In the university education of baby boomers like me, few debates were as weighty as those triggered by the book Free to Choose, which was first published in 1980. Authors Milton and Rose Friedman are unlikely heroes to anyone calling for more corporate social responsibility and sustainability. Milton Friedman, in particular, is well known for writing that the “social responsibility of business is to increase its profits” and that government “solutions” often do more damage than good.
The Friedmans believed that free markets and personal freedoms went hand in hand; one could not thrive without the other. In the opening scene of the Free to Choose public television series, Milton told a story of his mother, who had left Eastern Europe at age 14 and landed in New York’s garment district to seek a better life for herself and her future children. His story was focused on economic opportunity, which probably meant everything back then and still does in many places around the world. But today, more and more people are using their economic and personal freedom to back a broader vision of a better future, one that is more sustainable.
According to Nielsen’s latest corporate social responsibility survey, “more than half (55%) of global respondents . . . say they are willing to pay extra for products and services from companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact—an increase from 50 percent in 2012 and 45 percent in 2011.” The number of companies that have sustainability as a top management agenda item jumped to 65 percent in 2014 from 46 percent in 2010, according to the Annual Sustainability Report by MIT Sloan Management Review, The Boston Consulting Group, and the UN Global Compact. In a Net Impact study, 88 percent of students said that learning about sustainable/environmental business is a priority. These and other data suggest that markets and capitalism—and business and management education—can be powerful mechanisms for creating a more sustainable future, rather than a source of doubt.
That is the opportunity provided by the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): to create a shared framework for improving society for business and business schools, as well as for government and civil society. Emerging from the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development and its outcome document, The Future We Want, SDGs would be determined through an inclusive and transparent process open to all stakeholders, including business. The current draft outlines 17 goals, addressing issues such as poverty, hunger, health, environment, and more. Visit the SDGs website for updates.
Business schools may engage in the sustainability agenda through established platforms, such as the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative (GRLI) and Principles for Responsible Management (PRME). With nearly 600 signatories across 80 countries, the PRME is the largest global network for responsible management education. Signatories are active, with 12 chapters convening regional meetings and 32 Champion schools, which have, among other things, begun to work closely with Global Compact LEAD and the broader UN community to explore the role of business schools in implementing the SDGs. For an update on PRME, download the 2014 Annual Report/2015 Outlook.
On June 23–25, 2015, 300–400 leaders of responsible management education, students, the LEAD group of companies, as well as representatives from the UN, government, and civil society will convene to shape the agenda regarding SDGs and the future role of business schools in society. Mark your calendars and plan to participate in the Sixth Annual Global Forum for Responsible Management Education at the U.S. headquarters of Fosun Group, one of the largest private companies in China and a UN Global Compact signatory.
Dan LeClair is on Twitter! Tweet him about this story @AACSBdan.