The Future of Social and Environmental Responsibility

A gathering of 2000+ twenty-somethings these days is usually a rave party or another edition of Occupy Wall Street. The gathering I attended last week in Portland, Oregon, however, was something much different, it was a convening of young people from universities around the country and abroad, all of whom are vitally interested in using business skills to tackle the world’s toughest problems. Note: a few hundred more “old-timers” like myself were sprinkled around as well, bearing the venerable title of “professionals”, kind of like the seasoned old pros getting to mix with the young Olympians. This was the annual conference of the Net Impact organization, a San Francisco based nonprofit with chapters at 280 graduate and undergraduate schools across the globe.

In the two and half days of the conference, the agenda covered such diverse topics as e-waste, solar financing, educational innovation, social entrepreneurship, women in developing nations, biomimicry (look it up, very cool), the Northwest beverage industry (a great excuse to drink coffee and beer) and a raft of sessions on how to start a career in sustainability. The intersection between operational strategies and social and community investments is of particular importance to Applied Materials. While the Company is still working hard to reduce its carbon footprint (our footprint at the end of fiscal year 2010 was approximately 14% less than the 2006 baseline), we are leveraging our resources and know-how to enable environmental education and innovation in the communities where we operate. One exciting project was the recent launch of the Clean Tech Competition, a technology challenge for students ages 13-18 in the Bay Area and China. Visit our web site for more information on our Corporate Responsibility programs.

The incredible energy, enthusiasm, optimism and bright ideas of the attendees are probably what impressed me the most. In corporate circles we seem to be constantly lamenting the difficulty of integrating sustainability into the decision-making of our enterprises; a complete integration of sustainability thinking into corporate strategy is what I generally refer to as the likely unattainable “holy grail” of sustainability professionals. I have no doubts at all that when this cohort of bright, young people enters the corporate workforce, we will make tremendous strides towards that integration. I came away from the conference with a nice jolt to my own enthusiasm and energy and feeling much better about the future of social and environmental responsibility.

For more information on this subject, see the World Environment Center and Net Impact’s recent report, “Business Skills for a Changing World”, a concise description of the specific skill sets companies should look for to support innovation, product development and other attributes of value creation. Net Impact also profiles the growing number of schools that have programs focusing upon sustainability in Business as Unusual.

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