This is the age of the triple bottom line. Companies of all types and sizes are getting used to the fact that they will not only be judged on their economic performance but also on their impact on the environment and society as a whole. As businesses become more committed to the principle of protecting the future of the planet, so business education has begun to acknowledge the imperative of sustainability. The meaning of this catch-all concept can be summed up as: "Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".
Many schools are now striving to equip students with the knowledge and skills they will need to put sustainability at the core of their future business activities. According to Jonathan Slack, chief executive of the Association of Business Schools, which represents 118 business schools in the UK, the single most important development for the future of management education is to ensure that that sustainability is fully integrated throughout the whole education offering.
One school which has already put sustainability at the heart of the curriculum as a core module is Nottingham University Business School. Nottingham heads a list of only six UK schools that have a place in the top 100 global ranking produced by Beyond Grey Pinstripes. This influential North American survey of business schools assesses how seriously schools take sustainability and related issues. "Through a live company case study, our students are invited to develop a strategy which balances financial, social and environmental considerations," explains Jeremy Moon, professor of corporate social responsibility. "They are presented with hypothetical crises to which they have to respond. For example, we give them a scenario where an NGO publicises a problem in their supply chain with a negative impact on Indian farmers. The students have to decide how they would handle it."
Jonathan T Scott, a lecturer and author of The Sustainable Business, sees introducing sustainability into business school curricula as both welcome and overdue. "I ensure that my students relate abstract concepts of sustainability to business realities. Rather than sit an exam or write an essay, they must conduct an assessment of a local business, showing how it can profit from long-term thinking."
Sustainability and climate change are seen as close bedfellows. "Climate change is shorthand for going to hell in a handcart," says Dr Stephen Peake, who teaches senior managers on Cambridge University's programme for sustainability leadership. He also oversees the climate leadership MBA elective at the nearby Judge Business School. "It's important to capture the new generation as they come through business school," adds Peake. "If we don't succeed in training our future managers to recognise their opportunities and liabilities arising from climate change their organisations will cease to exist."
For those who have got the message and seeking a postgraduate qualification wrapped around the concept of sustainability, several business schools have specialist courses to consider:
The University of Exeter Business School has just launched its one planet MBA, which reflects the fact that business planning of the future must recognise we are currently over-using the earth's rapidly diminishing resources. This may be a traditional MBA in many respects, but it specifically aims to train business leaders and managers capable of steering organisations towards a more sustainable agenda. The MBA is delivered in partnership with WWF, the global conservation organisation. The first cohort is made up of 40 students from 22 countries.
London Metropolitan University offers an MA in international business and sustainability. "We endorse sustainability in the business curriculum because [it] is a moral imperative for the planet and we are educating future business leaders with a critical awareness of this idea," explains Dr Niall Caldwell, academic leader of postgraduate courses. "Our students future impact will have a global reach."
The Lancaster University Management School's MA in leadership for sustainability is aimed at practising managers who are already convinced of the need to develop a more sustainable society and are looking for ways to put their convictions into practice. "A key element of this course is the opportunity for participants to apply their learning immediately in their own workplace," says Professor Judi Marshall, the programme's co-director.
Some businesses are already flying the flag. Ray Anderson, founder of the US manufacturer Interface is a long-time champion of sustainable business practices. He is calling on fellow industrialists all over the world to commit to the business model he describes as "doing well by doing good".
This is a message that resounds throughout business schools that know they can no longer afford to ignore it when shaping their curricula. As climate change expert Dr Chris Hope at Judge Business School, points out: "You cannot have a successful economy if you have a devastated environment."
‘I HAVE ALWAYS RUN A BUSINESS WITH STRONG ETHICAL VALUES’
Approaching the end of his business career, Peter Jackson may seem like an unlikely participant in Lancaster University’s parttime Masters degree in leadership for sustainability.
Shunning retirement, Jackson, 66, is determined to use the knowledge and skills gained on the Lancaster MA to influence others to take on the challenges of creating a sustainable society. “I enrolled for this Masters as I felt it would give me the space to look closely at the complex subject of sustainability and see how I could develop my leadership skills in this area. I am aiming to create more awareness of the issues at grass roots level, particularly among young people.”
Jackson has found the interaction with fellow course members during the intensive four-day workshops challenging and stimulating. “We keep closely in touch through a virtual network and there is a constant debate running,” he explains. “I have always run a business with strong ethical values, and encouraging sustainability is a key part of that. The Lancaster course is giving me the confidence and knowledge to make a wider contribution by helping others to put these values into practice.”