Scholar studies the business of being green
French-born Magali Delmas got her first hands-on experience with environmental policymaking in her hometown of Bièvres, a village just miles from bustling Paris.
By Norma Meyer
Originally published in UCLA Today
Originally posted by the Luskin Center.
"When I was 22, I was elected to the City Council in my village," said Delmas, who went on to serve the 5,000 people of Bièvres for seven years. "This village is very green and beautiful. There's been a long history of people fighting against urbanization to keep the woods and the forests."
Two decades later at UCLA, Delmas, a professor of management at the Anderson School and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability as well as a Luskin Scholar, is still seeking policy solutions to preserve our natural world. As the innovative thinker behind the Luskin Center for Innovation's "Business and the Environment" initiative, Delmas is trying to improve corporate environmental performance. Her research centers on getting businesses to be green and competitive at the same time, and learning how to motivate consumers to be green.
Delmas is particularly focused on the effectiveness of eco-labels, which promote a product's environmental benefits to help consumers make informed decisions. While there were only a handful of eco-labels in the 1990s, about 500 are now attached to everything from coffee to lumber.
"Some work, some don't. I'm looking at the design characteristics," Delmas said. "What makes them successful? What makes them fail?"
To illuminate the hurdles facing eco-conscious businesses, Delmas is continuing her nationally recognized research into California's wine industry.
Her widely quoted study, "Eco-Labeling Strategies and Price-Premium: the Wine Industry Puzzle," found that wines from organically grown grapes achieved higher taste ratings than their counterparts — but ironically only commanded a premium price if they weren't labeled "organically grown." The study also discovered that two-thirds of producers who used organically grown grapes didn't advertise it on bottles. Unlike organic produce, Delmas said, consumers aren't as receptive to "organically grown" wine, possibly confusing it with preservative-free "organic" wine that is known for quickly turning to vinegar.
"Vintners and regulators need to communicate better what wine with organically grown grapes means and the potential impact on quality," Delmas explained. "It's a real missed opportunity."
Another recent publication, the book "Governance for the Environment: New Perspectives" edited by Delmas, expounds on one of her primary theories: that since slow-moving government won't solve all environmental problems, society needs to fill the gap with a collective "governance" that includes NGOs, businesses and community groups. Solutions Delmas cites include eco-labels, many which were started by NGOs, and voluntary agreements between firms and regulatory agencies.
Delmas, who is also director of UCLA's Center for Corporate Environmental Performance, has an impressive educational background. After doing undergrad studies in economics and sociology at the University of Paris, Sorbonne, Delmas went on to obtain a postgraduate degree in political science and international relations: She did research on volatile Indo-Sri Lankan relations, spending months in India and Sri Lanka and interviewing armed militants.
For her doctorate in business policy and strategy from the prestigious HEC School of Management in Paris, Delmas took on the dirty job of looking into regulating and disposing hazardous waste. "I spent a lot of time for my dissertation visiting treatment plants and landfills," she recalled. Before beginning her academic career, she worked as an economic advisor to the European Commission in Brussels.
Delmas' sociologist side often enters into her research: Her studies focus on what motivates people to spend more for green products. Delmas found consumers buy earth-friendly products not because they're good for the environment but because they're healthier and tastier (organic tomatoes), trendy (she cites the Prius) or save money (an Energy Star appliance).
"If we can find ways to take these private benefits and bundle them with the public ones, it's a win-win," she said.
Human behavior is key to her new, yearlong energy conservation study of 65 rooms in UCLA residential halls. Occupants can see simple, real-time displays of their energy usage and fellow residents' consumption, potentially prompting them to lower the heating or air conditioning.
Delmas' goal is to determine how such easily accessible in-the-moment information, with financial or other incentives, results in reductions in energy consumption. The study's results could have implications for the general public.
"It's very rewarding to think that you could make a difference," Delmas said.
A version of this story appeared originally on the Luskin Center website.
Published: Friday, January 07, 2011