Why Aren’t Our Sustainability Programs Teaching Excel?

Lessons from our sustainability case competition.
What About Excel?

I RECENTLY SPOKE with a director of finance and sustainability at a large, publicly traded real estate investment company who told me that the first question he asks every candidate he interviews is this: “Do you know how to use Excel?” He emphasized how difficult it is to find candidates with backgrounds in sustainability who also know how to use this essential tool for analysis. His experience reflects a gap I see at many business schools, where sustainability courses often overemphasize qualitative skills, while de-emphasizing quantitative and analytical skills.

I’ve seen the same imbalance in industry. For example, in its 2010 Competency Survey of its members, the International Society of Sustainability Professionals found that respondents placed far greater emphasis on soft skills such as communicating well, solving problems, and inspiring and motivating others than on hard skills such as strategic planning and project management. Similarly, when the Weinreb Group, a sustainability recruiting firm, shared the top skills it seeks in job candidates, it emphasized collaboration, social innovation, sustainability literacy, and emotional intelligence.

I agree that soft skills are critically important. I have worked as a sustainability professional in renewable energy, local food systems, and community development, and I have been a consultant with many companies. Soft skills have been fundamental in each area. But overemphasizing them when it comes to sustainability has created some collateral damage: Sustainability has become soft. Or at least, that’s the perception.

How did this happen? My hypothesis is that so-called hard, analytical skills have been closely linked to old-school capitalism, which has been criticized for focusing too narrowly on short-term profits, for viewing labor as a cost to be managed, and for considering nature merely as a source for raw materials and a sink for manufacturing waste. In an attempt to distance themselves from that school of thought, academics have overcorrected. Concepts such as biomimicry, circular economy, and systems thinking have crowded out spreadsheets and cost models. In our overzealous desire to fashion a new world order, we have discarded many basic tools of business.

That’s like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as the saying goes. In doing so, we give students the impression that sustainability is more intuitive than analytical. But let me be clear: It is both. If we want to reinvent the system, we need people who can do more than identify the world’s problems; they must use strong business fundamentals to solve those problems. We need to teach students to bring the baby back.


We’re trying to do more to highlight the importance of hard skills in the MBA Sustainability Case Competition, launched in 2014 at Penn State’s University Park campus. Each year, this competition gives us the opportunity to assess submissions from MBA students from business schools around the U.S.— to date about 700 students in all. I’ve been impressed, and at times downright amazed, by these students’ intelligence and creativity. However, I’ve also been dismayed that so many do not show greater skill in applying quantitative skills to sustainability problems.

What skills make the difference between teams that win prizes and those that walk away empty-handed? And what might this tell us about what business students should be learning about sustainability? At the Smeal College of Business, we have found that the students who perform best share the following traits:

They demonstrate strong analytical skills. Teams that perform best are able to analyze the environmental and social costs and benefits of business decisions; they present sustainability plans that can survive the harsh realities of competing priorities and budgets. I am bewildered by how many teams do not include a spreadsheet or financial analysis in their presentations. It is as if sustainability exists in an upside-down world that operates in a dimension free of math, accountants, and unforgiving markets.

Too many of these students believe that sustainability is a soft, highly conceptual discipline divorced from business fundamentals. But when that director of finance and sustainability advises students to learn Excel, he’s really saying that if students want to do battle for sustainability, they shouldn’t bring a knife to a gun fight.

They have “know-how,” not just “know-why.”

When we test students’ knowledge before and after each competition, we see a gap between our students knowing why sustainability is important and knowing how to implement it.

For example, before the competition last year we asked students to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, how comfortable they would be explaining to a corporate executive why sustainability is important for business. Nearly 72 percent rated their comfort levels at 4 or 5, with 5 being most comfortable. Fewer than 5 percent ranked their comfort levels at 1 or 2. But when we asked participants to rate how comfortable they would be explaining how to incorporate sustainability into a business, only 33 percent ranked their confidence at 4 or 5, and a full 20 percent ranked their confidence at only 1 or 2.

One possible reason for this discrepancy is that we are not giving students enough opportunities either to work with hard data coming out of industry or to analyze the cause-and-effect realities of business decisions. Today, we know that 1,300 companies are setting internal prices on carbon, and 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies are producing sustainability reports. Businesses are making startling advances in clean tech, smart buildings, blockchain, sustainability accounting, and impact investing; and marketers know more than ever about consumer behaviors as they relate to sustainability. But data on these topics seldom make it to classroom discussions about sustainability.

As business educators, we need to find better ways to engage with business, bring more hard data into our classrooms, and keep our curricula up-todate with industry. Only then will we be able to help students develop “knowhow” to go with their “know-why.”

They understand the concept of ecological interdependence. Some teams in our competition demonstrate only elementary knowledge of how the environment, society, and business interact, let alone what to do about the problems that arise as a result of these interactions. We need to teach students that business is a part of and totally reliant on the biophysical world, and expose them to the hard skills in that context. As Gaylord Nelson, a former U.S. senator, stated so well on the first Earth Day in 1970: “The economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around.”


As the environmentalist David Orr once said, “All education is environmental education.” By what we choose to include or leave out, students are learning about how business interacts with markets, nature, and human communities around the world. At Penn State, we’ve taken that statement to heart. That’s why, based on what we’ve learned, we have decided to infuse sustainability throughout the business curriculum— in fact, we’re making it a requirement. For every assignment, presentation, and proposal, we will ask students to complete a proper sustainability analysis of the problem. They must not only identify and quantify all relevant social risks, environmental risks, costs, and opportunities related to their proposals, but also explain how their proposals address these risks and opportunities.

As more business schools integrate sustainability into their courses, I encourage them not just to balance the conceptual and analytical standards for sustainability, but to raise those standards higher. Course content should be challenging and rigorous; it should be part of the midterm, the final exam, and the course assessment rubric. Only when students feel confident in the basic tools of business, and can answer “yes” to questions about their proficiency with Excel, will they be able to achieve careers of great purpose—that is, to change the world.

Erik Foley is director of sustainability at the Smeal College of Business at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. The school will be holding its fifth annual MBA Sustainability Case Competition finals on November 30 and December 1.