Sustainably profitable

MBA course helps students see sustainability as a business strategy

What’s the environmental impact of a cup of coffee?

Skyler Hein and her team members set out to find the answer—and a business opportunity—in the UB School of Management’s first “Sustainability as a Business Strategy” course.

In it, students like Hein learned that companies shouldn’t just invest in the environment because it’s the right thing to do, but because it makes smart business sense.

“We’re seeing a radical market shift from what consumers are demanding, led by Gen Z,” says Ryan McPherson, chief sustainability officer for the University at Buffalo. “If today’s companies aren’t paying attention to climate change and sustainability, they’re doing so at their own peril.”   

McPherson co-taught the course with his wife, Alexandra, principal at Niagara Share, an organization that works to build sustainable entrepreneurial opportunities and regenerative economies. They tasked students in the school’s Professional MBA program with developing an idea or company to advance one of the United Nations’ sustainable development goal, and creating a concept paper, short video pitch and a longer live pitch to sell their idea to a panel of judges.

Hein’s group discovered that coffee has a big impact on global warming. Two billion cups of coffee are consumed each day, producing more than 23 million tons of coffee ground waste. When that waste hits landfills, it generates 46 billion pounds of methane each year—a greenhouse gas 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Their solution? Since coffee is rich in anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, it’s the perfect ingredient for a line of skin care products. The group collected used grounds from Buffalo coffee shops and created an exfoliant, lip balm, moisturizer and eye serum—and even brought samples to their pitch for the judges to try.

Hein, who works in accounting for legal publishing company William S. Hein & Co. Inc., says she’s taking the sustainability mindset from the classroom back to the office with her.

“I’ve been talking with my company about how we can create a more sustainable environment and have a positive impact on our community,” she says. “Shifting the conversation and framing sustainability as a business strategy has been vital in opening discussion and advocating for change.”

Skin care products from discarded coffee was just one environmentally friendly business the class created. Other ideas included a proposal to reuse decommissioned commercial equipment for workforce development, an app to help companies engage in sustainable development goals and a ridesharing service that rewards drivers with lower emissions.

Andrea Doyle, PMBA ’21, senior financial analyst at M&T Bank, found a market opportunity with her team in new composting legislation set to go into effect in New York State in early 2021. Their plan included fully integrating biodegraders at large-scale businesses that produce food waste, transporting the fertilizer to local farms with electric vehicles and creating a reporting portal to track carbon footprint reduction.

“Before this course, I rarely considered sustainable alternatives for businesses as potential cost savers or opportunities for revenue growth,” she says. “Now I see the pure market opportunity and consumer demand for sustainable products and practices. Any business that isn’t focusing on sustainable measures is going to be caught flat-footed.”