a guy who broke through and was an icon in this whole issue of sustainability and good business practices. Ray Anderson truly is a great leader when it comes to all those issues. NEIL DROBNY: Right, John. He sure is. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You’ve worn so many hats, as we touched on at the top of the show, Neil, and then you evolved in terms of your business relationships into an environmental consultant. How did that lead, though, to teaching sustainability? I’ve been honored to be invited to speak in front of your class and lecture. Your students are some of the most engaged and interested young people I’ve ever met and it’s totally a charge and I can see how it’s so enjoyable but how do you even get in that position and how did you get to teach? NEIL DROBNY: I just proposed to the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State that they engage me and one of their questions was are other schools doing this so I gave them a list of schools that were doing it and this was almost ten years ago and they said, ‘Well, give it a try,’ and the try went well so I got to do it again and for me, the motivation was that I could have greater impact by working with the next generation of leaders than by working with the existing generation, helping them to clean up one mess after another and it was a very refreshing change. It gives one a great sense of impact to be talking with the next generation of leaders and I’ve been doing this for some ten years. I’ve been getting feedback from students about how my course has changed their career direction and they share with me the impact they’re having now so it gives one a great sense of legacy to have the opportunities to do what I’m doing at Ohio State. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What I want to hear and I know our listeners would love to hear is talk about the first class you taught in 2004. NEIL DROBNY: Half the students took it because it fit their schedule. Because I was a newbie, I was given the time slot of six to ten at night once a week and the students, most of them had worked all day long and they’d come into my class and privately they’d share with me that several other faculty had advised them not to take the course because it wouldn’t do anything for their resume or their career but by the end of the course, they were writing letters up to the Dean saying this ought to be a core course. It ought to be required and you ought to do more of it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And about how many students were there? NEIL DROBNY: I had about 20 in that first class. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Now walk me through the last class that you’re in right now in the spring of 2013 and the fall of 2012. How many students? How engaged? Show us the whole spectrum. NEIL DROBNY: I’ve got 28 now but the real growth is next year with the new major. I’m approaching 80 and I’m getting a second section and it’s just exploding so I’m really going to have to change how I teach. It was almost a seminar before and now with large classes, even two sections with 40 each, not every student will get to ask every question, like has been the case up to now. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And now it’s a major at Ohio State, correct? NEIL DROBNY: Right, right, and that’s what’s caused the growth and folks in this undergraduate major can go down one of four pathways, one of which is a business focused pathway and about half of them have selected to go down the business pathway. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You said something earlier and it was subtle but I want you to repeat it again, Neil, for our listeners. You’re finding that a lot of your students are picking a company to go work for as they get ready for post graduate life that they’re very concerned about the company’s sustainability practices? NEIL DROBNY: Oh yes, that’s one of the questions they ask every recruiter and if the recruiter says, ‘I’m not sure what our sustainability agenda is. I’ll get back to you,’ they kind of walk away and they go to another company because most companies have sustainability programs in place and when they find a student who has had some training like we’re providing, the recruiter’s eyes really light up. I had one student go to a finance internship to a major corporation a year or so ago and a week after he was there, they learned he had some sustainability training so they said, ‘Look, we’ve got dozens of finance interns. We have nobody with sustainability training. We’re going to put you on a renewable energy project,’ so the appetite in the employer sector is just huge for these students. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Obviously, the word’s gotten around because with your incoming class of 80, that just sounds like they’re beating down the walls to get into this new major. NEIL DROBNY: That’s exactly right and we’ve had many folks who are seniors now and it’s too late to start a new major saying, ‘Boy, if this had been around when I was a sophomore, that’s the major I would have been in,’ and so to kind of address that, we have under consideration starting a master’s program in a few years. JOHN SHEGERIAN: This has to feel so good, though. Your journey of the last ten years, to see it start to culminate the way it is now and evolve the way it is, it’s got to feel so satisfying for you . NEIL DROBNY: Yeah, it really does. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so exciting. Neil, I know you’re a humble man but please share with our listeners the awards that you’ve won recently with regards to the Enviance and the national champion now that your Ohio State Sustainability Program has. Please share what this means and what the awards are that you just won. NEIL DROBNY: Yeah, the news is only a week old but there’s a tournament sponsored by Enviance over the last several months. It was called the Environmental March Madness, patterned after the basketball tournament and they ask universities around the country to submit information about their undergraduate programs and their campus sustainability initiatives and first they announce the first 16 winners. They called it The Environmental Sixteen or something like that and then they release the list of The Environmental Eight and we competed last year and finished in The Environmental Eight. This year, we got to the final four and a week ago, found out we were the selected national champion so I get to go to a user’s conference that Enviance is holding next week in San Diego and pick up an award check for Ohio State in the amount of 5,000 dollars and to talk to the audience. There’ll be several hundred people from all over the world there about Ohio State’s program and the success we’re having and we’re really pleased to be able to do that and really thank Enviance for setting the stage for us to do so. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just wonderful news. Congratulations. I mean, you just deserve it so much. NEIL DROBNY: Thank you. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And I just know your program is going to continue to grow. We’re down to the last couple of minutes, Neil and can you just share with our listeners some of your thoughts on the future trends of sustainability? Because I know everyone wants to always get a little glimpse into where we’re going. NEIL DROBNY: I think to pick up on my earlier comments about sustainability being system type solutions, we have to think more broadly about how we’re pursuing sustainability in business, in our communities. We just can’t build one-off projects and do one-off initiatives and there’s this recognition that collaboration between even competitors needs to be cranked up a notch or two. We have to work with our supply chain because most companies, their biggest footprint is not within the confines of their manufacturing plant, but it’s in the supply chain. It’s all the companies from whom they buy and their buyers buy stuff and that goes back to where raw materials are dug up or harvested so we have to take this life cycle view of things and then we have to button the loop up. We have to discard this take, make, waste model and move towards what people are calling ‘The Circular Economy,’ where flows just continue to revolve day after day, month after month, and year after year and that means, of course, as much reliance as possible on renewable resources. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I just want to congratulate you again, Neil, on all the great work you’re doing. The years at Ohio State are paying off so much, not only in the awards you’re getting but in all the next generation that you’re putting out there to start and run our companies and create a more sustainable and environmental country and planet. For our listeners out there and our parents out there who want to send their kids to one of the best programs in the United States, probably in the world, it’s www.eeds.osu.edu. You can see and read all about Doctor Neil Drobny. Doctor Neil Drobny, you are a visionary business and sustainability thought leader and truly living proof that green is good. NEIL DROBNY: Thank you, John and thank you for the chance to talk to your listeners.