Working For Equitable Economic Development

Matthew Amengual is an Assistant Professor at the Institute for Work and Employment Research. He teaches about sustainability at MIT Sloan, and has conducted research in Honduras, Argentina, and the Dominican Republic that examines how to promote economic development in industrializing nations that is both equitable and sustainable.

Empowering students to address real challenges

Amengual teaches MIT Sloan’s Strategies for Sustainable Business course as well as the Laboratory for Sustainable Business (S-Lab), one of MIT Sloan’s flagship action learning labs. “S-Lab equips students to understand the pressing challenges that companies are facing,” he says, “and gives them the insights they need to take action.”

In a team that Amengual mentored, students worked with the Gloucester fishing industry to develop a new market for plentiful but unpopular species like dogfish.  By doing so, they helped promote sustainability in the fish stocks and in the fishing community.  In another project, his team developed a process to enable data center designers to incorporate the environmental impacts of materials into their process.

 

“My role as a researcher and teacher is to educate and empower our future business, academic, and community leaders to take action.”

 

Enforcing environmental and labor regulations

Amengual’s research focuses on Latin America, where weak institutions limit the impact of public policy. “I work specifically in the area of labor and environmental regulations,” he says. “If we are going to respond to the challenges of sustainability in any meaningful way, regulations are going to play an important role. And not just in the US and Europe, but in countries that have real constraints to their ability to implement policies.”

His work on labor standards in the Dominican Republic focused on the interaction between domestic regulators and the efforts of large transnational businesses and NGOs.  Nearly all companies have codes of conduct to improve practices in their supply chains, and all countries have regulations that govern standards.  While these two approaches to improving standards are often seen as competing alternatives, his research discovered how they can reinforce one another.  “In this incredible, uncoordinated way, these groups were working together to improve labor conditions,” he says.  Insights from this research can help companies tailor their internal sustainability efforts to local contexts for maximal impact.

His latest project examines the way labor and environmental regulations are enforced in Argentina. He spent a year and a half interviewing government officials, union leaders, environmental organizations, and businesses, and visited factories to meet with workers and labor inspectors. “I spent a lot of time on overnight busses,” he says. “I wanted to see what people did in the places where they work.” His research revealed that regulations are often enforced by unconventional partnerships between government and civil society organizations.  This study lays the groundwork for strategies to better reward businesses that contribute to sustainable development.

Amengual believes it is his responsibility as a teacher and researcher to make discoveries that empower people to take action that will promote sustainability. And he says that in large part that means putting existing ideas and technologies into practice. “We know how to build factories that aren’t going to collapse, and we know how to reduce pollution,” he says. “To me, the challenge is finding strategies to make this happen in a complex world.  When we’re able to do that we will take real steps towards sustainability.”