Michigan Ross’ Erb Institute Releases New Research Agenda


For 20 years the Erb Institute has been the go-to source for deep dives into sustainability issues in business. But both business, and the way it views sustainability has evolved, and the institute has developed a new research focus centered on four main ideas.

“The definition of sustainability has become more nuanced, and what people expect from business has become broader,” says Joe Arvai, faculty director of the Erb Institute and Max McGraw Professor of Sustainable Enterprise. “There’s a lot of tension between the existing rule book on ‘sustainability in business’, and the kinds of shifts needed to happen for business to be really sustainable. Those are very open areas for thought leadership, and we want to be the first to jump in. At the same time, we don’t want to lose sight of what made us great.”

The Erb Institute, established with a gift from Frederick A. and Barbara M. Erb, is a partnership between Ross and the U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment. It sponsors fellows who earn a joint MBA/MS through the two schools, case studies, field projects, co-curricular activities, research, and events.

The four key themes that will drive Erb’s agenda are:

  • Conscious consumption and consumer behavior.
    This will examine the role that business and the private sector play in reshaping the public’s consumption habits. It also includes how shifting values put pressure on business to change, and the feedback loop between the two.
  • Corporate governance.
    Here, Erb Institute researchers and thought leaders are asking, what are the best ways for business to achieve the elusive triple bottom line? And, what does incorporating sustainability goals mean for things like finance, strategy, and supply chain?
  • Global Change.
    The Erb Institute will conduct work on what it will take for business to truly lessen its impact on the planet. The main focus will be on how business decisions and practices affect ecosystem services; concerns about land use, water, and climate change are all on the table.
  • Human and community development.
    This is perhaps the most pressing and impactful aspect of Erb’s research and thought leadership agenda.  The focus here is on advancing the capacity of  business to help facilitate the achievement of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which were established in December 2015.

Arvai says the Erb institute is actively seeking new partnerships with faculty, PhD students, postdoctoral associates, and research staff to study these themes. It also will connect these themes with student research as part of SNRE projects, Ross MAP, and Erb Cool Projects.

“It’s my opinion that business and sustainability institutes run the risk of becoming echo chambers in thought leadership,” he says. “The Erb Institute has been known for leading the conversation on the role of business in advancing sustainability.  But, we can’t afford to rest on our laurels. So, we’ll be working with our existing and new business partners to learn about what they’re doing, what’s working well, why it’s working well, and also ask them what’s not working and why. It’s this dynamic conversation that’s going to be the basis for a robust research agenda.”

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