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MBA Students Promote Sustainability Through University Procurement

3p Contributor | Monday January 27th, 2014 | 1 Comment

pencilBy Professor Terry Harrison

Several years ago, even before the Penn State Smeal MBA Program began to offer its official concentration in Sustainability and Social Innovation, there existed a marked student interest in learning more about sustainable business. To meet that interest, a group of MBA students—with my support as a faculty member in supply chain management—approached the university’s procurement services department to seek partnership on a real-world project.

The partnership our Penn State Smeal MBA Program forged with procurement services exemplifies an educational model that allows students to learn about sustainable procurement in a meaningful way while promoting university sustainability practices.

Why Procurement?

Procurement is a key driver of many sustainability strategies and integrates economic, environmental and social dimensions. It’s also a crucial aspect of an organization’s function. Aligning existing organizational goals with sustainability goals has become increasingly important, particularly with regard to supplier selection, as organizations become more conscious and proactive in addressing issues in sustainability.

Furthermore, procurement offers a wealth of opportunities in the university community because of the scale and importance of the function. Penn State is a large organization, with our University Park campus boasting more than 45,000 students and 15,000 employees. However, even smaller institutions must outfit and furnish countless dormitories, classrooms, office spaces and other facilities across any number of buildings.

The Case: Sourcing Janitorial Paper

In 2008, when the students approached procurement services about a possible partnership, the department was nearing the end of its janitorial paper products contract and was facing pressure from an environmental student action group to consider sustainability factors in vendor selection. Procurement services had agreed to investigate other options, but they had never before been tasked with the evaluation of suppliers in accordance with any significant sustainability standards. Thus, a project between MBA students and procurement services was born.

This project was offered as a practicum to students interested in sustainability. Throughout the 16-week practicum course, students first met with various stakeholders to gain a full understanding of each group’s points of view. Because they had little knowledge of the tissue paper industry, they also conducted background research to find out what kind of environmental certifications already existed. Finally, they developed a framework for comparing suppliers based on university needs, stakeholder requests and sustainability metrics.

The team derived a set of sustainability criteria, including both quantitative and qualitative measures, that allowed the comparable evaluation of suppliers using a two-stage evaluation process.

Ultimately, the adoption of the students’ framework by procurement services led to the sourcing of more sustainable tissue products and a continuing working relationship. This relationship has led to subsequent projects improving the sourcing and recycling of carpet used across the university.

The Model: Procurement on Campus

The partnership between Penn State Smeal MBA students and the University’s procurement services department presents a model for other academic institutions. The procurement services department is a convenient partner; the department already exists within the university environment and is often readily accessible with ideas and needs.

The partnership with procurement services has allowed students to gain knowledge and skills while promoting sustainability within the university community in an impactful and tangible way. And it’s a win for procurement services, too, as the department was able to integrate the MBA students’ decision framework into its future purchasing decisions.

A paper further describing our partnership with procurement services, “Sustainable Procurement: Integrating Classroom Learning with University Sustainability Programs,” was published in the July 2013 issue of Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education. For more information on how we developed the practicum or approached the partnership, please feel free to contact me at tharrison@psu.edu.

Image credit: Flickr/qisir

Terry Harrison is a professor of supply chain and information systems and the Earl P. Strong Executive Education Professor in Business at the Penn State Smeal College of Business. His teaching and research interests include the areas of supply chain management and modeling, large-scale production and distribution systems, decision support systems, and applied optimization and management of renewable natural resources.

About the Penn State Smeal MBA Program: The internationally ranked residential Penn State Smeal MBA Program positions students from around the world for their future careers. The two-year program, based on the University Park campus, begins with a focus on business fundamentals. Through summer internships with top companies and concentration opportunities in areas such as finance, marketing and supply chain management, students then personalize their Smeal MBA experiences to align with their career aspirations. Learn more at www.smeal.psu.edu/mba.


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  • Greener Electronics

    Great project – and impressive to see the receptivity by the procurement department. Penn State purchasing was also very progressive in instituting an EPEAT electronics purchasing requirement years ago to reduce the university’s environmental impacts.

    Hundreds of universities use EPEAT to ‘green’ their purchase of PCs, Displays, copiers, printers, televisions and more. EPEAT can help meet AASHE Sustainability ratings requirements, LEED standards and more. http://www.epeat.net