Bringing Social Impact and Sustainability Goals Into the Curriculum

As young people challenge accepted business practices and take leadership into their own hands, business schools are beginning to adapt to shifting student expectations. 
SAGE lead

On Friday, September 20, 2019, an estimated 4 million people across more than 150 countries marched the streets to take part in the Global Youth Climate Strike. In solidarity with 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, children and students demanded those in power to implement green renewable energy and sustainable agriculture policies.

It was the latest in an increasing number of youth-led protests. Faced with a future that stands to look radically different, young people are mobilizing to lead growing, worldwide movements that urge corporations and governments to take action toward more sustainable, equitable practices. Nineteen-year-old David Hogg and his 16-year-old sister Lauren Hogg are leading the movement for gun control. Twenty-one-year-old Nadya Okamoto founded PERIOD.org, a nonprofit that provides access to feminine sanitary products to women and girls who might not otherwise be able to afford them.. Nineteen-year-old Katie Eder is a social entrepreneur who founded Future Coalition, a U.S. network that connects youth-led organizations with each other to share resources.

As young people challenge accepted business practices and take leadership into their own hands, business schools are beginning to adapt to shifting student expectations. The UN-supported PRME initiative to raise the profile of sustainability in business and management schools has more than 650 signatories around the world. Moreover, a growing number of universities are providing concentrations and degrees around social entrepreneurship and sustainable development, and many are building centers focused on social impact. Others provide consulting, funding, and mentorship opportunities for students interested in nonprofit or social ventures.

Key to these burgeoning programs is coursework that exposes students to changing social and economic priorities within the context of real-life businesses. Since launching in 2016, SAGE Business Cases (SBC) has sought to innovate teaching resources by offering up-to-date case studies in emerging fields of business scholarship like Women and Leadership. In 2019, SBC debuted its Sustainability and Social Impact case series, which examine the successes and missteps of both longtime and startup social ventures and businesses trying to incorporate green practices.

“Business as usual is no longer sustainable,” says Brad Long, the John T. Sears Chair of Corporate Social Responsibility at Nova Scotia’s St. Francis Xavier University and a contributor to SBC’s Social Impact series. “To maintain their position in society, business schools will have to demonstrate how they are a part of the solution, and not stuck teaching ways of operating that have contributed to the problems of today.”

Those ways of operating are also beginning to evolve. In August 2019, the Business Roundtable released a statement outlining the updated purpose of a corporation, which highlights a fair and ethical supply chain, investment in a diverse and inclusive workforce, and protection of the environment and its local community. SBC’s Social Impact and Sustainability case studies help bring this purpose to life and can empower students to take on leadership positions as they build toward a more sustainable future.

“Business schools can help develop leaders who will prioritize environmental and social outcomes, and who will critique incremental measures often done under the name of corporate social responsibility in favor of bold commitments,” says Long.

The case method teaches responsible leadership by putting students in decision-making roles. For student activists who are already leading or participating in youth-led movements, case studies can offer real-life lessons in terms of successful and unsuccessful strategy. The case studies that make up SBC’s growing Social Impact and Sustainability series can help prepare students with the skills they need to navigate—and to shape—the changing business landscape.

As an author of a Social Impact case, Long hopes the series will help supplant course materials that ask students to perpetuate business methods that no longer align with the kind of social impact and sustainability goals they’re demanding from governments and corporations.

“We remain caught between paradigms, teaching students raised under the old, individualistic business model and those who envision something better,” he says. “We need to commit to our common future to continue to attract tomorrow’s students.”

Learn more about SAGE Business Cases.


RRachel Taliaferro is an Acquisitions Editor with SAGE Business Cases. If you’re interested in publishing a case study, please contact her at rachel.taliaferro@sagepub.com.

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