Sustainability Spotlight: Dr. James Westerman

Business Can Operate in Harmony with the Environment
Friday, January 15, 2016

The environment is a living laboratory, according to Dr. James Westerman, the Walker College of Business Sustainability Director. Westerman has a deep love for the natural world, and is using his background in business to push for more sustainability initiatives in the Walker College of Business.

Westerman has been working in the Management Department of the Walker College of Business for almost ten years, both with undergraduate business and management majors and graduate students in the Industrial-Organizational Psychology and Human Resource Management interdisciplinary Master’s program. As the new Director of Sustainable Business, he has been jump-starting efforts to improve sustainability knowledge and efforts within the Walker College of Business and beyond.

There are currently four major efforts coinciding with the newly incorporated mission of the college regarding sustainability. First, there has been a major focus on enhancing faculty skills and a sustainability curriculum for all business students. The second directive is research and grant work related to sustainability in the business sector.

Third, Westerman wants to focus on changing attitudes and behaviors in the business school. As he asks, “Within the college of business, do we walk the talk?” He wants to implement change among both faculty and the student body, dictating how sustainability can be incorporated into business clubs and how students can get excited about sustainability.

Dr. Tammy Kowalczyk, professor of accounting at Appalachian, also sees this as an opportunity to change people’s minds about the way business operates. “[The program will] provide a unique opportunity for non-business students who generally tend to view business professionals more negatively with respect to sustainability... to see the value of how business principles can be helpful in achieving sustainability initiatives and goals.”

Lastly, a new committee based on outreach and events has been created to raise awareness about sustainability in business. A “Business for Good” event was held at the beginning of last semester, creating a space to educate companies on how to incorporate sustainability into their business practices. With speakers from Harvard University, New Belgium Brewing Company, and Interface, attendees were able to witness the successes of sustainable innovation from national business leaders. Local businesses with strong sustainability missions, such as Lost Province Brewing Co., Appalachian Mountain Brewery, Wine to Water, and F.A.R.M. Cafe were also represented at the event.

Westerman is optimistic about the future of Sustainable Business at Appalachian and in the country. “Most people want to be good stewards of the environment. They just often need help figuring out how to do it,” he says. He explains that students with a business education background need support from the market. Rather than being put at a competitive disadvantage due to the establishment of sustainable business practices, businesses should be rewarded for these efforts. According to Westerman, one of the most important steps towards a sustainable future is the incorporation of proper incentives to tackle our current energy problem.

When asked about Dr. Westerman’s efforts, Kowalzyck says, “He is very passionate about sustainability and wants to break down the negative perceptions of business.  He is selfless and tireless in his efforts to increase awareness about the role of sustainable business, and he provides faculty and students with opportunities to expand their knowledge in this area.”

To Westerman, it is very simple. “I feel like we are on the wrong track and if I don’t play a role to help fix that, I’m not doing my part.” His hope is that all colleges on campus will follow the lead of the College of Business and incorporate sustainability not only into their curriculum, but into their mission as well.

It is easy to be pessimistic about the many issues related to sustainability, climate change, and the environment. But Westerman advises, “Don’t underestimate the power of creativity given the proper soil to grow. We just need to create the market conditions to unleash [sustainable innovation].”

Where does this optimism come from? Surprisingly, it comes from the Reagan administration’s efforts to stop ozone depletion. Though he acknowledges our current issues are more severe, he holds on to hope. “America is about ingenuity. We have to embrace the future rather than fight it.”