10/16/2019 Jenny Gumbert

Business & the Natural Environment

This magazine article is part of Fall 2019 / Issue 94
  • Nancy Kurland, Associate Professor of Organization Studies Business, Organization and Society

It’s the first day of spring, and students are shuffling into Harris 136 to select a seat from the many scattered around the room. The candy colored desks—red, green, yellow, orange—begin to dance around the room as students roll them to the outer edges of the space, forming something not quite circular. It quickly becomes clear that dialogue is integral to this particular classroom experience.

A bottle of Clos du Val’s 2015 cabernet is perched on a table at the front of the room, announcing the topic of the day. “It’s a $50 bottle of wine…I was actually pretty surprised when I picked it up and saw the price tag,” Nancy Kurland, associate professor of organization studies, tells her students.

Today’s class will revolve around wine—just not in the way you’d expect.

Every Monday and Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 12:20 p.m., the students of Kurland’s “Business and the Natural Environment” course meet to discuss business’s role in exacerbating, and innovations to ameliorate, an ecologically sustainable economy. Over the course of the semester, students look at business innovations and solutions that serve to mitigate an environmental impact or that provide a new product or service.

Today, they’re discussing repercussions of climate change on the Napa Valley wine industry and Clos du Val will serve as the focus for the case study—hence, the aforementioned pricy bottle. The Napa region is growing less hospitable to the growth of the grapes it has become renowned for, and growers are looking for ways to adapt.

Kurland carefully dissects the case to teach the students how to approach an issue. To do so, she asks her students myriad questions: What does this particular marketplace look like? Who is the buyer? What is this company’s competitive advantage?

Participation is key to this process. The class talks through every one of these questions as a group and everyone is expected to speak.

“I believe that the more the students are able to understand that there’s a process for analyzing a problem, the better they’ll be when they face complex problems after F&M,” says Kurland. “I believe that we need to dialogue around issues and problems. Going it alone does not allow one to explore the complexities of the issue nor of potential solutions.”

Clos du Val is only one of a few specific case studies that the class will discuss this semester. Other times, the class is engaged in exercises: simulation, taking sides in debates, stakeholder forums, speed presentations, etc. Regardless, the class centers around discussion.

We’re nearing the end of the day, and the room is filled with the murmurs of students, who have now broken into groups, weighing the risks and benefits of different solutions to the winery’s woes and preparing to make their recommendations.

“They should remain in place but look for alternative grapes,” says one group.

“They should gradually phase out their Napa Valley production look for new locations,” says another.

Of course, there is no official “right” answer.

“There are no simple answers to the topics we address in class,” explains Kurland. “It’s important to me that students understand the competing pressures and interests that drive decisions, as well as the resulting impacts of these decisions.”

Though most students say they will not explicitly focus their careers on sustainability, they all will face these issues regardless of their chosen career path.

“I hope that students will consider how their decisions impact the natural environment and how their lives—and companies—depend on the natural environment,” says Kurland. “I want them to be responsible citizens on the planet and act accordingly.”

Nancy Kurland
Associate Professor of Organization Studies Business, Organization and Society

Widespread concern for a cleaner environment
and sustainable practices has put new demands
on business. Exploration of philosophical, theoretical, strategic and policy issues facing organizations in relation to the natural environment. 

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