Sustainability must be integrated into business school programs

Given the growing importance of corporate sustainability in the academic literature and in the daily practical application of organizations, at least those that have taken seriously the necessary transformation to have a neutral effect of their industrial and economic activities in general, on the environment, we believe it is necessary for the AEEN to make an analysis on the necessary integration of sustainability in postgraduate study programs.

What is certain is that research has already been carried out in recent years on issues related to sustainability in the curricula. From the reviews of this type of survey / research to which we have had access from the AEEN, it can be extrapolated that they show an increase in the absolute number and the proportion of courses related to sustainability in business schools in general.

It can also be concluded that the most prominent sustainability keywords are “ethics” and “Corporate social responsibility”, since a majority of content has already been incorporated into postgraduate programs in which most of the courses reflect sustainability keywords. Therefore, how many hours are assigned to these topics are detailed, depending on whether it is incorporated as knowledge that adds to a conventional program or if, on the contrary, it is a program in which sustainability is the main topic of the course. In other words, it is defined as a postgraduate degree focused on sustainability.

But from the first review of what the situation is at the moment, some conclusion (not hasty) can be drawn about the approximations we have made. It seems that, although our inquiries (following, of course, in the wake of other scholars on the subject) suggest general progress in incorporating sustainability as a topic in business schools, the course offering is still fragmented as it is generally focuses on a narrow scope of the subject, since it insists on ethics (which is very good) but it does not cover what we consider (together with others) the construction of a comprehensive study plan that places sustainability in all functional careers.

What have been the foundations throughout these years for this change?

When it comes to business programs, the justification for incorporating sustainability into various topics in the curricula has been made for at least the last two decades, based on a discourse on business ethics, corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability, on the one hand; an awakening of acute awareness that entrepreneurs play a crucial role in shaping sustainability for the global climate agenda, on the other.

This impulse to incorporate sustainability, or an ethical and clean form (with a neutral effect towards the planet) of development must meet two conditions: meet the urgent needs of the present because it must act quickly if it is to neutralize the harmful effects of the increase in 1.5 degrees on average from today to 2050; it must also be taken into account that future generations, those who make decisions from 2030 onwards, must incorporate (making the necessary adjustments) the demands that this new time requires (new circumstances of which many of us are not able to foresee nor we nor anyone) to satisfy their needs always in accordance with respect for a compatibility between development and the environment. This awareness has accelerated in recent years with the implementation of initiatives such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

We often wonder what would have happened if these goals had not been set by the UN. We believe that we would be several steps below where we are today in the fight to preserve the environment, and especially the necessary incorporation of these topics in postgraduate study programs would not have penetrated so deeply.

However, although many studies affirm the importance of combining sustainability in higher education (university and postgraduate) and even offering frameworks and tools to incorporate sustainability into university culture and curricula, there is little recent research that examines what is the real status of such integration of sustainability in higher education.

Why is sustainability important in school?

In the plans of primary and secondary education in the last twenty years, themes have always been incorporated that society required that the new generations were learning from school. Education for sustainability must cover all school subjects and extend well beyond the classroom. Why should it be like this? Because it gives students real-world skills that they can use to improve the planet. And when they become aware as a child, they end up providing them with that capacity that in the future they will know how to take advantage of, which is the self-sufficiency they need for tomorrow.

What is the role of companies in sustainability?

An environmentally conscious company has been introduced as a demandable cultural value for many years, no matter who or what group is behind a brand. It is not allowed (society does not approve) that organizations pursue only benefits at the cost of other responsibilities with society and especially with the environment.

A business model that respects these guidelines is sustainable because it contributes to the health of the structure in which it operates (society as a whole), helping to build an environment in which the business can prosper.

What is school sustainability?

Where do you start? Sustainability means acting in a way that shows awareness of how all things are connected and making well thought out decisions for the good of all. Schools are excellent examples of interconnected systems to which sustainability principles can be applied with wide benefits.

In practical terms, how do business schools integrate sustainability into the core curriculum?

Society has spoken forcefully in recent years through its most authoritative institutions, such as the United Nations and the millennium goals (which have been revised and updated), to which are added all the latest meetings in the fight for the climate change, like Paris or that of a few days ago in Glasgow. Global society requires not as an expression of wishes or theoretical proposals, but rather immediate action so that we can have not only sustainable companies, but also a sustainable global society, to which must be added the struggle to reduce the gaps in social inequality, economic and social justice.

These societal concerns have been putting pressure on companies to see the concept of environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues as a basic concept of risk management. This powerful shift towards a more socially responsible capitalism model that puts stakeholders ahead of shareholders has impacted not only global business, but entrepreneurship education as well.

In this regard we have gone out (one way of saying) in search of very authoritative opinions on graduate education and sustainability. In this fairly new space and still (unfortunately) unknown, or perhaps, of which to date the necessary knowledge to face the climate crisis that we are experiencing is not available, the name of Sophie Rifkin arises. She is Associate Professor of Business and Society and Director of Corporate Research and Engagement at the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at New York University.

We have also discovered another big name which is Kurt Harrison of Russell Reynolds Associates, who works closely with clients to provide a customized solution for their sustainable leadership needs. Kurt Harrison offers his clients advice on executive evaluation and succession planning. Based in New York, Kurt serves as Co-Director of the Global Sustainability Practice at Russell Reynolds Associates, simultaneously working across industries as a member of several different practices, including Board & CEO Advisory Partners, Investment Management, Global Banking & Markets and Private Equity.

In an interview with both of them by the prestigious Financial Times, we are going to highlight some pearls that they left on this matter:

– They described the impacts of responsible business practices on the global economy and the practical steps that business schools can take to address the rise of ESG (environmental, social, governance), which implies having take into account the environmental factor, the social factor and the good governance factor.

– Before the pandemic, sustainability was often thought of as a luxury in the bull market that companies and investors would disrupt if the economy fell. However, unlike previous recessions, the impact of COVID-19 has in fact accelerated the momentum for sustainability.

– By incorporating environmental and social sustainability into the core business strategy, companies can reduce risk, create competitive advantage, develop innovative products and services, all while improving financial performance and providing value to society.

– During the pandemic, companies that prioritized ESG principles outperformed those that did not.

– There is a dramatic increase in demand for high-level executives, as well as mid-level and rising executives who can demonstrate some kind of competence or track record in incorporating sustainable management principles into an operational strategy or general corporate strategy for the entire company.

– Rifkin and Harrison emphasized that the key to success was to integrate ESG analysis across the business, not as a separate policy.

– In some cases, corporations look to academic institutions to help them achieve this integration. For example, AllianceBernstein has partnered with the Earth Institute at Columbia University so that its investment staff can learn how climate risks should be factored into investment decisions.

In turn, the company’s asset manager is also teaching Columbia scientists about finance and the importance of collaborating on projects that will use their research in ways that have real-world impact.

Similarly, NYU Stern’s Center for Sustainable Business has pioneered the Sustainable Return on Investment (ROSI) methodology as a way to combine sustainability strategies and financial performance. The methodology is designed to help corporate leaders build better business cases for sustainability initiatives.

We have a moral obligation that things happen under a prism not only of possibility, but of sustainability, that does not have harmful effects on the environment

Sustainability is practically new to the job market

When it comes to the job market, “the great news is that sustainability is still a relatively new field,” according to Harrison. And he makes it clear that “The next generation of leaders in this space is being created right now as we speak in real time, and it is being created in business schools.”

Are we aware of what Harrison says? It seems to us that on a social level not enough. At the government level, at least in the EU, this concern does exist. And as far as Spain is concerned, we know from the AEEN that there is also a real concern in the authorities in everything related to sustainability in general, and especially in how to make it fall in the new generations of students, being also of particular interest what happens in the role that business schools are going to play in Spain with a view to the 2030 horizon.

How Schools Can Prepare Their Students

As companies shift toward integrating sustainability into their core business strategies, business schools should shift ESGs to their core curricula rather than relegating subject to some supplemental or just individual-choice content. In other words, an integrated approach for all students to graduate and understand how sustainability can be a useful framework regardless of whether they are specifically entering sustainability.

Rifkin suggested some strategies for how schools can use experimental programs to thread sustainability into a student’s education. For example, in light of a tight internship market last summer, NYU Stern partnered with small businesses in New York City to find creative ways for students to gain work experience. To support these partnerships, Stern raised funds to subsidize those students, so small businesses were not expected to fund the internships on their own. Stern also created a summer program with experiences similar to the urgent challenges related to the pandemic.

Rifkin also made other suggestions. For example, schools can house and fully fund students while participating in ongoing sustainability research. Schools can also take advantage of experiential learning programs to help companies looking for students to work on projects.

How schools can incentivize their teachers

One of the biggest challenges schools face when trying to integrate responsible management practices into their core curricula is finding ways to encourage teachers to incorporate ESG principles into their classes. Meeting this challenge starts with providing the right resources and incentives.

In NYU’s case, the Center for Sustainable Business acts as an internal consultant for students, faculty, and administrators, collaborating across departments on Stern’s undergraduate and graduate programs. On the teaching side, these groups write case studies and make them available to teachers; co-authored teaching notes describing ways to integrate sustainability into core curricula; and help recruit guest speakers.

Schools can also create a teacher advisory council with members from each department to share information and advice on how to integrate ESG into the curriculum and produce resources such as case studies.

Antonio Alonso, president of the AEEN (Spanish Business School Association) and general secretary of EUPHE (European Union of Private Higher Education)