Quote Card by Opinion.

It’s easy to look at the history of colonialism, capitalism and climate change, see all of the wreckage that corporations have left behind and want nothing to do with it. Even we, Net Impact Undergrad, as a business and sustainability club on campus, are often pessimistic about the success of an environmental revolution and long-term sustainable economic growth under our current capitalist system. Yet, we’re still enrolled in business school. Why? Because we refuse to be complacent with climate disaster, and we want to roll up our sleeves to get the work done. 

Three weeks ago, we hosted Gerry Anderson, the former CEO and Chairman of DTE Energy, to talk to students about how it is possible to make change and have an impact in a historically unsustainable industry. Alongside nearly 200 attendees, our event also featured a few protesters upset with DTE’s past (and present) dependency on coal and other fossil fuels destroying our earth. As protesters’ signs helpfully pointed out, DTE still relies on almost 58% coal to generate the electricity that we use every day to power our community. 

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Anderson’s speech reminded listeners that DTE’s coal reliance was over 80% at the beginning of his tenure, an impressive feat that continues as DTE gradually decreases their reliance on unsustainable fossil fuels. Anderson’s tenure at DTE included helping write the legislation that became the clean power provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and being one of the first energy industry CEOs to commit to retiring coal-fired generation. 

While the implementation of this goal is not linear, and wanting these changes more quickly is valid, tangible change requires collaboration, feasible solutions and listening to those with whom you may disagree. We have to thank protesters for wanting to start these dialogues on campus, despite our differences in how we believe this change will be actualized.

What happened at this event is representative of a greater, unproductive sentiment within the environmentalist movement, especially on the University of Michigan campus. This is a sentiment that our club often finds ourselves falling into: creating an artificial divide between environmentalists and business leaders. Fostering division rather than cooperation within the sustainability community undermines the creation of tangible change and the ability to effectively communicate about environmental protection.

We believe that business leaders working through companies to initiate change is essential to the environmental movement. Our club’s aim is to grow a sentiment of environmentalism which invokes change from inside the business world, because ultimately we need practical business change just as much as we need motivated and informed protesters. We believe that Anderson’s speech perfectly embodied this goal. Instead of shying away from unsustainable industries, we can jump into the fray and promote real change from the inside. 

Environmentalism in business requires taking the wheel and steering towards progress. It is critical that there are forward-thinking individuals working hard to facilitate the necessary change within businesses, which is radical in its own way. Demeaning individuals that are working hard to make such industries more environmentally friendly creates opponents in a common cause. 

We’re also realistic that the two sides of this dialogue aren’t always going to like each other. We may be on the same side of the fight for a better climate future, but we have very different ideas on how to get there. Ultimately, it will take us both to effect change: motivating change from outside (protesters) and actualizing this change from the inside (business). This tension remains, and in the end, this event helped us business majors recognize the types of struggles we will face from both sides in our fight for a just transition to more renewable energy sources. Anderson’s humble and dignified response exemplified for business students how to productively respond to criticism, and continue to persevere for a better future.

How are businesspeople aiming to make a difference? Let’s use DTE as an example. Stakeholders and investors want to embrace sustainability without skyrocketing energy costs or decreasing reliability of the grid. Regulatory agencies like the Michigan Public Service Commission must approve all new plans, and stakeholders raise valid equity concerns about the existing plans. 

There are challenges of energy storage for renewables, availability of metal for batteries, equitability of high-cost renewables and strain on grids from the increase in electric cars that magnify the scope of the challenges facing utility companies. Creating a thoughtful and careful long-term strategy requires consideration of all of these consequences and more, and is the type of challenge that us business students are eager to tackle. DTE’s 20% decrease in coal reliance and commitment to going net zero by 2050 exemplify successes in this aim. 

We are seeing firsthand how our business education can make a tangible difference. We know addressing change from the inside is a hard path, but as business students, we believe in being communicators and problem solvers. We’ve chosen the path of deciding to respond to the sources of our frustration with stalled climate progress with action instead of merely words, and are unapologetic about using the power of business to do good. 

Net Impact is an undergraduate business club. More information can be found here.