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By Russ Cooper
Judith Walls, JMSB professor of management specializing in corporate and social responsibility, is encouraged by the enthusiasm for sustainable thinking at Concordia, both among students and administrators, with its inclusion into the university’s priorities.
“There’s a lot of support for sustainable initiatives here and it’s great,” she says. “Sustainability is not a fad. It’s something that needs to be studied and shared with students because they’re the ones going out in the world and managing the future.”
Walls, who arrived here in July after a two-year post-doc at the Erb Institute for Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, is a key part of the David O’Brien Centre for Sustainable Enterprise.
Her research focuses on the habits of many of the world’s ‘dirty’ corporations with the greatest negative environmental impact; those in mining, manufacturing and chemicals.
Essentially, Walls looks closely at three aspects of a given company’s governance over its environmental efforts: pressures exerted by institutional investors; oversight of directors (such as board structure and the social connections of board members with other environmentally-minded companies); and the role of top management’s beliefs and values.
In 2003, Walls, a native of the Netherlands, began examining what skills companies were building as disclosed in their annual environmental reports to the public. The research, part of her PhD in Strategic Management at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, N.Y. focused on corporations listed on the Standard and Poor’s 500 Index (3M, Anheuser Busch, Dow Chemical and Boeing among them). At that time, she found there was little incentive for companies to announce their environmental endeavours – only about 38% of companies were reporting their efforts.
Now, thanks to a grant from the O’Brien Centre, she’s updating the results. With the help of PhD student Catalin Ratiu, she’s comparing the efforts of the same companies to see if there’s been any improvement in their environmental skills since 2003.
“We’ll find out in four or five months, but I expect to see that pretty much all companies are reporting now and building more environmental skills,” Walls says. “I’ve seen a tremendous shift across the board that companies want to be proactive about reporting on their environmental footprint.”
After teaching three classes in the fall, she took the winter to focus on research. She will return to the classroom next year, with several undergraduate courses and one is a newly developed graduate-level course in sustainability management and research.
“For me, it’s great to be able to incorporate a lot of these ideas into mainstream corporate strategy, but also to open up some dialogue in the classroom,” she says.
Walls will be presenting at the Alliance for Research on Corporate Sustainability at Harvard on May 12 and also be taking part in the annual meeting of the Academy of Management, Aug. 6 to 10, to be held here in Montreal.
Watch Walls in this video about sustainability in business featuring Birks jewellers that asks, Can sustainability be luxury's new gold standard?