Opinion

Bumper crop of thoughtful students

“Sustainability.”

Hardly in use 10 years ago, the concept is

common currency now, conveying both a gentler use of the planet’s resources and a more deliberative approach to growth and its consequences. It’s a warm and fuzzy blanket of a word, enveloping everything from fair-trade coffee to high-density development -- and most recently on the island, the Winslow Tomorrow planning process.

We were reminded this weekend of perhaps the first time the term caught our attention: an intriguing modifier sandwiched between “Masters” and “Business” in a press release from the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, a first-of-its-kind program co-founded by business consultants Gifford and Elizabeth Pinchot.

That was four years ago; since then, BGI has grown from an intriguing idea to an accredited, degree-granting institution. The school graduated its second crop of masters in “sustainable business” on Saturday in a ceremony at IslandWood; another 55 students matriculate this fall. And the forecast is for more bumper harvests. The school’s rapid growth is a testament both to the vision of BGI’s founders and the cachet the concept of sustainability carries with it these days. Businesses -- and to a lesser extent, business schools -- are experiencing a global warming in their formerly frosty attitude toward social and environmental responsibility.

If “responsibility” and “business” seem like contradictory terms, well, BGI is out to prove they don’t have to be. More and more entrepreneurs are demonstrating that “living our values,” to use Gifford Pinchot’s term, is both practical and profitable. And the interest in sustainability extends far beyond the niche markets where “green,” “ethical” and “socially responsible” companies have traditionally thrived, into the realm of multinational firms.

One fascinating case in point is building materials giant Lafarge, which touts the economic benefits of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, reclaiming quarried land for community use, and combatting Africa’s AIDS epidemic. “While the ethical case for sustainability is not in doubt, Lafarge is convinced that it is in its own business interest to pursue a sustainability strategy,” states the company’s Business Case for Sustainability. “Our experience shows that strong economic performance goes together with environmental protection and social responsibility.”

We’ll leave it to the scholars and CEOs -- the same folks that BGI brings to the island every month to speak, one of the many ways Bainbridge benefits from being a hotbed of sustainability -- to explain the details, but one principle is clear enough, even to us laymen. A more sustainable existence on Earth demands a broader and longer-term assessment of current activity on future conditions.

When will we have to pay the piper, and how much? A more rigorous cost assessment: it’s exactly the sort of thing businesses strive for -- and ought, in the end, to be pretty good at. If that intuition is correct, then the business world could prove to be sustainability’s most active incubator.

It’s an entrepreneurial challenge for which we believe BGI grads are well prepared.

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