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Business schools have been slow to embrace sustainability issues in their course material, but even slower off the mark in assessing how their own campuses could be more ecologically sound.

Few have taken the time to turn a critical eye to their own use of natural resources: like many service companies, they see global warming and sustainability as issues for heavy industry and electricity producers.

A growing group, however, is trying to address this shortcoming. In Europe, London Business School is widely credited with raising awareness of institutions’ role with its “Walk the Talk” environmental management programme. Inspired by a campus visit in 2004 by Al Gore, the former US presidential hopeful and environmental guru, it started with a root-and-branch assessment of energy use and waste production at the school and resulted in a series of measures to cut these. For example, energy-efficient lighting has replaced old lamps and bulbs, and insulation around heating ducts and water pipes has been improved. Waste recycling bins have been placed prominently in central collection points, and students have been encouraged to give up disposable cups in favour of reusable thermos flasks.

Recycling

US schools are now following the lead. The Kellogg School of Management has adopted a “duplex” printing policy, while the Yale School of Management has set up its own carbon offset purchasing scheme. According to Net Impact, a business school network that promotes corporate social responsibility, pressure from alumni is starting to force changes in the way schools conduct their business.

“Academia typically can be a little slow to adjust to modern thinking,” says Karen Cooke, director of the “Campus Greening” programme at Net Impact. “But there’s now a critical mass of undergraduate and MBA students who realise the importance of sustainability in business. They also want to do their bit on campus.”

In Spain, the Madrid-based Instituto de Empresa claims to be leading the way with its EcologIE initiative, launched in June. Starting with small gestures – recycling bins are currently being distributed around its campus buildings – the school plans a thorough reorganisation of working practices aimed at reducing its carbon footprint.

With the help of the environmental consultants Ingenieros Asesores, students and faculty are assessing energy use and waste production at the school’s various campus sites. Once the findings are out, they will implement recycling and energy and water conservation schemes similar to those in place at London Business School. Measures may even extend to reducing the amount of time faculty spend on aircraft.

Javier Carrillo, director of the school’s Centre for Eco-Intelligent Management, argues that innovation in production and systems is the key to creating sustainable business. The school’s online teaching programme is an example of using new technology to stay competitive, while saving money and helping cut down on harmful vehicle and aircraft emissions, he says.

“Companies have tended to see spending on sustainability as a burden. However, this reactionary view is slowly disappearing and is being replaced by the idea that improved competitiveness and sustainability can go hand in hand,” he says.

“Service companies – and this includes business schools – tend to be those of least environmental impact,” he says. “But that’s not to say that they couldn’t raise their game.”

Ethical Business

As in most cases, IE’s green initiative came from a student: Melanie May Happel, who is completing an International MBA. Inspired by the London Business School case and drawing on her own experience in an environmental management consultancy, she approached faculty heads this year with her proposals for greening the Spanish school. They offered their “full support”, she says.

“Schools have become good at preaching the importance of ethical business, but these are not necessarily applied on campus,” says Ms Happel. “Basically, we’ve decided to walk the talk.”

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