A sustainable way of learning: Exeter has set up an MBA with the World Wide Fund for Nature

When Simon Ramsay and Professor Jonathan Gosling of the University of Exeter Business School talk of an MBA these days, they intend it to stand for Masters of Business and Action. Which may sound like Mattel's latest addition to the Barbie and Ken range, but, in fact, Ramsay explains, it is what they hope students who take their new One Planet MBA (in this case Master in Business) will become.

The MBA, which will be piloted from October and run for a year, has been set up in partnership with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the global conservation organisation.

"Business planning of the future must recognise that we only have one planet's worth of resources , yet currently we, collectively, use over one and a half planets'-worth of resources, and the figure increases daily," Gosling says. "So it is essential that business people be educated in a different way to the past."

The MBA grew out of several years of discussions between the WWF and the business school. The WWF contributed their research and thinking, along with the belief that a strategic approach to sustainability will add to creating value in businesses.

At Exeter, Gosling's role as the director of the Centre for Leadership Studies has been invaluable. The university accredited the course, which has been worked out on a traditional MBA model but with much focus on getting students to address what business leaders can do about sustainability and about the notion that we can adapt to climate change.

"We have to develop a way of working in the classroom that enables students to really grasp the problems," Gosling says. "We aim to bring in world-leading experts and students to hear what they think would work in environments they know well. Rightly, critics ask how British academics in a corner of Devon understand the needs of people in the forests of Cameroon, or [of people] experiencing floods in Bangladesh."

The idea is to have a dynamic interplay between students, so much of the teaching will centre on discussion. Students may be asked to facilitate a session if they have knowledge of a subject, and the focus will be on a round-table exchange of ideas.

Module titles will include relationships in a sustainable society, a business case for sustainability marketing, the business of bio-mimicry, one-planet leadership and ecological literacy.

October's student cohort will work with academics and leading experts and will be instrumental in developing and forming the One Planet MBA, testing its hypothesis that, in Ramsay's words, it can "lay a trail for a new generation of business leaders".

Enthusiasm for this new MBA is illustrated by close on 500 applications, and the 100 inquiries Exeter has had to date. These come from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences – professional rugby player, senior communications consultant for the US federal government, marine specialist, and so on. The hope is to have a good spread of age, nationality and experience among the students.

Although the one-year MBA is a new development, its progenitor is the very successful One Planet Leaders programme already running at the business school. This is designed for leaders and managers in strategic positions and is offered in three two-day modules and with 100 days' supported tutoring, explains Ramsay.

Most private-sector organisations are realising that they need to take responsibility for sustainability seriously, believes Gosling, and courses have attracted Nokia, Canon, Coca-Cola and Rip Curl. "All have concerns about dealing with pollution and climate change," he says. "Rip Curl, for instance, want to know how to keep surfing sustainable. Photographic companies use a lot of dangerous chemicals and need to deal with the disposal of these."

The WWF has put resources into the One Planet initiatives and the business school is putting in £250,000 for scholarship for students who cannot afford it. They get some funds from other sources and are looking for sponsors.

Their aims for the One Planet students are ambitious but achievable, Ramsay and Gosling insist. The vision they talk of is developing leaders and managers with a global outlook capable of running organisations in a culturally diverse, resource-constrained world, and influenced by radically different values and concerns from those of the recent past.

'It challenged my thinking'

Frenchman Eric Dargent has a background in business training and sports equipment marketing, and has worked with an advertising agency and in graphic design. He hopes to join the One Planet MBA cohort in October.

"During my time in advertising, I spent a year working for a big chemical group, dealing in pesticides, and I realised I had values that directly conflicted with this work, so I quit with the aim of finding a way to pursue my concerns around sustainability.

I decided to go back into sports marketing and I was taken on by Rip Curl Europe in a new post of environmental officer it was creating. It had an involvement with WWF France. It told us about the One Planet Leaders programme, and I took it in 2008. It was useful, but too short. However, it challenged my thinking on sustainability. I see the One Planet MBA as an opportunity to continue what I began, and I like the idea of being a pioneer helping to shape the course.

I am interested in bio-mimicry because nature has spent millions of years perfecting the needs of life and we have much to take from this. So I would like to help businesses understand how dynamic they can be if they give more attention to this area of sustainability."