Hudetz discusses role of social responsibility in corporate world

Rita Hudetz SOM ’09 FES ’09, newly elected co-leader of the Business and the Environment Club at the School of Management, co-founded the Toxic Elements Awareness and Research Foundation, a non-profit environmental health and research organization, and has worked with Yale’s Center for Business and Environment, the United Nations and the European Union. Hudetz will participate in an online Harvard Business Review debate in April on whether corporations should be required to take oaths to protect the environment. Hudetz talked to the News about her various commitments and corporate social responsibility.

Q: When did you realize you wanted to mesh environmental science and business?

A:I grew up in a horse farm in the middle of a cornfield in Illinois, and when I was in college, two of my brothers got really sick, as well as other people in my community. These illnesses were very odd, seeming in clusters. And none of them had a common cause.

I started researching pesticide exposure and human health and came up with the fact that pesticides caused endocrine problems. I got really interested in how pesticides were impacting humans. I needed to understand the business side of it too.

I co-founded a nonprofit and tried to push for some policy on pesticides. A lobbyist called me and told me the policy would never work in businesses. The bill went into committee, and it never came out again. I began to realize that I needed to really consider business as a way to push for environmental change.

Q: How will you contribute to the Harvard Business Review debate?

A: I don’t have my points completely formulated yet, but I have a few main questions. Will social corporate responsibility be voluntary, or will this be something that has teeth and has some strength and rigor in it? Also, a lot of companies are taking environmental stands because they were getting a competitive advantage from it, and I wonder whether having an oath would take away some of the incentive to be innovative and be a thought leader. We should also make a point that business schools should be teaching the necessity of making environmental decisions.

Q: One focus of your work is so-called “chemical agreements.” What exactly are these agreements?

A: Right now there are a lot of shifts going on in environmental policy. A lot of them are originating within the EU. What’s happening is that they’re changing policy to require the companies to register all the chemicals they use, to test them thoroughly, and to manage them. That means, if I’m China, and I’m trying to sell a cell phone that has a chip with a toxic heavy metal in it to the EU, I’d have to make sure that a chip through its cycle was recycled properly, and to make sure the process was non-toxic. All of the imports and exports operating in the EU are following these regulations now — it has the potential to have a make huge impact on international trade.

Q: Do you find yourself more of a businesswoman or an environmentalist?

A: I guess I’m more of a businessperson with an environmental mindset. When I work on projects, I think about the business case first and think about the environmental case that overlays with it after. Without thinking about the business first, it’s very difficult to think about the environmental plans because it would not necessarily be viable. But it’s a difficult question — to ask to choose allegiances from one school or another. I know some of my friends from the School for Forestry & Environmental Studies will be calling me soon because of what I said.

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