Management professor discusses sustainability during COVID-19 and beyond

Contact: Stacey Anderson
A man loads a bag of clothes onto a shelf of donations.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Dr. Tim Palmer, professor of management, is a renowned expert when it comes to how companies, faculty and students interact with the social responsibility dimension of sustainability. Recently, he participated in a webinar hosted by Rajagiri Business School in Kochi, India, one of WMU’s partner institutions, about how COVID-19 intersects with sustainability in a variety of ways.

Some executives and academics fear social sustainability will be sidelined during the pandemic. Corporations have increasingly used their resources and capabilities to solve complex social challenges like homelessness, poverty, access to clean drinking water and affordable health care. With the economy in jeopardy, these initiatives could be postponed or reduced for cost savings. Many business leaders fear the impact that such decisions may have on communities over time.

A headshot of Dr. Tim Palmer.

Dr. Tim Palmer, professor of management

“My view, and one I shared in the webinar, is that it might be tempting to divert scarce resources away from social sustainability,” says Palmer. “This tactic would have short-term benefits but could have negative long-term impacts for the firm. If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that many companies were not resilient. You build resilience by creating shared value with key stakeholders. Investing in social sustainability is a cost; however, these programs strengthen communities as well as the firm. Companies committed to sustainability find it easier to attract terrific employees. These firms build more loyalty among customers. They forge strong relations with local governments. When times get really tough, I believe these firms will endure because they are more resilient. In contrast, firms which are constantly chasing the bottom line, which see profits as the goal and not an outcome, fail to nurture long-term relationships and, by doing so, lack overall resilience.”

While sustainability efforts in terms of both environmental sustainability and social sustainability could be at risk during the pandemic, Palmer fears most for social sustainability.

“The benefits of environmental sustainability are very tangible, and therefore, they are less likely to get cut,” he says. “Attempts to reduce a firm’s energy usage results in lower energy costs. Attempts to reduce waste means less waste is diverted to landfills, and that lowers costs. I think stakeholders understand the benefits, so these initiatives are less likely to be impacted. In contrast, social sustainability’s benefits are harder to measure and are often intangible. Surely healthier communities benefit companies in the long run. However, in what ways? How are benefits measured? How far out is the payoff? If every line item is being scrutinized during the pandemic, initiatives like these may be harder to justify if the right lens isn’t being applied to looking at these investments.”

So how can individuals help give voice to the importance of these efforts? According to Palmer, companies are listening to their stakeholders more now than ever before.

“There is considerable evidence that important stakeholders value sustainability initiatives. Millennials and Gen Z young adults want to work for firms with values that align with their own. Consumers want to buy from sustainable firms. Therefore, people need to communicate with firms that sustainability issues matter to them. The pandemic will not last forever. Firms will once again be hiring, and consumers will be buying. My advice, therefore, is simply to speak up. Whether that communication is through direct correspondence or via social media, people need to share their opinions with executives.”

Speaking up is something that Palmer’s students take to naturally. “In terms of teaching, I regularly encourage students to stand up and speak out. My message resonates with our current students. That’s the easy part. Our students are so passionate,” he says.

The second part of the equation is giving students experiences that make them well-versed in how to speak about these nuanced topics and how to help solve them when they are employed by large or small companies which have social responsibility in their core values.

“My primary teaching tool is service learning. Our students can’t help solve social and environmental challenges if they don’t understand the depth of the problems. I have students working in shelters for people experiencing homelessness, tutoring at-risk students, delivering meals to individuals who are homebound, and building neighborhood associations. Some may look at the several thousands of hours of community service completed by our students and wonder why this occurs in a business school. However, the vast majority of my students understand completely when the semester is over. They realize they can build their personal and professional skills through acts of service to others. They can do this now, and they can continue it through their future employers. Students who have studied sustainable business in the college will speak up about and solve the challenges that will be with us during and after COVID-19.”

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