Zairo Cheibub, on MIT Sloan introducing him to sustainability as a key driver of business competitiveness.

Zairo Cheibub came to MIT Sloan after being a political science professor and directing a research institute in Brazil. Zairo joined MIT Sloan’s Fellows Program looking for formal management training, but he didn’t expect that he would leave MIT Sloan with sustainability expertise that would allow his work to have a very different kind of impact than before attending MIT Sloan.

Now the Director of Operations and Sustainability at Merida Meridian, a sustainable textile design company, Zairo is a member of the company’s leadership team, helping to keep corporate operations and sustainable practices firmly intertwined. But when he entered MIT Sloan, Zairo “thought sustainability was corporate social responsibility. MIT Sloan expanded my whole understanding of what sustainability means.”

At MIT Sloan, I saw that sustainability is not a cost center or a side activity to the main business. If it’s done right, it can be a business driver; it can absolutely attract new customers, increase loyalty and generally be integral to the business approach.

What changed Zairo’s concept of sustainability? While at MIT Sloan, he took Sustainable Business Lab (S-Lab) and worked with a team on an Action Learning project for Merida Meridian; the project focused on helping the company devise a means of educating customers about its sustainability practices as a way of driving its business. The fact that Zairo is now at Merida Meridian is no coincidence: “My team did a really great job on our project and the president of the company wanted to make sure they could follow through with our suggestions, so he asked me to come on board. I have no doubt that this role came directly from my experience in my S-Lab project.”

When he first got to Merida Meridian one of Zairo’s first jobs was to increase education about sustainability and its value to the company internally. “At first I got blank stares, but once I started explaining to sales how this would increase customer loyalty and to marketing about how this made us different, we got into some very exciting conversations about the business value of our sustainable practices.” Zairo credits MIT Sloan with teaching him to bring the point of view of his audience to discussions about sustainability, which made this kind of company education effort successful.

More recently, Zairo has formed a relationship with Brazilian not-for-profit Apaeb, an association of small sisal farmers and rug manufacturers. Besides manufacturing rugs, Apaeb runs a series of social projects – a school, library, cultural center, computer classes, technical assistance, and micro-credit – in a poor region of Northeast Brazil. Merida Meridian designs the products in Boston, MA and then Apaeb manufactures the rugs in Brazil. Like all great partnerships, the relationship has great two-way benefits: Merida Meridian provides a steady stream of revenue to Apaeb, while Apaeb provides high-quality products that support Merida Meridian's sustainability projects. “As a supplier, they match our values, they match our direction, and that matters to us.”

Recently Zairo has also taken a leadership role in finding ways to reduce energy use. Partnering with the Massachusetts Office of Technical Assistance and Technology, Zairo aims to achieve a 20% reduction in energy use company- “Reducing our energy use is a smart business move, but it also aligns with what we believe as a company; those are the projects that I love.”