My team and I have been tasked with tackling the challenging question of whether an airline can be considered green. Given that many perceive the airline industry to be one of the least green industries out there, this is no small feat. Our project this semester has entailed an in-depth look at our client’s sustainability efforts to date as well as the current state of the industry. What we’ve found to be particularly compelling is exploring where and how sustainability fits into our client’s business and how they should position their sustainability efforts.

One important learning that has become repeatedly clear for our team is that the success of a sustainability strategy relies on the extent to which it is aligned with a company’s business and culture. Sustainability has become such a broad term that unless a sustainability positioning is clearly articulated in a way that makes sense for a given business, then there is ample opportunity for it to be misconstrued by outsiders and to be incorrectly implemented by internal stakeholders.

An additional topic of interest that this project has raised is that adopting a sustainability strategy is very much about change management. Identifying an appropriate approach to change matters for a few reasons. First, sustainability often requires stakeholders to adopt new behavior and sometimes make short-term sacrifices for long-term gain. Secondly, different company cultures are wired for different approaches to change. For some, direction needs to come from executive leadership while for others, change is best suited to bottoms-up grass roots initiatives that spread over time. Lastly, a perspective on change matters in sustainability because with sustainability comes many expectations and if a company mistakenly makes claims about achieving a systemic-level of impact when they are really making incremental improvements to existing solutions, then they risk loosing credibility and damaging their reputation.

While identifying a sustainability strategy for an airline has been quite challenging, it has also become clear that it is not impossible. Like Walmart, the airline business has long been defined by over-consumption and inefficient uses of resources. Walmart, however, developed a systemic sustainability strategy and as a result changed the game for retail and established themselves as industry leaders. The question therefore is not whether an airline can be considered green, but how it can be green.

—Alyson Madrigan

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