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Adam Werbach: Students can find the solutions to global sustainability

  • DOT's
    DOT's  Werbach praised the school's DOT - Do One Thing for Sustainability - initiative.  Photo courtesy of the Mason School of Business
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Today’s students are the ones who will find the solutions to global sustainability, a leading expert in the field told those at the College of William and Mary on Thursday evening, Sept. 24. Adam Werbach, leader of the world’s largest sustainability agency and author of the 2009 book “Strategy for Sustainability,” addressed nearly 400 Mason School of Business students, faculty and staff  at the newly opened Brinkley Commons Room of Alan B. Miller Hall.

“You're going to do it, you’re one of best universities in the world,” said Werbach, who was elected the youngest-ever president of the Sierra Club in 1996 and is now global CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi S. “Students are always at the forefront of great movements. It’s the great challenge for this generation.”

Werbach praised the university’s sustainability initiatives and especially its status as the first university to take on the challenge of DOT -- Do One Thing for Sustainability -- by encouraging individuals to post their actions, such as biking to work or eliminating meat from their diets, on the Mason School of Business Facebook page.

But he also challenged the university to take its efforts beyond the campus and to the next step, while cautioning that the answers to what that next step will be won’t come from him or his company, but the students themselves. “I don't know, and I love that. You're going to figure that out. We'll figure it out together,” he said.

But Werbach does know that efforts such as DOT are necessary to get to that level. “The only way we'll figure out the mess we've gotten ourselves into is for everyone to be personally engaged,” he said. “It's magic, just magic. When people start becoming engaged, they'll become more engaged – a beautiful unraveling of one step into another.”

The mess, as Werbach describes it, is the need to reduce carbon in the atmosphere at a time of scarcity of resources, increasing population and radical changes in society that will require more than environmental sustainability.

“We face an extraordinary time,” he said. “Challenges that have never been faced before. It will require you to go beyond what you expect of yourself."

A world population of 9 billion by 2050 will require a blue movement , he said, which is beyond green and reflects a definition of sustainability as meeting the needs of the current generation while not sacrificing the ability of the future generations' needs to be met. Green applies to environmental sustainability, but blue applies to all dimensions -- social, economical, cultural and more, he said.

A radical change in business is needed to meet these changes, he said. The old model built business that was rigid and protected from change, but what’s now required is the ability to make change a constant.

"The question is, how do you build a company that reacts to that change?" he asked.

Showing examples from nature as well as business, Werbach explained that it requires not only personal engagement, but also other qualities, including transparency – “It's inevitable. They can't really hide anything. Information wants to be free,” Werbach said – and networking or thinking outside your own self interests. The last quality he called “North Star” – setting goals for five to 15 years out.

"Think of goals that are not just about generating profits, but about solving great human challenges as well."

Despite those enormous challenges, Werbach -- who said his personal DOT includes sharing nature with his children and learning to raise chickens -- believes, with a reverence that is palpable, that the goal of sustainability will be met.

"We've faced catastrophe before, and it's built into us to be able to overcome,” he said. "I'm optimistic that we'll find a way to do it again."