Sowing the Seeds of Sustainability

Business schools have key roles to play in helping the world achieve ambitious new sustainability goals.

It has been three years since nearly 50,000 people gathered in Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations’ Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development. The 2012 conference—which took place 20 years after the U.N.’s landmark Earth Summit in the same city—was the largest U.N. summit ever organized. It attracted representatives from governments, corporations, NGOs, youth movements, and higher education institutes. And given the myriad social, economic, and environmental challenges facing us, those in attendance had plenty to discuss.

While some participants felt the gathering fell short of achieving its aspirations, nonetheless it was an important step in the slow march toward sustainable development—and 2015 is poised to see two more major milestones achieved.

First, this September in New York, it is likely that the U.N. will agree to adopt a comprehensive set of global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs will set out a common direction for the Global North and South on governance and human rights, energy and climate, food and agriculture, water and sanitation, health, education, and gender equality.

Second, this December in Paris, the 2015 U.N. Climate Change Conference will attempt to negotiate a legally binding and universal agreement among all nations on what steps to take to abate climate change. While progress in this area has been tortuous and slow, governments have sent positive signals that they are committed to the cause. For instance, leaders of 28 EU countries have agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. And the United States and China have started to pave the way for potentially significant declines in greenhouse gas emissions.

Neither the SDGs nor climate change protocols can be achieved without the involvement of business, but there are signs that global businesses do support the agendas. For instance, at the 2013 U.N. Global Compact Leaders’ Summit, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon unveiled the Post-2015 Business Engagement Architecture, which discusses how corporations can contribute to the SDGs. (For information, visit At Ban’s 2014 Climate Summit, more than 1,000 companies from 60 countries called for a stable price for carbon. Firms like Philips, Yara, DSM, GSK, and SAB Miller are now putting well-being and sustainability at the heart of their corporate strategies.

The question remains: How can we accelerate the business contribution to sustainable development? It’s obvious that management education has a key role to play.


Business schools already are involved in activities that align with the SDGs. For instance, a growing number of business programs emphasize how companies can successfully compete and collaborate in the marketplace while engaging in sustainable practices. More schools are joining initiatives such as the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative, the Academy of Business in Society, and the U.N.-supported Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME).

Individual schools also are developing strategies for producing graduates who understand the importance of sustainability in the business world. Here are just two examples:

Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts—an early signatory of PRME—is working to integrate ethics, responsibility, sustainability, and community engagement throughout its curriculum. To facilitate this goal, the school has created “Gadfly,” a weeklong faculty development workshop in which faculty explore how to integrate ethical issues into their courses. The name references Socrates, who described himself as a gadfly whose purpose was to sting the Athenians out of their ignorance and intellectual complacency. At Bentley, the goal is to seed each academic department with gadflies who will prod their colleagues into adding discussions about ethics and responsible management to their classes.

The workshop consists of facilitated discussions among faculty from different disciplines, institutions, and geographic regions, as well as presentations by faculty who already integrate responsible management into their courses. By seeing how cases, videos, exercises, simulations, and debates can be used in class, faculty discover new ways to stimulate the moral imaginations of their students. They also see how service-learning activities can help students view the world through the eyes of different stakeholders.

But the workshop also is designed to help faculty capitalize on spontaneous teaching moments, especially when students are personally engaged in the subject at hand. For instance, workshop attendees might learn about Mary Gentile’s “Giving Voice to Values” program, which encourages students to reflect on and discuss experiences they’ve had in the workplace. (See “Voicing Values, Finding Answers” on page 40 in the July/August 2008 issue of BizEd or visit

The ultimate goal of the Gadfly program is to make faculty more comfortable with responsible management concepts, analysis, and application so they can help students make rational and ethical choices. Through the program, Bentley has made sure that responsible management is incorporated into virtually every discipline in the business school.

Ashridge Business School in the U.K. also has found significant ways to embed responsible and sustainable business into the curriculum. For years the school has offered a variety of options in this space: a specialist MSc program on sustainability and responsibility, which originally was created with The Body Shop’s Anita Roddick; an MBA program with a compulsory module on sustainable business; and an MSc in organizational change that includes a residential module on ecology at Schumacher College, an international center in the U.K. that provides courses on sustainable, social, and environmental issues.

More recently, the school has introduced systemic changes designed to embed sustainability into all degree-granting programs. Whenever a new program is introduced or an existing one comes up for revalidation, administrators must consider if and how to include sustainable development in its learning objectives, teaching approaches, and assessment metrics. School leaders also encourage the inclusion of responsible business content in any customized education program or consulting work.

For more ways that business schools are educating leaders who will embrace sustainable practice, see “Responsibility-Based Initiatives” at the end of this page.


The fact that so many business schools are offering programs about sustainability shows just how much progress higher education is making in this field. Another sign of progress is that PRME itself has seen significant growth since it was founded in 2007. Recently, PRME launched a series of regional chapters designed to create networks of schools in areas such as Europe, Asia, Latin America, and North America. Not only do these chapters encourage regional interaction among schools, they also increase the visibility of PRME—which now can claim more than 570 signatory schools in 80 countries.

In addition, PRME has founded the Champions group, in which participants examine and refine what leadership means within the context of responsible management education. They identify criteria for recognizing progress and lay out a roadmap for continuous improvement by all signatories in the PRME community. The PRME Champions group is modeled after the Global Compact’s LEAD initiative, which gathers corporate sustainability leaders from all regions and sectors to collaborate on driving change.

But an even more encouraging sign of progress—and a tangible outcome of the Rio+20 Summit—is that more business schools are analyzing their performance in terms of sustainability. In France, for example, more than one-third of higher education institutions currently use the “Green Plan,” a guide for developing their own sustainable development approaches; all will have to do so by 2016.

Meanwhile, the Platform for Sustainability Performance in Education has been launched with the support of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), UNESCO, PRME, and the U.N. Global Compact. It brings together organizations that have created sustainability assessment tools for higher education—including Life (used in the U.K. and Australia), STARS (the U.S.), CRUE (Spain), and USAT (South Africa). This platform provides educational institutions the means to evaluate the sustainability initiatives they have put in place.

The ultimate goal of Bentley’s Gadfly program is to make faculty more comfortable with responsible management concepts, so they can help students make rational and ethical choices.

One year ago, France’s Kedge Business School sponsored the first international sustainability literacy test for higher education, which established the bar for the minimum level of knowledge students need to meet goals of economic, social, and environmental responsibility. Today that test is available in eight languages and used by 275 universities. It has been taken by 26,000 students from 34 countries. Supported by major U.N. bodies, this program leads to greater benchmarking, integration, and transparency in sustainable development.


Taken together, all of these activities and initiatives suggest that change is indeed occurring—but not at a rate fast enough to help us solve the real challenges we face. If the world is to achieve the SDGs, more corporations need to embrace the Business Engagement Architecture. More business schools need to develop the curricular innovations and research initiatives that will point tomorrow’s leaders toward more sustainable outcomes. And the entire business school community needs to play an increasingly active role in creating the foundation that will enable us to reach these aspirational goals.