UNC Kenan-Flagler MBA Blog

Perspective from the Hippie MBA conference

December 13, 2008 By Susanna Schick

Net Impact is an organization for MBA students and professionals interested in sustainability & corporate social responsibility. It has grown significantly over the years and you can read more about it at: www.netimpact.org Having chosen business school because I want to make business more sustainable, I was aware of Net Impact before I came to school, and couldn’t wait to join. The conferences are a great way to feel like we’re not alone in making this paradigm shift. conference gang

Like most conferences, there’s a million different panels held at once, and it can get seriously overwhelming. It’s held on the host campus, which was Wharton at University of Pennsylvania this year.   Most of the panels I went to had some new and exciting information, and some panelists were people I definitely want to work with, so it was a great opportunity to talk to them. However, the opening keynote was  upsetting, as it was a discussion between John Brock, CEO of Coca Cola Enterprises (the bottling company, not the marketer), Carter Roberts, CEO of World Wildlife Fund, and Marc Gunther, senior writer of FORTUNE magazine.

What was upsetting was that Gunther claimed the Dasani water bottles as the “800 lb. gorilla in the room” (a euphemism for the big problem nobody wants to talk about). Bottled water is bad, but personally, I think soda is much worse, considering the health effects.  At last year’s NI conference, I had a chat with someone else from Coca Cola Enterprises, and said to him; “It’s great you’re doing so much to increase recycling, but when do you plan on taking the HFCS out of your drinks, and replacing it with natural, low-glycemic sweeteners?” He told me they’d been experimenting with agave or stevia, but that whatever they do has to provide perfect flavor consistency worldwide. Of course the Farm Bill helps the cost of corn beats the cost of sugarcane here in the US, so that is an important factor. Anyway, it got me thinking about Nestle’s current push to sell more bottled water by trying to convince soda drinkers to switch. This marketing campaign has totally redeemed Nestle in my eyes, and I hope they succeed.

My mood improved that evening, as the party was at the Natural History Museum, and I simply adore museum parties. The guy I want to work for who doesn’t return any of my e-mails seemed happy to see me and very interested in what I’m doing, so that was interesting. Then I went to the West Coast Networking Dinner at the famous White Dog cafe. The owner of the White Dog made Philly a locavore’s dream town before the term was even coined. I got to hear her talk about it on a panel, as well.

The closing keynote was Kellie McElhaney, founder of the CRB at Haas, interviewing Matt Kistler, SVP of Sustainability for Walmart. This was far more uplifting, particularly because McElhaney can make any subject entertaining, but also because she made a point of throwing away the script that Kistler’s “handlers” had given her.   At the reception, I asked John Perkins, author of “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” what he thought of Walmart now. He echoed a common sentiment- that it’s impressive that Walmart is here and willing to answer our questions, and that what Kistler said about the power of consumers was correct. We vote with our dollars, so Walmart is just there to give us more of what we want. If you haven’t read Perkin’s book, “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man,” check itout. It will open your eyes to the relationship between business and government in the US. Although, hopefully all that will change now… Personally, I vote with my dollars at Target, and was rather disappointed they had no presence at this conference. Kistler did mention a time when Yale students demanded fair trade coffee, and his company (I forget where he said he was working at the time) fulfilled their request, because they were a big enough customer.