Work together and go further

Businesses can run more effectively by considering their impact on society

Ethical issues in business were brought to the fore in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Body Shop made headlines and profits with its "trade not aid" philosophy. McDonald's came under fire for deforestation and animal cruelty, Nike for using sweatshops. Companies realised they had to watch their social and environmental policies as well as their bottom line. But did business education shift in line?

"Sustainability MBAs are still very unusual," says Professor Malcolm Kirkup, director of the One Planet MBA at the University of Exeter Business School. In 2010, the institution started developing its sustainability programme in collaboration with students from its existing MBA course, WWF, and 11 other company partners, including IBM, Coca-Cola, Sony and Canon. During 2011, the previous programme was dropped and One Planet was established as the school's only MBA offering.

This programme isn't about being "worthy", as perhaps demonstrated by its partners, which are focusing on sustainable issues to guarantee the viability of their businesses in the long-term. Coca-Cola, for example, relies on water to produce drinks in some countries with challenging supply conditions. Kirkup says, "If they don't help communities around the world protect their water and stop it being polluted, their business model can't survive."

Canon, meanwhile, sees green manufacturing as key to running an efficient organisation. "It's not about conservation," says Kirkup. "It's not about doom and gloom. It's about innovation. It's about how business can be both profitable and more responsible, saving on resources but also using waste, recycling and remanufacturing in such a way that everyone benefits."

"Sustainability is vital to the business world," agrees Shannon Springer, a student on the One Planet MBA. "Whether you care about the environment or not, and whether you care about the social impact of business or not, the fact is that if you don't look after your people and your environment, it will impact on your business."

Other programmes in the UK offering a focus on ethics include Ashridge Business School's Masters in sustainability and responsibility and the University of East London (UEL)'s MBA in sustainability and energy management. Meanwhile, Sophia Taylor, external relations manager at Nottingham University Business School, says, "Our MBA has been repositioned to emphasise sustainability issues in the context of leadership development. There's less stress on only the corporate social responsibility programme and more on sustainable organisations, business engagement and leadership development."

Kirkup says: "We believe that MBAs should be teaching business leaders of the future that they have to be more planet-minded, that they have to think about the impact of business on the community, on the environment, on society and take a more sustainable approach. We look at every module through a sustainability lens, and we have introduced modules that you just won't find on any other MBA programme." Some examples of these are courses on business and collaboration – unusual, says Kirkup, in an arena that has been traditionally motivated by competition – and another analysing the business lessons of nature. "When something dies, it becomes compost or food for the next generation," Kirkup explains. "In business, typically, you make waste and you get rid of it. We look at how you can take a waste product and use it as a raw material for another business."

The programme's unique selling points have not only brought a new approach and teaching style, but also a unique student environment. "A typical MBA would have 85 per cent males – many of them alpha males," says Kirkup. "Our MBA is different: 65 per cent of our students are women, which is absolutely unheard of. The other thing is, we've got a very diverse nationality mix, with students from 18 different countries."

Springer, for example, is an American. She has been particularly impressed by the business approach advocated by the One Planet programme. "We are an incredibly collaborative group. It's interesting to see that spirit prevailing over a competitive spirit. We're driven by the mentality of getting further by working together. It sounds clichéd, but it has shown to be true for us. That is the key to businesses today," she notes, "finding out where you can collaborate without taking away the competitive element that is fundamental to business success."