Unlike many executives and high-ranking federal officials, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell does not travel in a hulking SUV.

Jewell visited Stanford’s campus recently to give the keynote address at the inaugural Stanford Woods Institute Business of Sustainability Summit. She arrived in a compact Ford Focus hybrid. “It’s a statement,” the former CEO of REI told the audience of CEOs, chief sustainability officers and other senior executives from around the country. That statement is not only about lessening environmental impacts but also about recognizing the role of business – an automaker in this case – in forging solutions.

The summit, a new Stanford Woods Institute initiative to engage business leaders on sustainability issues, brought together leaders from 47 companies representing heads of R&D, engineering, global manufacturing, product development, innovation, finance, technology, public policy and government relations. Companies, including AT&T, Airbnb, the Gap, General Motors, SAP, Starbucks and Disney engaged in lively dialogue with Stanford faculty and executives such as Stanford Board of Trustees Chair Steven Denning, Stanford Associate Vice President for Strategic Planning Roberta Katz and members of the Stanford Woods Institute Advisory Council. The event represented a new chapter in the Institute’s work to share ideas and perspectives on how organizations can advance sustainability on their own, with academic partners, and by collaborating across sectors.

“If we’re going to change the course of history, and if we are going to offset the impacts that we’ve had on the planet, the place it’s really going to happen is business. It is the business community working hand in hand with scientists, with policymakers, with grassroots and grasstops people from throughout the communities to change the course of history.”

Through a moderated CEO roundtable, brief presentations by corporate sustainability officers and business unit heads as well as various other opportunities for dialogue, participants discussed their vision of how to make sustainability an integral part of corporate mission, values and strategy. They also had the opportunity to hear from Stanford Woods Institute-affiliated faculty about innovative environmental research findings, and to meet with more than 80 student leaders – postdoctoral scholars, graduate and undergraduates from all seven Stanford schools with an environmental focus.

Woods is focused on solving problems, Stanford Woods Institute Co-Director Buzz Thompson said in his introductory comments for the event. “It was our total, complete view that in the 21st century, business would, in many cases, be the most influential sector of society in advancing sustainability goals because of the technologies businesses develop and commercialize, because of the supply chains that all of you are instrumental in developing.”

The Sustainability Summit took place the week that the White House released the National Climate Assessment, an inter-agency report authored by leading scientists, including several affiliated with Woods (Mary Ruckelshaus, John Weyant and Susanne Moser). Through tools such as the assessment, government and academic researchers can help business make informed decisions, Jewell said.

“If there’s one thing I learned at REI, it’s that sustainability is a team sport,” Jewell said. To create markets for sustainable products and services, businesses need more than just good science from academia. Government can provide standards and regulations to clarify issues and incentivize certain changes. Nonprofits can raise awareness of corporate sustainability success, while also keeping businesses accountable. When it all comes together, sustainability is harnessed to the economy, “the most powerful engine in the world.”

Beyond the economy, education is “the ultimate act of sustainability,” Jewell said. “If we want a sustainable future, we have to have an electorate that cares.”

Referring to the so-called Millennial generation of 79 million young Americans, Jewell said, “You at Stanford understand – and, actually, all the businesses that spoke up – that this new generation cares a lot about the planet, they care a lot about making a difference. They do not want to perpetuate the mistakes that their parents and earlier generations have made. So we need to give them a platform to do that.”

As an example of such a platform, Jewell called out the First Nations’ Futures Institute, a Woods program that helps develop well-balanced young indigenous environmental leaders. “I appreciate the focus of the Woods Institute in that arena.”

In education, business and other fields, we must recognize our shared interest in a healthy ecosystem, Jewell said. “We can’t look at this as a trade-off between development and conservation. The definition of sustainability is that we find a way to have both.”

In searching for that way, Woods researchers have helped spawn a range of bold advances during the Institute’s first decade (read “Celebrating a Decade of Solutions”).Woods has worked with businesses to identify biofuel opportunities and challenges, incorporate services of natural landscapes into corporate supply chains and develop revolutionary water technologies, among other initiatives.

To continue working toward solutions, Woods will build on the momentum and success of the Summit to partner closely with business. Plans are already in development for follow on programs and the 2015 Sustainability Summit, which as an annual meeting will be a key part of helping identify the opportunities and challenges that sustainability poses for corporations, examining emerging trends and innovations in corporate sustainability, and building vibrant partnerships among business leaders and Stanford faculty, staff and students.

Woods is planning similar meetings on how businesses can protect their assets from climate change impacts and the role of business in sustainable management of water resources.

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