June 05, 2003

LOS ANGELES - Dr. Charles J. Corbett of The Anderson School at UCLA has been granted tenure and promoted to associate professor. Receiving tenure is a major milestone in any academic career and at a research university like UCLA requires achieving excellence in both research and teaching. Appointed to the faculty in 1996, Dr. Corbett focuses on three major interrelated areas in his field: supply chain management, international operations management and environmental issues in management. An environmental theme is apparent in much of his work.

The tension between business and environmental regulation has been an ongoing high-profile conflict, but Dr. Corbett takes a positive approach, looking at the synergies between environmental improvement and business success. There are a number of ways this can be accomplished, but he believes the key is showing how the interests of both parties can actually be in alignment.

"Focusing on environmental benefits can ultimately lead to increased productivity," explained Dr. Corbett. "The demonstration of the link between good business practices and environmental protection is the core of the questions I look at in my research."

Impressive results supporting this view were reported by Dr. Corbett and his co-author, Kumar Rajaram, assistant professor at The Anderson School, in a paper published in 2002 in Operations Research. Dr. Corbett recognized the environmental nature of Dr. Rajaram's five years of work with Cerestar, a major European firm, on its wheat starch extraction process. The outcome was so encouraging that Dr. Corbett and Dr Rajaram are now looking to replicate the results with other companies.

Like many large-scale industrial firms, Cerestar experienced ever tighter environmental constraints. The obvious solution was relatively simple end-of-pipe wastewater treatment with an estimated price tag of $100 million. An alternate approach to pollution prevention was more subtle and challenging analysis of the complex production process itself. Opting for the latter led to dramatic simplification with reduced energy and water consumption for estimated annual savings of $3 million.

"Cerestar was forced into rethinking its procedures by environmental legislation. However, instead of just complaining, they were intelligent enough to bring in a consultant (my colleague, Kumar Rajaram) to look for a better way to achieve compliance," observed Dr. Corbett. "As a result, they achieved greater levels of pollution reduction than required with significant savings in operating costs. More importantly, they avoided an involuntary investment in an extremely expensive treatment facility."

Another of the strands in Dr. Corbett's research is the importance of standards. He has published several papers on various aspects of the widespread but controversial International Organization of Standardization (ISO) 9000 and 14000 standards. Dr. Corbett noted that much of the controversy stems from the very nature of the two current certifications, which are not performance-oriented but process-oriented standards. The first, ISO 9000, instituted in 1986, is a series of quality management system standards that do not directly concern the quality of the product produced. Certification assures that the company has a good consistent process and that what it says it does and what it actually does are the same. The standard joke, according to Dr. Corbett, is that a company could be certified for making concrete lifejackets.

ISO 9000 was followed about 10 years later by ISO 14000, the environmental management system standards. However, it presents the same situation as ISO 9000, certifying a consistent well-documented process with no direct evaluation of actual pollution levels. Certification assures that a company knows what the environmental rules are, not that it releases within the legal limits. Many environmentalists say that if a standard doesn't verify legal compliance, it must be useless. Dr. Corbett has been considering the question: What, if anything, do these standards actually do to the quality of a company's performance and the environment?

Considering the potential financial impact of the well-established ISO 9000, Dr. Corbett sees two ways certification might be affecting the bottom line. First, externally it could provide credibility that would be useful in marketing, leading to increased sales. Second, internally it could lead to improvements from taking a disciplined, rigorous look at processes, finding better ways of doing things that wouldn't happen otherwise. Dr. Corbett and his colleagues conducted the first large-scale study on this subject looking at objective financial data instead of self-reported survey data.

"There is some evidence that both external and internal benefits do occur, but not both for each firm," concluded Dr. Corbett. "What is most apparent is that companies that don't get certified gradually get worse. Certification seems to prevent deterioration, so it helps keep corporations in the game while those who don't certify just drop out."

Regarding the environmental impact of both ISO 9000 and ISO 14000, Dr. Corbett and his peers surveyed firms in 15 different countries. While the western world has had fairly good environmental regulation in place for a few decades, implementing even these weak standards in much of the developing world would be a huge step forward. Uncovering strong support for the premise underlying the "greening of the supply chain" theory, the study shows that exporters' pressure within the supply chain did contribute to the global diffusion of ISO 9000, which could ultimately help spread environmentally responsible management practices to emerging economies without governmental intervention.

Dr. Corbett commented that the impact of pressures within the entire supply chain is a huge field of research. An individual company might believe they have improved everything they can within their four walls, but contracts between firms can provoke dramatic change that spreads throughout the chain. Organizations are naturally interested in optimizing their own situation and may resist alterations initially.

Dr. Corbett cited the case of automotive assembly plants such as those of General Motors (GM) as an example. Whenever the workers in the paint shop switched colors, it required cleaning their equipment with some very nasty solvents. Management wanted to reduce consumption of the solvents and asked their supplier for ideas. Since the supplier was paid by the gallon, they said there was no way to use less. However, when GM changed the contract to a fixed fee, independent of actual usage, the supplier's engineers helped implement a drastic reduction in usage.

"This change from providing a product to providing a service has spread throughout the chemical suppliers to the automobile industry," said Dr. Corbett. "The supplying firms have found that it is a much better business model that gives greater stability. The search is now on to find other areas where this will work, but it is not an easy task."

The environmental theme is also apparent in Dr. Corbett's classroom, and his exceptional skills were recognized with the 2002 George Robbins Assistant Professor Teaching Award. In addition, he was recently named associate dean of The Anderson School's full-time MBA program. In his new appointment beginning July 1, 2003, he will be part of the administrative leadership that oversees the curriculum, ensuring the finest possible educational experience for The Anderson School's students.

Dr. Corbett is also The Anderson School's participating faculty member in the Corporate Environmental Management (CEM) interdisciplinary emphasis program, which is a joint venture of five UC schools. Based at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UC Santa Barbara, CEM was inaugurated in 1999 to give interested MBA students the skills needed to solve environmental challenges in the real world. This spring quarter, Dr Corbett again taught his survey course, "Business and the Environment," utilizing environment-friendly video conferencing to communicate with his students for part of the time.

In addition, Dr. Corbett is affiliated with the UCLA Institute of the Environment, with whom he is embarking on a study of waste management practices in the motion picture industry. Two MBA students will be performing their summer internships on this study, and a team of MBA students will continue this project during the next academic year.

Dr. Corbett observed that so far his promotion hasn't really changed his life. He is still too busy to pause to absorb it, since he continues his efforts to broker peace between business and the environment. Since organizations do not exist in isolation, they must face the reality that their interests and those of the surrounding community and natural environment are inseparable. Dr. Corbett will continue to seek common ground for the benefit of all. He is proof that being a practical results-oriented business educator and researcher and a "green" warrior in defense of the environment are not mutually exclusive.

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