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Profiles in Leadership

Michael Toffel

Assistant Professor at the Harvard Business School

Michael Toffel is an Assistant Professor at the Harvard Business School and a 1996 graduate of Yale’s SOM/FES joint degree program. The path that led Toffel to Yale’s joint degree program began in the corporate world after he earned his undergraduate degree in Government. Having learned the importance of linkages between business and policy, he wanted to better understand how companies operate. During his next several years at JP Morgan in New York City, he found himself continually drawn to environmental issues. It was the early 1990s, a period of growing global awareness of environmental problems such as water scarcity and ozone depletion. “At the time, people kept asking: Did environmental concerns mean the end of capitalism, as some environmentalists claimed, or a mere a distraction from business as usual, as some companies and politicians were claiming?” said Toffel. “I thought, surely there must be some middle ground.”

Toffel sought to find a balanced approach by returning to graduate school at Yale, where he focused in industrial environmental management at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and corporate strategy at the School of Management. At Yale, “I discovered connections between waste and poor quality management, how market mechanisms could bolster the efficiency of regulations, and how market failures could both create profitable opportunities and justify government intervention,” said Toffel. While a student, he was a teaching assistant for an undergraduate environmental studies course and came across, for the first time, doctoral students who had chosen to pursue careers in academia. These experiences, as well as his inclination towards research, led Toffel to think that he might someday return to school for a Ph.D.

After he completed the joint degree program, Toffel worked in environmental management consulting for Arthur Andersen in New York, and then moved to Singapore for three years to work as the Director of Environment, Health and Safety at the Jebsen & Jessen (South East Asia) Group of Companies. Throughout this time, Toffel’s interest in returning to academia grew, as he continually encountered corporate environmental management questions in his daily work that he wanted to study more systematically. Upon returning to the United States, Toffel entered the Ph.D. program at the Haas School of Business' Business and Public Policy department at the University of California at Berkeley.

As an Assistant Professor at the Harvard Business School, Toffel teaches and conducts research on corporate environmental management. His research centers on two main questions: 1) Why do some companies adopt more proactive environmental strategies than others? 2) Which environmental management programs are actually effective in improving environmental performance and why? “I’m focusing on many of the same questions I started thinking about when I was a Masters student at Yale,” said Toffel. “If companies’ voluntary initiatives, and not just government regulations, are going to be an important part of resolving environmental problems, we need to know which companies are willing to take such actions, and which actions are actually effective in reducing environmental impacts.” In the classroom, Toffel teaches an award-winning MBA course in Business and the Environment., a website Toffel co-founded as part of his research and to provide a public service, maps government pollution data and survey data on environmental management activities of tens of thousands of facilities across the United States.