Students tackle how companies can reduce their use of natural resources

Grande Ecole Student Hiba Houmache

Grande Ecole student Hiba Houmache on the Understand and Change the World Initiative at ESSEC Business School and how her group won an award through a blended CSR-CSV solution

Every new autumn term, four hundred students of the ESSEC Grande Ecole get to grips with the big issues facing business, society and the planet. Organised by Profs. Aurélien Colson and Patricia Langohr, the two week-long seminar put students to the test in a series of faculty lectures, guest speeches from leaders from the for- and non-profit sectors, hard facts and a competitive challenge centred around team projects: This is the Understand and Change the World initiative, a pure example of innovation in education from Council on Business & Society member ESSEC Business School.

This year’s student team winners – who presented their solutions and research before the jury, 400 hundred students and faculty – are represented by Hiba Houmache. At the outset to the seminar, ESSEC faculty presented the student cohort with issues at the crossroads of business and society. Students then chose what they thought to be the most relevant and impactful, with names put into an algorithm and student teams drawn up according to the interest shown – meaning that a further challenge is to work from scratch on building an effective team and come up with a winning deliverable.

Council on Business & Society

Hiba’s team took a risk. ‘Some themes were relatively clearer to tackle,’ she states. ‘For example, food waste and developing an application to deal with this. We chose what appeared to us to be a trickier challenge – how businesses can reduce the use of natural resources in their operations (supervised by Prof. Stefan Gröschl, winner of the 2018 FNEGE* award for his case study on Jochen Zeitz, Puma and the company’s CSR policy). This was interesting,’ she continues, ‘because there was no one magical solution to the issue and in order to make things happen we understood it was necessary to bring together a host of stakeholders – government, non-profits, local authorities and businesses – to reach consensus and act.’

Once team roles and personalities affirmed, one of the first things the student team did was to brainstorm solutions common to the greatest number of companies which could adopt them without risking profit. For Hiba Houmache, this dimension, which tends to draw away from pure CSR to CSVCreating Shared Value – is important: ‘if we were to propose solutions then they had to profitable solutions,’ she asserts. ‘Companies have to see that they can make profit – it’s in their DNA – but not at any price and also remain sustainable.’

Watch the prize-winning video

With acknowledgements to Jean-Christophe Henrie and the winning group.

Houmache states the California-based clothing company Patagonia as an example with its rallying cry of “Buy 1 and keep it”. For her, it’s a great business model that incites dialogue with multiple stakeholders concerned by the impact of the business with an emphasis on R&D that they sell to other companies as well as working with them to find sustainable practices. ‘It’s the search to find ways to replace the losses induced by companies’ production processes that is interesting,’ she says. ‘This means finding less expensive solutions and cost-saving while having better practices that benefit the common good.’ She also wants to use such practices in her future career – hoping to be an example in the search for the long-term benefits to all instead of merely short-term profit for the company alone.

The Understand and Change the World challenge had many high points, but two stand out in particular for Hiba: the team-building to develop a group of totally unacquainted students into a winning team, and an inspiring conference given by Jean-Luc Petithuguenin, CEO of PAPREC, a leader in recycling and waste management in France. ‘We learnt that we need to integrate and anticipate the risks of doing business, with one of those risks being the loss of natural resources. Increasingly rare, it’s essential to find new solutions and act now,’ she states. ‘Banks, for example, need to start giving priority to companies starting up green projects. And companies should aim for not only offering products but services – like the photocopying industry,’ she adds. ‘Nowadays, photocopiers have longer life-cycles because the business model changed from selling machines to renting them. This has meant the elimination of programmed obsolescence, with players in this sector remaining profitable through associated services and decreased losses due to unsold products.’ The role of government is also essential in working with companies though Hiba Hamouche warns against certain lobbies which do not always exist for the common good.

Hiba Hamouche’s group, supervised by Prof. Stefan Gröschl, took a risk. They were the last to present their solution at the end of a day’s worth of 30 student presentations. ‘The day’s presentations had been in French,’ she states, ‘so in order to wake up the sleepers and gain attention, we presented in English.’ A tactic that was to pay off – winning first prize as best project. Such daring could be a model for the future as students from all around the world step into the beginnings of their careers as responsible leaders. ‘The Planet can survive without us,’ states Hiba Houmache, ‘but we can’t survive without the Planet. It’s time to decide to do something. And to be optimistic that we can solve things.’

* FNEGE: The French Foundation for Management Education

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