Foster Idea Lab participants brainstorm sustainable solutions

Looking for a challenge? How about trying to cut total emissions from the global commercial aviation fleet in half—even as it doubles from 20,000 to a projected 40,000 planes—by 2050.

That tall order is the very real pledge of the world’s aviation industry.

And leading the quixotic charge is the Boeing Company, whose Bill Glover provided the keynote for the 2013 Foster Idea Lab, a kind of high-level sustainability brainstorming session hosted by Net Impact at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

Glover, the vice president of global business development and policy at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, offered a portal into his firm’s efforts to produce more efficient, lower-emitting aircraft through innovative on-board technologies, smarter materials and an all-out push to develop a jet-worthy renewable fuel.

He recounted Boeing’s catalytic effort to drive the first successful biofuel-powered commercial airplane flight, and its legacy in thousands of subsequent test, demonstration and commercial biofueled flights in the past few years.

“Now we need to industrialize it,” Glover said. “Make this work on an industry-wide scale to drive down the carbon footprint of aviation. That’s one of the great opportunities that we have. We’re at the beginning, and we have a long way to go.”

High-level brainstorm

Facing the big challenges of sustainability was the theme of the Idea Lab. Some 40 senior sustainability officers from a wide range of companies huddled with each other and with Foster MBA students to cross-pollinate solutions to the challenges of their organizations to operate more sustainably. Among the organizations participating were Microsoft (the Idea Lab sponsor), Boeing, Starbucks, Amazon, T-Mobile, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and many others.

The event was organized by the Foster School’s chapter of Net Impact, the international MBA organization devoted to inspiring a new generation to use their careers to tackle the world’s toughest social and environmental problems.

National Champs

Foster MBAs won the national Net Impact Case Competition in 2011 and 2013, and reached the finals in 2012. At the Idea Lab, Gabe Jones, Ryan Scott and Chris Walker of the winning team reported on the school’s most recent victory this past February at the University of Colorado.

The case challenged student teams to navigate Newmont Mining’s efforts to begin mining gold in a fictional African nation. The Foster team’s winning solution was centered on the creation of a Trusted Partners Program—a kind of independent escrow account managed by Newmont executives, stakeholders from local and national government, and NGO partners—that would manage profit sharing to benefit both company shareholders and local residents in the areas of environmental, social and educational.

The plan was simple, feasible and implementable. Said Scott: “The question we kept asking ourselves was, what will the board do next week? After we finish our presentation, can the board actually act on this? I think that’s what earned us the win.”

Water, plastics, and dirty data

Foster Net Impact’s faculty advisor Elizabeth Stearns closed the event with a bracing reminder of our rampant overuse of water, plastics and “dirty” data.

The senior lecturer pointed out the tens of gallons of water it takes to produce a cup of coffee or glass of wine, the hundreds of gallons to produce a t-shirt or can of beer, and the thousands to produce a pair of blue jeans or a bar of chocolate.

And she challenged anyone who produces packaging to consider the effect of plastics—300 million tons produced annually, 90 percent of which can be recycled but only 10 percent that is recycled.

Stearns called for a new paradigm. “It’s not enough to recycle,” she said. “We should be focusing on upcycling—the cradle-to-cradle creation of something for the expressed purpose of later being reused, perhaps as something else.”

As for dirty data, Stearns reported that the computing industry and the “cloud” are consuming 623 billion kilowatts of energy and 5.5 billion gallons of water annually, producing 50 million tons of toxic e-waste, and emitting 680 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions—2-3 percent of the world’s total emissions.

“We have to start rethinking our business processes in every industry,” she said. “If we don’t, we won’t have a business.”

But Stearns also pointed out that there are “lots of wonderful solutions out there.” As exemplars, she cited Singapore’s successful gray-water-to-drinking-water company NEWater, the collapsible, upcyclable container used by Japan’s I LOHAS, and the comprehensively sustainable Belgium-based cleaning products company Ecover.

“When you work in sustainability, it’s easy to feel that there isn’t a way out, that the situation is hopeless,” Stearns said. “But the people in the room are already convinced that we have to do things more sustainably. We just have to know that we can do things more sustainably.

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