Student Sustainability Efforts Pick Up Steam

Lauren Buchanan, Contributor
Nicole Granet, Contributor

Increased student interest in sustainability brings more attention and energy to campus initiatives.

Student interest in sustainability, waste, water, food, and energy topics has led to an increase in related clubs, initiatives, conferences, and action around campus. In 2021, over one-third of incoming RC students indicated that they were “interested in a career that relates to sustainability.” The Business and Environment Initiative’s 2020 alumni mentorship program facilitated over 100 student-alumni pairings, up from 33 in 2016. 

Increased student interest has sparked the formation of the new Sustainability Club. The club—started by Megan Murday, Zack Jacobson, and Roxanne Tully—has stated that their mission is to “complement existing on-campus sustainability efforts by creating space for the HBS community to explore the complexities of global sustainability challenges, gain exposure to emerging business solutions, and pursue professional opportunities.” With over 100 members currently, they aim to grow to 150 by next year and plan to host (or co-host) a conference next year. Since Fall 2019, they’ve hosted a series of guest speakers, continuing conversations, and sustainability-related events that are standing-room-only. Among the guest speaker events was an Ocean Plastic Roundtable with Dr. Jenna Jambeck, who is the first academic to raise the alarm and provide extensive supporting evidence on the ocean plastic crisis, a circular materials / global waste management expert, and a National Geographic Explorer and the co-lead on the “Source to Sea Plastics” expedition. Continuing Conversations have been hosted following the IKEA supply chain case discussion and Viewpoints climate change simulation. 

“The Continuing Conversation held a few weeks ago was a challenging and honest discussion about our responsibilities as students, employers, investors, and leaders,” notes Sophie Critchfield-Jane (MBA ’21). “All the students in attendance seem excited to engage with tough questions surrounding sustainability and work through practical ways to make a difference in our future organizations. I am excited for future discussions and to be pushed to make more ethical decisions regarding the climate.”

Various other clubs, including the Energy & Environment, Food, Water and Agriculture, Social Entrepreneurship, and Impact Investing Clubs are inextricably related to sustainability. For example, the Energy & Environment Symposium highlighted various sustainability topics and angles including smart and sustainable cities, low-carbon technology, and energy storage. Many club leaders are seeing increased intersectionality with sustainability in all areas. For example, at the Retail and Luxury Good Club’s annual conference, sustainability was a popular topic and served as the focal point of the “Winning with Values” panel.

While sustainability interest has spiked, a base-level HBS student interest in this issue is not new. The Student Sustainability Associate (SSA) program, founded in 2006, is HBS’ peer-to-peer education program that promotes sustainable living and working on campus. Ten SSAs (one per RC section) are hired each year to connect with their peers and engage them in conserving energy and water, reducing waste and promoting health and well-being through activities and information sharing, according to Harvard’s Green initiative website. The ten students run campaigns throughout the year to engage sectionmates in sustainability activities. For example, the waste campaign involved sections competing for the more accurately-sorted trash, compost and recycling bins. In addition to these campaigns, the SSAs also lead initiatives spanning testing behavioral nudges to increase sustainable commuting options, benchmarking the EC curriculum to increase sustainability offerings, reducing plastic waste on campus, and minimizing food waste at student events.

“SSA has been a great opportunity to work with like-minded students across all sections to spread the word about existing sustainability initiatives and to implement new sustainability initiatives,” said Landon Acriche (MBA ’21), the SSA from Section F. “Our team of four SSAs is working to make HBS student transportation and commuting more sustainable, first by collecting data on current behavior and then designing interventions that lead to more environmentally friendly choices.”

Behind the scenes, but with a campus-wide impact, the HBS Operations team is also constantly working to make HBS greener. This work ties to the Harvard-wide Sustainability Plan, the Harvard Climate Action Plan, which includes goals to be fossil-fuel-neutral by 2026 and fossil-fuel-free by 2050, and the HBS Environmental Framework that sets stretch goals. The Operations team works to increase the health and sustainability of the HBS campus by acting as a living lab for solutions and sharing them to amplify the impact. As of 2018, HBS has made a 47% reduction in GHG emissions, a 3% reduction in water usage, and a 66% reduction in waste as of a 2006 baseline.  Campus sustainability highlights include Batten’s bee hives and solar panels, the Rock Center’s green roof, Klarman’s healthier materials and state-of-the-art heating/cooling system, and much more . In addition, HBS has been working to make the food they serve on campus more sustainable by increasing plant-based offerings and joining Farm Forward’s Leadership Circle to help HBS purchase more humane animal products.  

Various Harvard schools have come together to organize the first-ever school-wide Student Climate Change Conference at Harvard, initially set for April 18, days before the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. The goal of the conference was to explore interdisciplinary solutions for the climate crisis. Due to COVID-19, the conference has been postponed to next year, but the planners have shifted their focus to creating a web conference this April. They hope to still include the keynote speakers Bill McKibben (American environmentalist, author, and journalist) and Patrick Brown (CEO of Impossible Foods) in a live-streamed discussion on the original date.

Beyond clubs and conferences, the increased momentum regarding sustainability and climate change awareness has reached the search for the new HBS Dean. As reported in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Several stakeholders of Harvard Business School are pushing the university to name a new dean who will use the school’s clout to raise awareness on social issues ranging from climate change to diversity in hiring.” Tarun Galagali and Tomas Rosales (MBAs ’21), who co-chair the Next Generation Capitalism club, wrote the letter, and it has gained more than 250 signatures so far. 

“We care deeply about the issues we discuss in the letter, and have been very positively surprised by the momentum we have gained among students, faculty and the Harvard administration,” said Rosales. “Our main focus now is to translate that momentum into action and accountability for HBS. In addition to ensuring that the choice of Dean is aligned with the asks in the letter, we have agreed with provost Garber to build out an action plan that the new person can pick up on Day 1”

As more students are developing more ways to increase conversation and action about sustainability on campus, we can expect to see continued “greening” at HBS. Visible changes on campus may include increased options for EC curriculum related to sustainability and climate, decreases in waste on campus, and more support from career services for students interested in sustainability oriented careers. 

Lauren Buchanan (MBA ’21) is the Chair of Programming for the Sustainability Club and a Student Sustainability Ambassador. She is a member of Section E, the Energy and Environment, Impact Investing, and Retail clubs. Prior to HBS she worked at Encourage Capital and Bain & Company. This summer she will be a Fellow on the Morgan Stanley Sustainable Finance team. 

Nicole Granet (MBA ’21) is a Student Sustainability Ambassador. She is a member of the Energy and Environment, Women in Investing, and Impact Investing clubs. Prior to HBS, she worked at Root Capital and Boston Consulting Group.