A New Credo for Business Education: Sustainability Matters

In order to achieve a business sector that functions mindfully, MBA programs must highlight sustainability and ethical leadership as the core values of business education.

"THE WORK AN UNKNOWN GOOD PERSON has done is like a vein of water flowing hidden underground, secretly making the ground green,” wrote 19th-century Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, and his words are ever relevant now. As we sail through the precarious first decades of the 21st century, a new vision is emerging to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure well-being for all as part of our shared destiny. Achieving these goals will require the concerted efforts of governments, society, educational institutions, the business sector, and informed citizens.

To help the business sector contribute to achieving these goals, MBA programs need to highlight sustainability and ethical leadership as a matter of course (and, pun intended, courses). Indeed, these ought to be core values of business education. As associate dean of Woodbury University School of Business, I want our MBA grads to be willing contributors to the vision of cultivating happy individuals and a harmonious society. This is mindful business, business with a conscience. The shorthand here? “Sustainability Matters.”

THE EXORBITANT ECONOMIC COSTS OF UNSUSTAINABILITY

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria are not the only disasters to ravage the world, says US News and World Report: natural disasters have hit nearly every continent in 2017, claiming the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people in South Asia, North America, Central America, and Africa. Commenting on the state of affairs of recent devastating disasters in North America, meteorologists and environmental risk experts predict that our planet faces a continuing grave risk from natural disasters.

AccuWeather predicts that Hurricane Harvey paired with Hurricane Irma collectively cost the U.S. nearly US$300 billion. This is just one example of the exorbitant economic costs of our unsustainable footprint. The foregoing context underscores even more that sustainability matters.

Many experts agree that the issues of climate change, dwindling biodiversity, and land degradation need to be urgently addressed. Responsible public policy changes at the macro level and mindful consumption at the individual level can go a long way to lessen the damage done to our planet. Business also needs to share the responsibility of protecting the environment in a major way.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), a global environmental advocacy division of the UN, recommends key actions for reducing devastating environmental impacts, some of which include the following:

  1. Enhance sustainable consumption and production to reduce environmental pressures by addressing drivers associated with manufacturing processes and consumer demand.
  2. Implement measures to reduce pollution and other environmental pressures.
  3. Reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and diversify energy sources.
  4. Enhance international cooperation on climate, air quality, and other environmental issues.
  5. Low-carbon, climate-resilient choices in infrastructure, energy, and food production coupled with effective and sustainable natural resource governance are key to protecting the ecological assets that underpin a healthy society.

TREADING LIGHTLY ON THE PLANET: SUSTAINABILITY MANAGEMENT

At Woodbury, we believe that a focus on sustainability within the MBA program will help us harness what is good for us, good for society, and good for the planet. There are no “weeds” in the garden of nature. The weed is a distinctly human invention. In Japanese gardening, when a weed growing near a plant is removed, it is not thrown away or destroyed. It is replanted elsewhere in the garden, an acknowledgment of its importance in the overall scheme of things. (Taken literally, a specific weed may be a plant whose medicinal power we have not yet discovered.) As an academic/professional discipline, “Business” with a capital “B” needs this holistic vision.

But this mindset need not be—and, really, should not be—limited to any specific campus or institution. The mission for business schools might well be something along the lines of “Cultivating Transformational Leaders for Sustainable Business.” Taking sustainability seriously means tracking not just the carbon footprint of business but its total footprint. It means viewing business holistically through a triple lens: economy, equality, and ecology. In this view, there is no sustainability devoid of ethics and spirituality, or the desire to do what is right. Some people draw on a rational, ethical framework to make those determinations; others might turn to the guidance of a higher power in a more spiritual approach. In either case, the goal is to follow a set of principles that serve the common good.

In the web of life, everything is linked with everything else: you cannot pluck a flower without disturbing a star, as the poet Francis Thompson observed. MBA programs introduce students to real-world situations and career-shaping experiences. Apprenticeships and internships need to enable students to tackle projects from smart cities to clean technology, eco-friendly community gardens, and everything in between. The curriculum must say: “We only have one planet on which to live. Let’s cultivate it together.”

MBA study should focus on the practice of environmental sustainability—making responsible decisions that will reduce business’ negative impact on the environment. Throughout, the emphasis is on engaged sustainability: that is, what can we all do to “tread lightly” on the planet. This is a case studies-based approach that uses real-life business examples to illustrate the need and importance of sustainability. Consider this kind of curriculum: Triple Bottom-Line: Planet, People and Products; Corporate Social Responsibility for Sustainability; Transforming Waste into Valuable Products; Journey from Consumer to Contributor; Ethical Foundations of Sustainability; Sustainability Value Management; Responsible Investing; Sustainable Economy; Brand Sustainability; Clean Technology; Total Footprint; Green Luxury; and Smart Cities. This isn’t squishy; this is business—or at least how business education needs to be.

The overarching goal is to explore the application of sustainability to a wide variety of contemporary contexts—from economics of consumption and growth to government policy and how to achieve a sustainable planet. Those three perspectives—ecology, equity, and economics—can serve as guiding principles. As a point of departure, business schools can start with and build upon the World Commission on Environment and Development’s 1987 definition of sustainability as economic development activity that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Within this rethink of MBA education, the ethico-spiritual basis of sustainability is never out of the frame. By definition, the topic of sustainability requires a broad interdisciplinary approach, as in, “our total footprint on the planet,” not just “our carbon footprint.” It proposes to bring together the two allied areas of sustainability and spirituality in a dialectical manner, with ethics acting as a balancing force and spirituality playing the role of the proverbial invisible hand guiding our quest for sustainability. It takes the view that, in essence, spirituality and sustainability are vitally interlinked and that there is no sustainability without spirituality.

The questions MBA programs and MBA students need to tackle:

  1. What can I do to change the future of the planet?
  2. What can business do to change the fate of our planet?
  3. What can we all do that is good for us, good for the society, and good for the planet?

It is incumbent on tomorrow’s business leaders to examine these issues objectively and to seek out diverse perspectives for reflection. As with any intellectual pursuit, the quest for food for thought ought to whet the intellectual appetite. At best, teachers can only open the door; students have to enter of their own volition.

Our economic system is committed to maximizing productivity and profits. This new credo for business education asks for an additional commitment: examine existing belief systems in light of the evidence presented, rather than scrutinizing the evidence in the light of preexisting notions. Believe nothing; research everything. This expectation is at the heart of every scientific endeavor. Be aware of confirmation bias and premature cognitive commitment. There is a difference between being on the side of the evidence and insisting that the evidence be on your side.

This is the most important key to understanding all profound questions of life and leadership. Aristotle is reported to have said the following of his teacher, Plato: “Plato is dear to me, but still dearer is truth.”


Satinder DhimanSatinder Dhiman is a professor of management and associate dean, chair, and director of the MBA program at Woodbury University’s School of Business in Burbank, California. He is the lead editor (with Joan Marques) of Spirituality and Sustainability: New Horizons and Exemplary Approaches and the Springer Handbook of Engaged Sustainability (forthcoming 2018).