By: Norma Meyer
Long before she was a Luskin Scholar, French-born Magali Delmas got her first hands-on experience with environmental policymaking in her hometown of Bievres, a village just miles from bustling Paris.
"When I was 22, I was elected to the City Council in my village," says Delmas, who was a council member in 5,000-population Bievres for seven years. "This village is very green and beautiful. There's been a long history of people fighting against urbanization to keep the woods and the forests. I felt very strongly about this."
Two decades later, Delmas, a professor of management at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and the Anderson School of Management, is still seeking policy solutions to preserve our natural world. As the innovative thinker behind the Luskin Center's "Business and the Environment" initiative, Delmas is trying to improve corporate environmental performance. Her research centers on two main questions: “How do we get businesses to be green and competitive at the same time?” and “How do we motivate green consumer behavior?”
Delmas is particularly focused on the effectiveness of eco-labels, which provide information about the environmental benefits of products to help consumers make informed decisions. While there were only a handful of eco-labels in the 1990s, about 500 are now attached to everything from coffee ("Bird Friendly" "Shade Grown") to lumber ("Forest Stewardship Council").
"Some work, some don't. I'm looking at the design characteristics of the programs -- what makes them successful, what makes them fail?" Delmas says.
To illuminate the hurdles facing eco-conscious businesses, Delmas is continuing her nationally recognized research into California's wine industry. Her interest piqued years ago when she began noticing new vineyards each time she drove Highway 101 between UC Santa Barbara, where she taught at the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, and Stanford University, where husband (and now UCLA economics professor) Romain Wacziarg was on the faculty.
Her widely quoted study, "Eco-Labeling Strategies and Price- Premium: the Wine Industry Puzzle" found that wines from organically grown grapes achieved higher taste ratings than their conventionally made counterparts but ironically only commanded a premium price when they weren't labeled "organically grown." The study also discovered that two thirds of producers who used organically grown grapes didn’t advertise it on bottles. Unlike organic produce, Delmas says consumers aren't as receptive to "organically grown" wine, possibly confusing it with preservative-free "organic" wine that is known for quickly turning to vinegar.
“Vintners and regulators need to communicate better what wine with organically grown grapes means and the potential impact on quality,” Delmas explains. “I don’t think they’ve done that, and it’s too bad. It’s a real missed opportunity.”
Another recent publication, the book “Governance for the Environment: New Perspectives” edited by Delmas, expounds on one of her primary theories: that since slow-moving government won’t solve all environmental problems, society needs to fill the gap with a collective “governance” that includes NGOs, businesses and community groups. The book, which brings in perspectives from economics, management and political science, argues that the future of environmental policy lies in this hybrid coalition.
As examples of how new players can form solutions, Delmas cites eco-labels, many which were started by NGOs, and voluntary agreements between firms and regulatory agencies.
Delmas, who is also director of UCLA's Center for Corporate Environmental Performance, has an impressive education that instilled her multidisciplinary approach.
After doing undergrad studies in economics and sociology at the University of Paris, Sorbonne, Delmas went on to obtain a post-graduate degree in political science and international relations. For that, she did research on volatile Indo-Sri Lankan relations, spending months in India and Sri Lanka and interviewing armed militants at training camps.
Later, for her doctorate in business policy and strategy from the prestigious HEC School of Management in Paris, Delmas looked into regulations and the disposal of hazardous waste. "I spent a lot of time for my dissertation visiting treatment plants and landfills," she recalls.
Before beginning her academic career, she worked as an economic advisor to the European Commission in Brussels.
The sociologist side of Delmas often enters into her research, such as her studies on what motivates people to spend more for green products. Delmas found consumers buy earth-friendly products not because they're good for the environment but because they're healthier and tastier (organic tomatoes) trendy (she cites the Prius) or save money (an Energy Star appliance).
"If we can find ways to take these private benefits and bundle them with the public ones, it's a win-win."
Human behavior is key to her just-launched yearlong energy conservation study of 65 rooms in UCLA residential halls. Occupants round-the-clock can see simple, real-time displays of their energy usage and fellow residents' consumption, potentially prompting them to lower the heating or air conditioner.
The objective of the study is to determine if and to what extent such easily accessible in-the-moment information on energy usage and financial or other incentives result in significant reductions in energy consumption. The study's results could have implications for the general public given a likely national shift toward the “smart grid.” A “smart grid” combines time-based electricity prices with technologies that allow users in homes and offices to automatically control their use of electricity, lowering power costs and helping the environment.
"It's very rewarding to think that you could make a difference," Delmas says.
To learn more about Magali Delmas career, click here.