October 13, 2008 10:20 am

Soapbox: The importance of sustainability

In recent years, business schools have embraced the idea of “corporate social responsibility” and “sustainability”. Centres, institutes, programmes and initiatives have sprung up, websites and brochures trumpet business schools’ dedication to serving society, ethics, managing the environment and social entrepreneurship.

A new breed of MBA student is focused on “doing well by doing good”, demanding that more attention be given to the world’s social and environmental challenges.

Yet, despite the apparent surge in activity, little has changed within schools. Core courses continue to be organised along conventional functional lines – finance, accounting, marketing, operations, strategy – with little exposure to emerging challenges such as climate change, global poverty or inequity.

Professors pursue narrowly prescribed research agendas with the aim of publishing their work in a small set of academic “A” journals. Careers are made (or broken) based on publication “hits” in these journals, along with recommendations by peer faculty at other universities, rather than the relevance or impact of the ideas in the real world.

The truth is that the apparent “greening” of business schools is a form of “greenwashing”. Even the most highly ranked of such programmes consist of a few dedicated faculty and support staff.

Rather than being integrated into the fabric of the business school, sustainability initiatives “hang off the side” of the existing academic edifice. High-profile donors may draw attention to these programmes, yet few have penetrated the entrenched interests of the function-based senior faculty.

All, however, is not lost. Indeed, courses focused on sustainable enterprise and corporate social responsibility are gaining momentum and are among the largest enrolment electives in many business schools. Core courses can rather easily integrate many of these challenges by simply including sustainability challenges as “contexts” for teaching core material. For example, operations can teach life cycle management as part of supply chain management and finance can teach clean technology innovation through the lens of “real options”.

For nearly 20 years, I have been dedicated to developing programmes on “sustainable enterprise” in US business schools. In the early years, sustainability initiatives were little more than small subcultures that were allowed to exist as long as they did not syphon resources away from more “central” (read functional) areas of focus.

In the past several years, however, there has been a noticeable increase in the demand for this content, not only among MBA students, but also from companies themselves. Mainstream companies have made environment and sustainability core to their corporate and competitive strategies. And serving the 4bn poor at the “base of the pyramid” is seen as one of the most important potential drivers of future growth. “Social responsibility” as corporate obligation is giving way to societal problems as “corporate opportunities”.

By framing the world’s social and environmental challenges as new business opportunities, we have succeeded in attracting the “best and the brightest” MBA students. Indeed, at Cornell’s Johnson School , our Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise has served as a magnet for some of the best prospective MBA students as well as some of the best companies.

As the centre’s profile increases, it garners faculty interest. Indeed, professors from the school and across the university are attracted to the intellectual agenda associated with sustainable enterprise (which cuts across conventional disciplinary lines). If we continue on this path, the world’s social and environmental challenges just might become better integrated into the DNA of business schools.

Stuart L Hart is SC Johnson Chair in Sustainable Global Enterprise at the Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell University.

The Soapbox column is open to professors, students and others interested in the future of business schools.

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