Earth Day summit at MIT: Stonyfield Farm’s Gary Hirschberg wants edible cup

At MIT’s recent Sustainability Summit, held on Earth Day, close to 250 students, faculty and practitioners gathered from as close as Cambridge and as far away as Morocco. With the theme, “Mens et Manus: Bridging Thought and Action,” our event covered a wide range of issues such as reviving New England’s fishing economy, the water cost curve, building a regional food system, and the economic case for sustainability.

A highlight of the conference was keynote speaker Gary Hirshberg, President and CEO of Stonyfield Farm. It was a treat to have such a high-profile and influential leader at our event who has achieved his dream to build a scalable organic yogurt company. What started with a few cows on Gary’s farm is now a nationally recognized food company with Gary never compromising on his goals to source sustainable, organic, and cost-effective ingredients. Because of his success as a business leader, he has the credibility to deliver messages about broader sustainability issues and opportunities.

Particularly intriguing was his discussion about the full lifecycle of a product in which he challenged the audience to consider what “away” means. “When you throw something out, it doesn’t just go away,” he said. Gary also addressed recycling as a failure to have reduced or reused. To that end, his dream is to create an edible yogurt cup.

Another highlight was the panel on the water cost curve, moderated by Prof. John Briscoe of Harvard University, in which we paired the perspectives of a startup, Oasys Water, with major corporations, GE Power & Water and Nalco. A major theme was that although water is everywhere, it is a local resource that cannot be shipped efficiently during times of scarcity. Panelists discussed cost-efficient technologies that address water scarcity at a local level, all in the spirit of solving a global issue. They also raised the question of whether paying more for water would change our usage habits. Does the average water user know what their monthly bill even is?

Throughout the day, dynamic speakers from a diversity of industries continued to build on each other’s stories. For example, in the Economic Case for Sustainability panel, which was moderated by Jeff Shames who is a senior finance lecturer at MIT Sloan, Amy Domini, a leader in the social investment space, teamed with the director of corporate responsibility at Intel and senior partners from Trucost and Deloitte Consulting. They had a great discussion on financial reporting, complementing each other’s investment, corporate, consulting and accounting experiences.

In this third year of the Sustainability Summit, we’re really proud to have raised the bar with incredible speakers, an interactive audience and generous sponsors. We’ve received feedback that this event can and should be one of the top three national sustainability forums. The MIT community is a great place to lead this kind of event and I can’t wait to see where the Summit goes next year and beyond.

Lily Russell, MBA ’11 is co-content director of the Sustainability Summit

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One Comment

  1. Posted May 5, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink | Reply

    Lily – Congratulations to you and all involved in making this a spectacular gathering! Wish I could have been there. Look forward to taking the full life-cycle of a product concept to a new level, incorporating impact on the lives and livlihoods of people and the well-being of communities throughout the value chain. Topic for next year.

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