Posted March 15, 2017
For many PhD students in the world of academia, choosing a focus within a field can be little more than an unexciting obligation. But for fourth-year doctoral student Mallory Flowers, the program at Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy offered her the chance to address her unique passions to the fullest.
Flowers, who graduated with bachelor’s degrees in Applied Mathematics and Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Alabama in 2013, is conducting her research on voluntary sustainability certifications. In short, she says this involves exploring the dynamics and differences between fair trade, the Rainforest Alliance, and LEED certification, among others.
Flowers is adamant about getting the most out of her research.
“The research that I’m doing now looks at design tradeoffs that organizations have to make when they are figuring out what they want to require, what they want to expect for voluntary sustainability certifications,” she said. “And the expectation is that in some ways, you want to make something really stringent and difficult so that people will respect its legitimacy, and in other ways you need to be flexible and feasible in order to make it penetrable in the market. “
With a considerable amount of research experience up to this point on building certification programs, Flowers says she saw opportunity in adjusting her focus.
“I was interested in branching out a little beyond that too look into the agricultural sector to see if some of the trends that I was observing in buildings also applied to other areas of the market,” Flowers said. “And it’s also helpful to look beyond the one type of product, because then you can compare across different things and see if people really are trying to make these tradeoffs or if it simply is how it is in that industry.”
While many PhD dissertations seemingly apply strictly to the academic world, Flowers says that the findings from her research could very well apply to anyone in the outside world. Specifically, she holds the average consumer in mind.
“When (consumers) go to purchase a product, there’s a lot of information you get when you’re standing in the aisle at the grocery store, and you’re comparing the types of chocolates that are available to you,” Flowers noted. “You have rainforest-certified, fair trade, organic, sugar-free, non-GMO – you can get any label that you want, and it’s important to be able to understand what you’re getting and what you’re paying for. And so that’s sort of a long-term goal – is understanding the extent to which people understand those sort of pedigrees that come with these labels.”
All in all, Flowers says that although her research is not yet complete, she has been wowed with the high degree of heterogeneity out on the market. She fully understands how this can affect consumers down the road, too.
“It means that these labels indicate a huge variety of things to consumers, and it’s not clear to the consumer (who needs to) understand that,” Flowers pointed out. “Because if you’re looking at a bar of chocolate and it has a leaf in the corner, and the other has a tree in the corner – that’s all the information you really have to understand its sustainability – it’s not clear to you which one is better or more in line with your values.”
Despite spending most her life without much of a personal connection to Georgia Tech, Flowers’ path to success towards her doctorate from Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy has been highly intentional and practical. The Dallas-area native knows that Georgia Tech’s reputation offered the perfect fit for the doctoral research she was hoping to do.
“I found that energy and environmental policy really became the best intersection of those two strong interests in my life, and doing research in this field is sort of how I can combine these two normally very distinct interests,” Flowers commented. “And Georgia Tech had the right kind of research for me when I went to see ‘Who do I want to work with? Who do I want to mentor me? Who do I want to be surrounded by as I go down this path?’ So I came here for the research that our professors do.”
Since beginning her studies at the School of Public Policy in Ivan Allen’s College of Liberal Arts in the fall of 2013, Flowers has greatly appreciated the unique dynamics that the school of brings to the table.
“One of my favorite things is that we have this really diverse set of backgrounds and interests,” she noted. “We’re not all economists, we’re not al sociologists, we’re not all philosophers – that’s reflected in both the faculty and in the students.”
Flowers did a presentation on her ongoing research, titled “The Sweet Spot: Balancing Stakeholder and Sponsor Interests in Voluntary Certifications” at the College’s Graduate Student Paper Conference on Friday, January 27. The conference was held in the Stephen C. Hall Building, and included presentations from 24 doctoral students, nine of which hailed from the School of Public Policy. Other fields addressed by School of Public Policy doctoral students in the conference included intellectual property, social capital in the workplace, and knowledge transfer in research in education.