Five Ways B-Schools Can Pivot Toward Sustainability

sustainability

Amid societal and political turbulence, business school leaders are facing profound challenges over how to incorporate rising sustainability pressures into their operations and curricula.

The traditional approach has been to offer elective courses for students who are passionate about the topic, while leaving the mainstream financial, accounting, marketing and leadership classes relatively untouched. This siloed approach is now running into trouble, both in corporations and in business schools.

Here’s how to think differently.

1. Embrace and discuss tensions and trade-offs

The era of “have-your-cake-and-eat-it” sustainability is over. Broad arguments that sustainability practices will inevitably boost your bottom line and social license to operate have hit a wall in the face of mounting pressure over greenwashing, increased regulatory pressures and the anti-ESG (environmental, social and governance) backlash.

Rather than teaching sustainability in a cheerleading way, it is important to highlight trade-offs, discuss tensions between breadth and depth, and get serious about governance questions regarding where sustainability teams sit and their remit. This will prepare students to navigate the real-life challenges facing organizations.

2. Prioritize negotiation and coalition-building skills

Today, corporations face huge challenges over their remit and role in society. Even MBA students have been expressing skepticism about capitalism, and there are typically a huge range of values and opinions within any corporation. This means preparing students to navigate a world where they must build coalitions and drive influence across political divides, but must also prioritize individual free will and human dignity and respect. Preparing students to handle fraught conversations about ethics and values is a must.

3. Treat sustainability as a ‘minor’ for all students

There is little consistency in how corporations treat sustainability, with some viewing it as risk management, others as innovation, others as marketing or compliance. Relatedly, many sustainability teams focus exclusively on messaging and reporting, not core strategic challenges. Now the low-hanging fruit has been picked, there are pressing questions about how to truly integrate sustainability considerations.

The leaders of the future should focus on depth in a particular business discipline, but also ensure that they have facility and confidence on sustainability topics. In other words, sustainability is an essential “minor,” whatever your primary expertise.

4. Work with businesses on real-life challenges

Sustainability poster children have far less to teach students than companies wrestling with real-life challenges over decarbonisation, shifting consumer demand, supply chain oversight and employee activism. It can be difficult to find real-time opportunities to expose students to these practical dilemmas, but it is essential.

In my classes, students form project teams and create strategies for companies facing existential strategic dilemmas. This enables them to explore one company deeply, while also gaining exposure to just how varied the issues are across sectors and geographies.

5. Get serious about corporate political responsibility

The business-as-usual approach has long been to highlight sustainability achievements in glossy reports, while marketing, HR and government relations teams proceed with little regard to these claims. This is now untenable. Taking a stand on any issue now invites suspicion of hypocrisy and scrutiny as to whether your company’s actions — and political spending — match your rhetoric. Corporations such as Unilever are taking steps to align their policy positions with their sustainability goals. This is just one sign of the imperative to drive a holistic and consistent approach across internal functions. Students need to be educated about corruption, influence peddling, responsible tax and broad debates over the corporatisation of politics, because these pressures are not going away.

Business schools today have a responsibility to expose students to the full spectrum of dilemmas and opinions on the role and remit of the corporation in society. It can be useful to have exposure to a range of faculty opinions, and students should be encouraged to openly debate and discuss these high-risk questions, listen to their peers and consider what is at stake. Philosophy, social psychology and evolving legal frameworks are just as important as core sustainability tools, strategies and approaches. Rather than offering sustainability courses to the subset of students who are interested in them, we need to prepare our future business leaders to build coalitions and drive influence in a divided world.


Alison Taylor is a clinical associate professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business and author of Higher Ground: How Business Can Do the Right Thing in a Turbulent World (2024).

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