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Michigan Ross Professor Tom Lyon Awarded for Sustainability Contributions

Professor Tom Lyon awarded for sustainability

Tom Lyon, Dow Professor of Sustainable Science, Technology, and Commerce, was recently awarded the World Sustainability Award from the MDPI Sustainability Foundation. The award, totaling $100,000 between him and his co-awardees, recognizes Lyon’s contribution to corporate sustainability. 

Lyon, who also serves as a professor of business economics and public policy at Michigan Ross, Faculty Director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, and professor of environment and sustainability at the School for Environment and Sustainability, was nominated and selected by leaders of the sustainability community. To learn more about the award, his career, and his plans for the future, we invited Lyon to answer a few questions.

What motivated your interest in sustainability?

I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, one of the most beautiful parts of the country. As a Boy Scout, I did a lot of hiking, camping, backpacking, and canoeing. My love of the natural environment runs deep. But I was unaware of how special the beauty of the Valley is until I went to Princeton University as an undergraduate. My first time taking the bus to New York up Route 1 was a shocking eye-opener. In my naivete, I had never seen an area of environmental destruction quite like it. Oil refineries, landfills, and industrial facilities spewing particulates into the air had turned that part of northern New Jersey into an environmental sacrifice zone, and I understood immediately that the natural beauty I had been taking for granted was under threat. When the nuclear plant at Three Mile Island came close to melting down during my junior year of college, I decided to focus my senior thesis on the cleanup of the reactor, and that marked my first research foray into sustainability.

How does it feel to be honored for your contributions to the field of sustainability research? 
It was very gratifying to be included in a group of awardees that included past winners such as Jeffrey Sachs, Michael Mann, and John Elkington, among other giants. It was also quite humbling to realize that my co-winners this year were having important impacts on the ground, including bringing sanitation to villages in Africa and conserving endangered wildlife in India. My work to drive improvements in corporate sustainability seemed abstract by comparison, but I hope that it will pay dividends in the future and is perhaps already doing so.

What are you currently researching? Do you have any big projects upcoming?

Over the last few years, I have written a lot about two somewhat related topics: greenwash and corporate political responsibility. Greenwash is communication that leads people to adopt an overly favorable view of an organization’s environmental impact. I’ve written half a dozen papers on greenwash, which together have been cited almost 3,500 times. They present theoretical models of how greenwash works, empirical evidence of what it looks like in practice, and how the literature on the topic is evolving. The most recent is “No End in Sight? A Greenwash Review and Research Agenda,” published in Organization & Environment this year. That paper shows that after dying down in the mid-2010s, media attention to greenwash skyrocketed over the last three years, mostly due to concerns about corporate net zero commitments and environmental, social, and governance investment claims. It also offers a new model of contemporary greenwashing, which has become much more sophisticated than it was a decade ago when I first started writing about the topic.

A particularly pernicious form of greenwash occurs when companies tout their green deeds in public and then use their political clout in private to block the public policies needed to address our environmental challenges. With a group of colleagues, I wrote a paper about this problem entitled “CSR Needs CPR: Corporate Sustainability and Politics,” which won the award for Best Paper in California Management Review in 2019. It made the simple argument that stakeholders who care about corporate sustainability need to pay as much attention to how companies use their political influence (CPR) as to how they green their own internal operations and supply chains (CSR). After all, leveling the playing field through sound public policies has much more impact than any one firm on its own. Building on this paper, the Erb Institute at the University of Michigan created the Corporate Political Responsibility Taskforce, a forum for companies who want support in aligning their political influence activities with their larger purpose, vision, and commitments to stakeholders. I also have a book entitled Corporate Political Responsibility, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in November 2023.

This year, you will be teaching Energy Markets and Energy Politics, Non-Market Strategy: Shaping the Rules of the Game, and The Economics of Sustainability at Ross. What excites you about teaching this generation of business students? 
Today’s students understand that we stand at a crossroads. They see a world of widening economic inequality, where the richest 1% hoard half of the world’s wealth while the poorest half have less than 1% of it. They are inheriting a planet that is rapidly overheating and facing a future of extreme heat, wildfires burning out of control, drought, exhaustion of water resources, and natural disasters that grow more costly each year. Yet, at the same time, they see enormous technological innovation that could be put to use, creating a just and sustainable future. They are eager to make this world a better place, and it is a privilege to help them acquire the skills and knowledge they need to do so. 

After being honored for your work, what are some of your goals moving forward?
One of my key goals is to create a new norm for corporate political responsibility that is widely adopted throughout the private sector. There is a growing and dangerous distrust of all institutions in the United States today, from government to business to universities and even science itself. That kind of fundamental distrust in the institutions that make our country great opens up room for demagogues to inflame fears and hatred, creating an all-encompassing polarization that threatens to paralyze us. One of the factors that drives that distrust is the sense amongst the public that companies wield too much political influence and have captured our political institutions. If we can make CPR a new norm, it will help to restore trust and cool the feverish outbursts in the way of actually addressing our challenges.

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