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Atlanta: A Dark Horse in Sustainability Innovation

Image credit: Serve-Learn-Sustain at Georgia Tech

Atlanta may not be the first city that comes to mind when you think of sustainability — but perhaps, it should be.

Recent years have seen one significant development after another from the city’s government, non-profits, colleges and businesses. As we celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business at Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business, we offer reflections on sustainability developments at the Center and in Atlanta at large.

One of Atlanta’s most significant moments for achievement in sustainability came in 2016, when the city was selected from among 1,000 global applicants to join the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative. Now, with an Office of Resilience and its own resilience strategy, Atlanta is working with business, academic and civic partners towards an array of goals to make the city more equitable through improvements in transportation, affordable housing, green space, livable wages and 100 percent clean energy by 2035.

Separately, Midtown Atlanta — where Georgia Tech is located — became the Southeast’s first urban eco-district in 2012. Along with other notable communities in Washington D.C. and Portland, Oregon; Midtown Atlanta is tracking ambitious plans for energy, water, waste, open space and transportation.

The midtown eco-district overlaps with the Atlanta Better Buildings Challenge, which currently leads the nation with more than 114 million square feet of building space participating in the U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored program. Atlanta was also one of only eight U.S. cities to participate in the Beta-phase of the ICLEI USA STAR Communities Index program (an initiative that has since merged with the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Cities) working to create standardization models for municipalities working toward sustainability.

Speaking of “green” building, the GreenBuild conference will come to Atlanta in 2019, and headline attractions are certain to include Georgia Tech’s Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design and the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The stadium, which opened in 2017, is the first of its kind to achieve LEED Platinum certification; while the Kendeda Building is the first Living Building Challenge project in the Southeast,.

High-profile achievements such as these demonstrate Atlanta’s commitment to sustainability, which in turn is supported by the business community. Innovative young companies — such as waste-management specialists Rubicon Global, utility-data platform Urjanet and mission-driven coffee startup THRIVE Farmers — have built business models around sustainability priorities. Meanwhile, Atlanta-based transnationals have also developed strong sustainability programs: The Coca-Cola Company is gearing up to tackle its World Without Waste goals here in Atlanta and internationally; UPS continues to roll out sustainable urban delivery solutions both here and abroad; and Delta Air Lines, among many other corporate sustainability initiatives, recently became the first participant in the Corporate Sustainability Program (CSP) Executive Council here at the Center.

The CSP will facilitate corporate/academic thought leadership across four strategic areas — Circular Economy, Carbon-Conscious Business, Social Performance, and Sustainability Innovation & ESG Leadership — through activities such as joint research, workshops on sustainability topics, and guest lectures. Delta’s engagement also will support undergraduate and MBA experiential learning opportunities such as practicum projects, co-ops, internships and industry research. Previously, students and faculty have engaged in sustainability work with Autodesk, Coca-Cola, Kimberly-Clark and SunTrust Bank. Specific to Autodesk, a team of MBA practicum students last year helped the company design an internal carbon-pricing system to help drive down carbon emissions.

Similarly, any Georgia Tech student in an internship or co-op can participate in the Center’s Carbon Reduction Challenge (CRC) by identifying ways for their employer to reduce carbon emissions. CRC projects launched in the summer of 2018 have already resulted in over two million pounds of avoided CO2 emissions, and are projected to deliver hundreds of thousands of dollars in avoided energy costs to their partnering organizations.

In 2016, the Center helped found Serve-Learn-Sustain (SLS), an Institute-wide initiative to equip Georgia Tech students around the theme “creating sustainable communities.” In addition to establishing a minor in sustainable cities and a diverse undergraduate curriculum, SLS also co-led the formation of RCE Greater Atlanta. This regional sustainability network established with Emory University and Spelman College was recognized at the close of 2017 by the United Nations University as one of only six U.S. Regional Centres of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development.

Atlanta is home to 5.8 million people, a number projected to grow to 8 million by 2040. This means Atlanta, like most major metropolitan areas, is challenged with growing in a fashion that will create greater wellbeing for its residents, while also addressing constraints on water, energy and mobility. But now more than ever, Atlanta seems poised to succeed and ready to lead.


L. Beril Toktay is the Brady Family Chair of Operations Management and the Faculty Director of the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business at the Scheller College of Business, Georgia Institute of Technology.

[Read more about Beril Toktay]


Michael Oxman is a Professor of the Practice in Sustainable Business and Managing Director of the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business at the Scheller College of Business, Georgia Institute of Technology.


[Read more about Michael Oxman]


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