MS in Sustainability Management faculty member Vance Merolla has worked over the past 30 years as an environmental and sustainability professional for the private sector. He is currently the Director of Environmental Sustainability, global supply chain, for New York City-based Colgate-Palmolive Co. He is responsible for driving the company’s energy, climate change, water and waste reduction initiatives globally, as well as delivering on the company’s worldwide commitment to LEED-certify all new global manufacturing facilities. As the instructor for SUMA K4170 Sustainable Operations, Merolla focuses on the importance of incorporating sustainability at each step along the value chain, including product design, procurement, distribution, manufacturing, product/service use and end-of-life disposition.
1. Why did you choose to teach in the MSSM program?
My work as an environmental and sustainability professional over the past 30 years has been primarily in the private sector. Recently, after being introduced to some of the Earth Institute faculty and students at Columbia, I began thinking about the importance of transferring my experience and practical knowledge to the next generation of sustainability leaders. The MSSM program at Columbia seemed to me to be the perfect vehicle.
2. What is new in your area of expertise?
The technical aspects of sustainability are evolving so quickly that it can be challenging at times for sustainability professionals to know where to focus. The key to driving a successful sustainability program is to prioritize the issues and developments most relevant to your organizational goals. Clearly, climate risks and water stewardship are front and center when it comes to managing any sustainable operation. The increased engagement of business in these areas presents tremendous opportunities to move from measurement and reporting, to mitigation actions that add value and reduce risk.
3. What course do you teach and why do you think that it is important to the field of sustainability?
I teach a course called Sustainable Operations. The course focuses on the importance of incorporating sustainability at each step along the value chain, including product design, procurement, distribution, manufacturing, product/service use and end-of-life disposition. By considering the organization holistically, students learn to evaluate an operating company’s end-to-end value chain, and incorporate effective sustainability strategies into the organizational culture and day-to-day operations. This is important because sustainability is as much about integration and management as it is about the technical science.
4. What is your favorite part of your job as a professor?
As a long time practitioner, I have my ways and perspectives about how best to effectively manage and drive sustainability, and in general these have served me very well. Having the opportunity to teach at Columbia has provided me with a new and refreshing venue to hear ideas and unfiltered thinking on sustainability, which in turn helps me evolve my practice in the field. The Columbia students are learning from me and I from them, and hopefully we will all bring this forward in our professional and personal lives.
5. What do you think that your students need to know about sustainability that they may not already be learning in the classroom?
Learning basic sustainability concepts and issues is important for students as they develop the foundational tools they will need to practice. To move sustainability from concept to action, students need to learn more about how it is implemented in real life situations, so learning to manage sustainability in a business context is critical. In the Sustainable Operations course, I stress the practical application of various real-world sustainability tools related to carbon footprint analysis, energy efficiency, zero waste, sustainable buildings, water risk assessments and supplier engagement. Additionally, we focus on the importance of clearly communicating the business benefits of sustainability in simple and authentic ways.
6. What do you believe is the greatest benefit that the MS in Sustainability Management program has to offer its students?
The Columbia MSSM program provides a strong sustainability foundation to build upon in a variety of fields whether in the public, private, or non-governmental sectors. Since it is a management program, the principles learned can be applied broadly either into students’ current professions or into new areas which are rapidly evolving. Columbia MSSM students have access to a wide variety of courses, professors, practitioners and peers, all of which can add to the richness of their experience.
7. What advice would you give to your sustainability management students who are not already working in the field of sustainability?
As sustainability continues to evolve, I believe it will be seen less and less as a field but rather a way to conduct business and life. For people not currently working in the pure field of sustainability, I would encourage them to see how best to integrate sustainability principles into whatever job they are doing.
The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. The program requires the successful completion of 36 credit points. Those credit points are divided among five comprehensive content areas: integrative sustainability management, economics and quantitative analysis, the physical dimensions of sustainability, the public policy environment of sustainability management, and general and financial management. Visit our website to learn more.