There is nothing more satisfying to an M.B.A. student than researching a topic for a major corporation and making strategic recommendations to its top brass--except, of course, seeing those ideas put to work. When KEEN Footwear releases its first sustainability report later this year, student teams from the Lundquist College of Business's Center for Sustainable Business Practices at the University of Oregon can claim significant credit.
Like many socially responsible companies, KEEN wanted to judge its performance according to impacts on people, the planet, and profit. But where to start? When Professor Mike Russo suggested using some grad students from his Sustainable Business Development course to scope out this new and burgeoning effort to achieve corporate transparency, KEEN Sustainability Coordinator Chris Enlow and his bosses were sold. They handed the task to the students, telling them not just to find answers but to figure out the questions.
"They really trusted us to develop the project," recalled Beth Littlehales, M.B.A. '07, a member of the team. "As we talked more and more about goals, we said, 'What you really need from us is to look into the reporting piece, to drill down into what your real needs are.'" After months of studying what other companies have done and what sorts of reporting approaches exist, the team was ready to offer KEEN suggestions. The company chose to build its report on a template developed by the Global Reporting Initiative, which is the current gold standard in sustainability reporting. "I don't think it's arrogant to say we taught KEEN a lot," said Littlehales. "Of course, those of us on the team had to learn it to be able to teach it."
Russo described it as "a win-win" for both students and the company. Enlow agreed, saying, "The team did a great job of seeking out our competitors in the outdoor industry and laying out, in an unbiased way, what's really going on in sustainability reporting--both what's great and what's not so great. They really challenged us, and we applaud that." In fact, KEEN has shown its appreciation in the best way possible--by enlisting a new group of Russo's UO students to dig deeper. Even before the sustainability report is released, a new team of students will begin to focus on a key category within the report: climate change. "It's part two for us," Enlow said, "going into greater depth on the work done."