Sustainable Business   [Archived Catalog]
2016-2017 School of Law Bulletin (Archived Copy)

LAWS 736 - Sustainable Business

Credits: 3

This course is designed to introduce the student to the concept of environmental sustainability, the legal challenges facing businesses in attaining sustainability, and possible means of encouraging or stimulating sustainable commerce. For at least one generation, coping with the regulation of environmental problems has formed a central part of standard business law practice. As a result, most firms have dedicated environmental departments, and some place environmental issues at the forefront of their corporate mission. For most firms, however, environmental compliance holds the same standing within the company as human resources: A necessary evil, a group of naysayers and nitpickers, and certainly not a profit center or source of new ventures. Whatever the truth this might be for other departments, a company’s environmental department can be the source of significant savings (e.g. energy use reduction or hazardous waste abatement) or even of new product lines or inventions. Environmental improvements can have a positive effect on a firm’s financial bottom line in a direct way that improvements in other areas of a company’s operation may not. Thus, it is generally inapt to lump improved environmental performance simply with regulatory compliance, on the one hand, or with corporate social responsibility (CSR), on the other. The CSR label applies to everything from improved working conditions for laborers overseas to a company’s supports for the arts. Improved environmental performance, properly understood, contributes more to the firm than simply improved public relations or corporate good will. The challenges of global climate change (GCC) will tax the ability of businesses to adapt and compete. Many parts of the financial sector, especially banking and insurance, have begun to recognize the threat that GCC will present throughincreased risk of catastrophic weather events and phenomena such as sea level rise. These firms have direct incentives to require borrowers or the insured to protect against the effects of GCC and to support more widespread responses to GCC. Current business structures, especially the traditional corporate form, nevertheless provide poor economic incentives for individual firms to engage in sustainable practices and commerce. Firms often discount their environmental impacts or ignore them altogether. Businesses thus offer an ideal target for environmental improvement. They constitute large share of economic activity, and, in contrast with individual actors, they provide a concentrated target for regulation, and they can usually achieve economies of scale that individuals cannot. An effective response to GCC and other environmental problems cannot occur without business involvement. The present political environment makes the possibility of large scale federal environmental command-and-control statutes like the Clean Water Act or the Clean Air Act unlikely, but they remain a constant option if widespread improvement is needed. If businesses can proactively improve their environmental performance, the case for such regulation will be lessened, which will benefit not only the business trend leaders through lower regulatory cost and improved profits but also society through improvements in the environment. The United States will always require some level of command-and-control regulation, and the course will highlight for students all of the ways thatsuch regulation provides incentive for environmental improvement and innovation. For example, hazardous waste disposal costs dearly primarily because federal law regulates it so heavily; firms that can control their hazardous waste disposal costs through abatement technologies or means of eliminating its generation altogether stand to benefit financially. A full range of environmental rules that provide encouragement and reward for sustainable practices will augment that baseline system of law.

Prerequisites: None

Note: This course is suitable for any student who has had basic courses in environmental law and corporations law. These courses are not prerequisites, however, and students without familiarity of those areas will be offered a tutorial session or background reading materials to impart the basic knowledge necessary to understand the materials.

The course will be graded on the usual scale by students submitting a draft research paper mid-semester and a final paper at the end of the term. If completed successfully, the paper will meet the requirements for the graduation writing requirement. Students will also be expected to present their seminar papers as a work-in-progress toward the end of the semester.

Basis of Grade: Paper

Form of Grade: Letter Grade

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