Sustainability: moving from the sidelines and into the mainstream

05 March 2022

Claudia Monteiro looks at what sustainability means for business schools.


COP26 crystallised the frustration most of us feel as we sit and watch the health of our planet deteriorate, with activists and policy-makers pulling their hair out trying to come up with actionable commitments at the 11th hour of the summit.

Businesses big and small are stuck between operating on short term profit and an awareness that the environment isn’t made of endless resources – so what’s the role for business schools?

They’re being asked to move sustainability right to the front of their courses and programmes. Back in the day, sustainability was entering business schools through accreditation requirements, written into values and piecemeal additions to the curriculum. There are plenty of example of MBA degrees with a focus on sustainability, with Griffith, Maastricht and Warwick topping the Corporate Knights rankings for such degrees. But have we now reached a period when students and employers are asking for more?

Writing in the FT Giselle Weybrecht, a thought leader on mainstreaming sustainability into business education, calls for business schools to stop relegating SDGs to specific courses and research centres. Weybrecht compares it to how cities are setting up bicycle lanes, squeezing them conveniently into the pre-existent grid instead of building cycling into the core of urban mobility.

She looked at 1,000 progress reports submitted by business schools that signed the UN Global Compact’s Principles for Responsible Management Education only to find that while some departments have shown leadership, sustainability is still to become core to education, and many take a box-ticking approach to support their case. Weybrecht argues that embedding sustainability in a core finance or marketing course would be a better option than having a sustainability stand-alone course.

Some places are leading the change though. At Stanford, Duke and Toronto sustainability is written into a wide range of classes in marketing, supply chain, investment and data management.

Vishal Agrawal, an associate business professor at Georgetown University, told Business Insider he is noticing that candidates with education in sustainability are now becoming more attractive, and in some cases reaching salaries that are comparable to those of MBA graduates.

In California, the Haas School of Business has appointed an executive director of sustainability programs, so that every graduate can develop a basic level of competency in this area. With this appointment the School is responding to changes on its own doorstep; water is scarce in California and this is an issue the entire community needs to tackle.

In the UK, current policies on net zero and green jobs are accelerating universities and business schools' response to this area, both across postgraduate and executive education. However, some have been developing research in this area for a while. The Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership set their stall early on, while the University of Exeter Business School has invested in environmental sustainability as one of their three pillars of expertise.

How is your business school planning for sustainability? Beyond programmes, what does sustainability mean for research, for extra-curricular activity and for day-to-day operations? What will it mean to mainstream sustainability?

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