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December 13, 2018

Sustainability professor talks business, role of academia

September 5, 2017

Sustainability professor talks business, role of academia

Faculty/Staff Spotlight

Topic: Campus News

Andy Hoffman is in the business of change.

While his research as the Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise examines how businesses look at the environment, he hopes to shift people's opinions on how both business and academia can be a force for positive social change.

"Is publishing in top academic journals having any impact beyond the academy? My fear is that it's not," he said.

Hoffman always had an interest in the environment. His first job out of college was with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, however he wasn't happy. He applied and was accepted to graduate school but he still felt incomplete.

Andy Hoffman, Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise, hopes to shift people's opinions on how both business and academia can be a force for positive social change. (Photo courtesy of Andy Hoffman)

Instead, as he put it, "I answered an ad in the paper for a carpenter's job on Nantucket and took it, and I had to tell my parents I wasn't going to Harvard or Berkeley; I was going to be a carpenter." He worked his way up the ranks and managed construction on three very large custom estates.

He went back to school and eventually merged his passions in business and the environment in his current position as a jointly-appointed professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability and the Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

His research uses organizational behavior models to understand how businesses address environmental issues, including how outside political pressures influence corporate responses and framing of sustainability. The first step, he says, is that you have to fit environmental issues into the existing logic of the market.

"You have to frame everything as a market shift, and it's working. You have sustainable hotels, sustainable food, sustainable cars. But, the problem is that it's not fixing the problem. It's slowing down the velocity we're running into a brick wall but it's not reversing course," he said.

The next step, Hoffman says, is that businesses can work with others to change the system. For example, Toyota is working with suppliers, buyers, non-governmental organizations, the government, even competitors to go carbon-neutral by 2050. Similarly, Intel was highly influential in setting regulations on conflict minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"We've reached a stage where governments are having trouble coming to a consensus on what to do around these issues, so business has to take a more proactive role," he said.

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Hoffman also writes about the role of academics in society. Similar to incentivizing businesses to focus on environmental impact, he says that academics are rewarded for publishing in top academic journals, not for engaging with the public by writing editorials, using social media, or speaking at public forums.

"I think there should be a broadening of the tent for what it means to be a successful academic to include influencing policy, business, and society and to bring the knowledge of the academy to real-world issues we face," he said.

Ultimately, Hoffman wants to change not just how businesses view the environment but how people see business.

"A lot of people think businessmen only care about money, that they only watch the bottom line every day. I want to instill in my students the idea of management as a calling, a vocation. If people go into business with a sense of purpose, to serve society, then that gives me hope we can deal with the sustainability issues we face," he said.

Q & A

What moment in the classroom stands out as the most memorable?

During a discussion on the verity of marketing claims, I pointed to a random student and asked if he should blame himself or the marketing for not getting girls after buying a Corvette, and then if he should blame himself or the marketing at the betrayal of spending $70,000 for not getting girls. The student piped up, "Not as upset as my boyfriend would be!"

What can't you live without?

Whipped cream.

Where is your favorite spot on campus?

The Law Quad.

What inspires you?

Great quotes, like "To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing." (Raymond Williams.)

What are you currently reading?

"The World Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry," by Wendell Berry.

Who had the biggest/greatest influence on your career path?

Professor Max Bazerman.


peter allen
on 9/06/17 at 11:28 am

Andy is one of the most insightful profs on campus for his role in understanding the role of not just Business but the whole University and its impact on society. So many of his comments are inspiring ! Peter

Jenni Sporer
on 9/07/17 at 9:21 am

Inspiring to see leadership in academia that looks beyond the ivory tower, and is truly motivated to work for social change.

Joe Dean
on 9/08/17 at 7:27 am

Max Hal Bazerman one of the greatest people I know. I'm an essay writer and not so long ago wrote a paper about Judgment in Managerial Decision Making. It was amazing!

Joe Dean
on 9/08/17 at 7:29 am

It was an amazing experience.*

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