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Environment

U of M's NorthStar Initiative launches innovative approach to advancing business sustainability and bottom line

Monday, July 18, 2011

Building on 18 months of groundwork laid under the guidance of scores of business, nonprofit and government partners, the NorthStar Initiative at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment has launched a bold new approach to collaboratively meet sustainability challenges.

The approach taps multi-sector teams to identify specific big obstacles to whole-enterprise sustainability that NorthStar members can directly influence. Then U of M sustainability experts take on the task of overcoming them. Team members receive first use of the new knowledge generated, with other NorthStar affiliates and the general public following later on.  

Commissioned at a meeting of more than 70 NorthStar affiliates, the effort is beginning with a focus on two specific initiatives:

One, the Sustainable Procurement Initiative, will focus on developing methods to improve the scientific assessment of eco-labels and product claims and producing a tool that business and institutional purchasers can use to make decisions about sustainable purchases. NorthStar is partnering with large retailers and governmental purchasing programs, where purchase volume and impact are greatest.

The second, the GOLDEN Initiative, joins NorthStar with a network of more than 60 researchers around the world to improve understanding of how sustainability actions and culture are integrated with the core functions of business and how they change business models.  

“The best companies are increasingly shifting their approach to sustainability from communicating how current products and processes might be better for the environment or society to building competencies that actively pursue new innovative solutions that meet customer needs sustainably,” said NorthStar director Tim Smith, a resident fellow at IonE and member of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences faculty. “Understanding how the best companies are doing this, and providing other organizations the tools to benchmark against, is critical to altering the currently unsustainable trajectories of business as usual.”

The GOLDEN initiative is a partnership with the European Union–based GOLDEN network, which will be the largest coordinated research effort of its kind in the history of management.

Other potential initiatives discussed at the meeting include using social media to share network resources and reduce impacts of local distribution, setting up material-sharing systems that allow one business’s trash to become another’s treasure, and establishing new financial markets and instruments for energy efficiency projects in industry and buildings.

The current and potential initiatives emerged from nearly two years of discussions within the NorthStar community. Since December 2009, NorthStar participants have been meeting roughly every six months, collectively building the structure and process necessary to tackle these enormous challenges.  

“Current sustainability challenges are bigger than any single person, organization or government,” said Smith. “NorthStar provides a mechanism for organizing for sustainability that respects proprietary information while opening doors to sharing business-boosting information to all participants’ benefit. It’s about innovation, collaboration and mutual benefit.”

NorthStar collaborators to date have represented some of the nation’s leading companies and organizations, crossing all sectors of business.

Interested regional, national and international businesses, nonprofits and government entities are invited to join one or more of the NorthStar initiatives. For more information on membership, email Michelle Linhoff at mlinhoff@umn.edu, and for general information see www.environment.umn.edu/nise.

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