U helps make businesses sustainable

The NorthStar Initiative allows companies to collaborate to fix environmental issues.

by Ashley Bray

Through broad discussions and corporate partnerships, the University of Minnesota has begun helping businesses make better, more impactful environmental decisions.
The NorthStar Initiative, a program within the UniversityâÄôs Institute on the Environment, is collaborating with the University, government representatives and some of the worldâÄôs most influential decision-makers from the private sector.
NorthStar focuses on the idea that the environmental problems facing society today are bigger than one person or one company can handle, Tim Smith , director of the Initiative, said.
Every six months, leaders from companies like General Mills,  Procter & Gamble,  Ford Motor Company  and Dell, Inc. get together with researchers from the University and government representatives to figure out how to pool resources to create new environmental and
social innovations.
âÄúCompanies clean up their own act first,âÄù Smith said. Many make decisions that benefit the economy and themselves financially, but those policies are restricted to the single issue the firm is able to address. âÄúWeâÄôre finding leaders in industry and business that are willing to collaborate as to where they can combine their resources to make a bigger impact âĦ because by collaborating they are able to affect more.âÄù
Together, members of the NorthStar consortium address issues such as energy efficiency, natural resource utilization and carbon emissions. One of the projects NorthStar is currently working on looks at how geographical location applications for cell phones might help to reduce the carbon footprint of delivery services like UPS.
In order to cut down on emissions from delivery vehicles, trucks could deliver a package to a common location. Then, the cell phone of the person nearest to that location, perhaps a friend or family member of the person that ordered the package, would beep. The application would inform that person that they are near the package and ask them if they can pick it up and deliver it to whoever ordered it when they see them, Smith said.
âÄúWe demand so much out of transport vehicles, itâÄôs sort of a perfect concept,âÄù he said.
Representatives from UPS, Verizon Wireless  and Accenture  âÄî a global consulting firm âÄî have expressed interest in the project.
A similar service was recently launched in Europe on a pilot basis, so itâÄôs not that far out on the horizon, Smith said.
NorthStar researchers have also developed a decision-support tool to aid businesses and policymakers in decisions pertaining to waste.
ItâÄôs a model that deals with the business aspect of material exchange and focuses on identifying ways one business might be able to recycle another businessâÄôs materials to create something new.
âÄúItâÄôs a, âÄòOne manâÄôs waste might be another manâÄôs treasureâÄô concept,âÄù said Laura Babcock , NorthStar research fellow and author of the model.
Meadow Networks CEO Robin Chase  said she thinks the initiative is a valuable program.
âÄúIâÄôm very interested in the pragmatism of their approach,âÄù she said. âÄúItâÄôs interesting that the University uses its academic tools to make things happen.âÄù
âÄúWeâÄôre trying to put these groups together that typically donâÄôt always communicate in an open manner,âÄù Babcock said. âÄúIt allows people to come to talk as individuals rather than representing different stakeholder groups.âÄù