Commerce Professor Working to Finance a Sustainable Future

Oct. 19, 2006 -- Mark White, associate professor in the McIntire School of Commerce, is integrating his knowledge of two distinct areas—finance and environmental science—in order to cultivate sustainable business ideas.

White earned a B.A. in biology and an M.S. in ecology before pursuing doctoral studies in business.  He had observed that there were three general ways of addressing environmental problems: by ethical, legislative or economic means.  He saw economic solutions as the “most nimble and most likely to be implemented in the short term.”  Admittedly, waiting for people to “do the right thing” or for legislative change to occur could take a long time.  Consequently, White took his doctorate in finance for a very practical reason—expediency.

This multidisciplinary background gives White a unique perspective which he uses to find creative ways to research and teach, and ultimately to effect change.  White’s research is focused at the interface between the environment and finance.  In this work, he uses methods such as contingent valuation—putting a dollar value on the natural world—to address problems associated with the use of ecosystem services.  He is also excited about the possibilities of biomimicry—innovations inspired by natural processes or designs—to solve human problems.  “Sometimes when you look at a business problem through an environmental lens you find innovative solutions,” observes White.

White spent a year as a Fulbright research professor in Germany looking at how business decision-making effects the environment.  He contends that the U.S. can learn a lot from Germany and Scandinavian countries about how to employ sustainability in business plans.  White maintains close ties with Professor Edeltraud Guenther of the Dresden University of Technology, who he met during his year abroad.  White and Guenther will team teach a course titled “Investing in a Sustainable Future” with the assistance of videoconferencing next spring.  This cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural course has been made possible by a $150,000 grant from the Proctor & Gamble Foundation.

Much of White’s work is multidisciplinary and international in focus.  White and Tom Smith, associate professor in environmental sciences, teamed up in 2003 to develop a course called “The Business of Saving Nature.”  This course allows students to examine the relationship between commerce and conservation within the context of developing countries and their specific, real-world environmental and economic challenges.  Over the past few years, the course has culminated in experiential learning trips to South Africa, Brazil and Costa Rica.

A recent grant from U.Va.'s Center for Global Health will allow White and Eric Houpt, assistant professor in the School of Medicine’s Division of Infectious Diseases & International Health, to develop a January Term class—“Financing A Sustainable Future.”  This course emerged as a result of work that Houpt has been doing in Moshi, Tanzania.  Houpt has developed a cheap and easy to use diagnostic test that could greatly assist the remote area with the diagnosis of AIDS-related diseases and thus, the appropriate distribution of medications.  This is where White and the course come in—White, Houpt, and a group of fourteen U.Va. students will spend two weeks in Moshi working in partnership with the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center and local university students to explore the feasibility of building a factory to manufacture the test locally.  The challenge of the class will be to produce a credible business plan for the factory.  “In the business school that is what we’re looking for—how to put business theory into practice,” comments White.