Sustainable financing and investment at Harvard University

by Takenori Shimamura

Sustainability can be achieved only when social, economic, and environmental aspects are considered at the same time. At first, when I heard the word of sustainability, I usually imagined that this was a concept related to environmental and energy aspects. The typical example is fossil fuel, as many of you may imagine. If you continue to use energy resources that are apparently abundant but are limited on the globe, no wonder you will run out of them. However, this image, or almost a kind of prejudice, is not enough to describe the broad definition and applicability of sustainability. How companies can become sustainable, and how they can contribute to sustainability of the world are also critical for discussion about global issues, considering the power of economy over the international society.
My major is actually mechanical engineering, but I studied sustainability in the program of GLP-GEfIL, which is offered by The University of Tokyo. For such a person as especially researched sustainability both of water in urban areas and of tourism in Indonesia, sustainability from companies’ viewpoints sounds new and indispensable. As Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) show, all of sectors including governments, NGOs, NPOs, and companies should be involved to tackle sustainability issues, and I realized, through my research, that some good projects remained feasibility study, and were not implemented due to their long-term benefit with less “low hanging fruit”. The lecture of sustainable financing and investment at Harvard University seemed to offer me economic insights on sustainability to overcome “Death Valley” before the realization.

The place where I often studied during the program at Widener Library

My targets during this three-week stay consist of two points. One is to understand relationship between money and sustainability. When I studied sustainability about water and tourism, I was especially interested in the methodology that monetized a wide range of advantage and disadvantage. This idea of trying to express even externalities based on a universal standard of monetary value can offer more objective evaluation to complicated sustainability issues. Furthermore, this method can show, for example, developing countries the importance of economic activity valuing environmental aspects, thanks to specification of long-term benefit from preservation of the environment. Sustainability is closely related to money, and I particularly tried to learn how to utilize this synergy for implementation of sustainable plans. The other is to gain an insight on how companies try to achieve sustainability and include into their governance such methods widely used for discussion about sustainability issues. As SDGs suggest, solutions for sustainability issues in the world try to encompass companies. On the other hand, enterprises also start to place importance on sustainable aspects in the world due to long-term benefit which they bring to the companies. In addition, some businesses now try to solve the social issues with the power of economy. Besides understanding application of sustainability assessment to business, I would also like to understand what is special about companies in order to solve sustainability issues. I have wondered why and in what situation it is better to choose business, not NPOs, NGOs, or governments, as a method to tackle the issues.
My life and learning at Harvard


The course was diverse both in terms of the lectures and the students. Because sustainable financing and investment is emerging scope after the beginning of 21st century, the contents were transdisciplinary. First, I learned a changing social perception that economy and environment were not incompatible, but they created synergy resulting in long-term profit. I also acquired basic knowledge about financing and investment including insurance and banking. I can now understand corporate financial statements and how to evaluate them at basic level. Then, I also studied how to value companies and products based on sustainability, dealing with case studies about enterprises which focused on sustainability issues such as poverty, health issues, and renewable energy. At first, the technical terms of financing and its tools such as financial statements were quite obscure for me, but I felt excited as I came to realize that financing and economics tried to describe companies and the world in a quantitative and systematic way. One of the most exciting but demanding experience was the final project. Graduate students made presentations about their own projects and some showed ones they were addressing in practice.

The birthday cake as a surprise for a Chinese friend

The students were also more diverse than I had expected. The 67 students in total came from, for example, Russia, China, Philippine, Spain, Italy, Germany, France, the UK, Mexico, Brazil, Denmark, Singapore, Australia besides Harvard students – I was the only one from Japan. Their backgrounds were various as well from undergraduates to business people, entrepreneurs, architects and career diplomats. All of them contributed to vigorous discussion making the most of their knowledge, and personally I gained deeper insights on the case studies thanks to the viewpoints of business people and entrepreneurs. I got some unique feedback from TAs and other students about assignments, and I felt them quite helpful and useful, especially in risk assessment of business. The introduction to financing and investment may be available even in Japan, but since this sustainable financing and investment is developed mainly in Europe and the U.S, and since I came into contact with people, open culture and studying environment I hardly faced in Japan, I believe that what I learned here is invaluable and unique.

Peers gathering for the surprise

I spent most of my time studying, but on the weekends, I hung out together with friends. It was one of the famous baseball pitchers, Ma-kun who took the mound when I went watching a baseball match between New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Boston is enough small to walk around, and I tried some food like lobsters with friends. I will never forget that I talked with a Russian guy about what was special and attractive about Russia, what about the politics in Russia, and their cultures about romantic relationships. A Chinese friend had a birthday during the summer school, and we together with others planned to buy him a birthday cake as a surprise! I did not have background with financing, and the program seemed a little bit tough. I was busy with study, but I was so glad to build close relationships with them even in this short program and to spend time with such nice friends.

Hamburgers after studying together in the evening

I guess those experiences have some influences on my future career. For example, when I talked to my friends, I was impressed that most of the students told me that they would go to graduate school in the U.S. and had clear and ambitious dreams and future plans. I am wondering whether I will go to graduate school in the U.S. but few people around me talk about it; therefore, I felt how hard facing the world among competent students was, while they stimulated me as well.

The first lobster in my life

As mentioned at the beginning, I had two targets. One was understanding relationship between sustainability and money. I felt that business could enhance both sustainability and profit, after case studies and a guest lecture by a person from the UN and a vice president of TOKS, the most successful restaurant company in Mexico and one of the leading companies in social business. At first, I did not like the concept of money, which reminded me of corruption, or exploration of the unprivileged. However, I come to believe that social enterprises, which focus on solving social issues while making profit, have the power to change people’s quality of life in honest and responsible ways. The other was gaining some insights on how companies tried to incorporate the methodology and ideas into their business. Valuation, sustainability indexes, and social responsible indexes are some of the examples. Even though I could not obtain the clear answer to why it was better to start enterprises to tackle social issues, this is partly because of the characteristics of companies such as their agility and self-funded structure compared to NPOs or governments. Discussion online still continues so far, and I hope I will have clearer perspective on this point.
I can say that a mere engineering student is now aware of the power of companies to address social and environmental issues. I would like to combine my new interest in business with my knowledge about engineering to contribute to society.
It is my great pleasure and honor to report my experience here. Although my visit to Harvard was quite short compared to other reporters due to both an entrance exam for a graduate school and research in Japan, this visit would have never been achieved without others’ support. I would like to thank my friends, my family and Dr. H. Mimura, The University of Tokyo, for their support before and during this visit. I would like to express my gratitude towards GLP-GEfIL office, Dr. A. Kharrazi, Dr. Y. Silberberg and Dr. N. Liscutin, The Univeristy of Tokyo, for their support for application both for the scholarship and to the program as well as other strong support during my stay at Harvard. Last but not least, I truly appreciate a generous scholarship of Summer Program Awards for Students in Japan by Friends of U-Tokyo, Inc. (FUTI), which was indispensable to this stay.