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The ‘Greening’ of Management Education: A Rise in Sustainability as a Business Discipline

April 2015

By Lee Davidson, Senior Associate, Copywriter/Editor, AACSB International

With International Earth Day falling on April 22, we would be remiss in this issue not to examine a topic in business education that is both relevant and in current demand. While sustainability focuses are not necessarily new to b-school curricula, there does seem to be a new interest among students in programs that teach environmentally conscious business practices, corporate responsibility to society, and the longevity of businesses globally.

What Exactly Is Sustainability in the Business Context?

For this question, we sought the expertise of Giselle Weybrecht, who wrote the book on sustainability in business education—literally. In her book The Sustainable MBA, Weybrecht borrows a definition from the International Institute for Sustainable Development: “For the business enterprise, sustainable development means adopting business strategies and activities that meet the needs of the enterprise and its stakeholders today while protecting, sustaining and enhancing the human and natural resources that will be needed in the future.” Though this definition is broad, it lends itself to an easy view of how sustainability applies to all of us in our work and why it is essential that sustainable practices be taught in the management education classroom. As Weybrecht says in her TEdx Talk, “increasingly [sustainability] is going to be part of all of our jobs,” so why should it not be a part of all of our educations?

Why the Sudden Interest Among Students?

Business majors have not traditionally been the type of students to rally around environmental, society-focused issues. According to a recent Gaurdian article, business students have been steered toward “the bottom line” and “encouraged to focus on maximising shareholder value, short-term profits and the narrow interests of individual businesses rather than society and the economy as a whole.” Additionally, according to Weybrecht during a recent visit to our office, schools have simply not offered the programming to piques students’ interest. But now schools realize that both students and businesses want sustainability incorporated in degree programs. Students more and more seek sustainability topics embedded in the curriculum, or even at the forefront, of programs they apply to. GreenBiz.com cites research showing that “making an environmental and social impact through business has gone from ‘nice to have’ to ‘must have’ for prospective graduate business students.” An article in BusinessBecause concurs, noting that present-day college students “place more value on fulfilment than salary.”

Are Faculty Equipped to Teach It?

Historically, no—or at least not widely. Sustainability was a buzzword, a trendy notion in past years. Why devote resources to training in a fleeting field? But this is old thinking. Now that sustainability is included in the criteria of accrediting associations, such as AACSB, it is incumbent on schools to ensure that their faculty have the necessary expertise to teach in the areas in which they concentrate. And as more schools incorporate this subject matter into their programs, more faculty education will need to take place—and perhaps even those students graduating from MBA, and higher, programs that specialize in sustainability will be the ones doing the teaching, or training of teachers, in the future.

What Does Sustainability in the Classroom Look Like?

Many AACSB-accredited schools feature sustainability in their programs. One such school that recently made headlines is the University of Vermont’s School of Business Administration. This particular school offers a highly specialized Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA (SEMBA), combining two traditionally disparate areas of focus into one, which happens to showcase the strengths of the Vermont region—small, locally owned businesses and environmentalism. Program director Willy Cats-Baril says of the idea to create the program, “Why don't we talk about creating new businesses, but with a mission, with a mission that is about the environment, is about creating successful communities.” And so they did.

Elsewhere, at the Schulich School of Business in Toronto, Canada, the MBA’s sustainability specialization includes courses in ethics, social responsibility, natural resources, and environmental law, allowing for a broad coverage of this multifaceted discipline. But their program is small, with only 10 students currently. However, while the students who pursue the degree used to be what program director Andrew Crane in the Globe and Mail calls “greenies,” now “they’re more like the regular MBA students than they are different.” As for those “regular” MBA students—a class of 400—they, too, are required to take a course in sustainability issues, even if they are not pursuing the specialization. The article notes that such courses are being infused into MBA curricula throughout Canada.

Should All Business Programs Include Sustainability?

Absolutely, says Weybrecht. She is a proponent for sustainable practices everywhere in everything we do—particularly in the field of business, where so much impact is created, and in business education, where the future drivers of that impact reside. As schools begin to align themselves along AACSB’s 2013 standards during their initial or continuous improvement review process, more and more programs include stronger components of corporate social responsibility throughout their curriculum.