Lax Conference Explores Value of Sustainability in Business

The 9th annual Lax Conference on Entrepreneurship, sponsored by Swarthmore’s Career Services and Alumni Relations, was held this past Sunday in the Science Center. This year’s event focused on “the business of sustainability” and the current eco-entrepreneurship movement and drew the largest number of pre-registrants in the conference.

Key-note speaker Chris Laszlo ‘80 kicked off the conference with a lecture entitled “Sustainability for Competitive Advantage”, which addressed the growing value of sustainability in business. Early on, Laszlo tackled a question senior Alex Ginsberg ‘08 posed in the conference’s opening remarks: “Can I take a job in business and still pursue social responsibility?”

Swarthmore students often grapple with the juxtaposition of the commonly merciless nature of corporate politics and the need to incorporate civic duty. Laszlo countered the question with his belief that success in business “is not about a trade-off. You don’t have to choose between being socially responsible and successful if you have the right mindset and skills.”

The talk primarily examined why the causes for the recent the rise of sustainability and environmental consciousness in different economic markets. Laszlo believes sustainability has become an essential issue in the business arena “not because of a renewed moral agenda to save the whales” but, rather, because of “a changing competitive context.”

Marketplace has begun using the central concept of sustainability, “to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations filling their own needs,” said Laszlo, as a guide due to pressure from increasingly more aware, connected shareholders. Laszlo was quick to point out that individuals, not the federal government, were key in promoting sustainability. Wise environmentalism is now seen as a requirement rather than just an extra feature; customers are now asking not only whether a company is energetically conservative but also whether that energy is a sustainable source.

The evolution of suitability has also changed its approach. Previous environmental campaigns were based on a moral agenda to “stop the bad” and “protect nature” by using regulation as tool. The new activist movement, however, focuses on the “politics of possibility” in the “creation of value in a pro-growth, create the good sense” using innovation as the main tool.

The speech set the tone for the afternoon’s remaining activities. The talk was immediately followed by a set of panels examining the greening of corporate America and venture capitalism/investment markets. Both discussions were specific to different sectors of the green movement. Presenters of the lecture entitled “What’s Green Got to Do with it?” David Hoschild ’93 and Gerry Lax ’74, sibling of late Jonathan Lax ’71 for whom the conference is named, presented different perspectives on state energy policies (expressly focused on solar initiatives) while Ruth E. Perry of Rohm & Has described the company’s move towards green chemistry. All parties stressed the importance of “creating believers in sustainability, a different generation.”

The theme was echoed again as the conference split participants into several different table discussions hosted by Swarthmore alumni and faculty focusing on macro-issues such as “Attacking the Global Water Crisis” and “The Role of State Efforts in the National Climate Change Program” as well as more local matters that delved into “What Swarthmore Should, and Should Not, Be Doing to Green Itself.”

The final panel discussed basic facets of carbon trap technologies, which work to capture excess exhaust carbon dioxide from power plants and other massive carbon producers in order to prevent its release into the atmosphere. The stored and trapped carbon is subsequently converted into agricultural and other chemicals, such as lime or fertilizer, for specialty markets. The increases of carbon capturing markets showed the intersection between environmental activism and entrepreneurship and captured the essence the conference.


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