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"It’s very rare to find an integrated view of sustainability together with finance."

2011-11-03

Co.Exist

The Wrong Kind Of Green: Business Schools Fail At Teaching Sustainability

Want to get a leg up on a job after business school? Focus on sustainability. Businesses are starting to put environmental and ethical issues at the executive level, but they’re finding their recruits more than disappointing.

It seems like nobody is very happy with the way business schools are teaching sustainability. Last month, we wrote about Aspen Insitute’s Beyond Grey Pinstripes report, and its criticism that b-schools are still failing to integrate social and environmental issues into mainstream teaching. Now comes a similar conclusion from a different direction: companies themselves.

The nonprofit World Environment Center and Net Impact, a professional networking group, interviewed 33 sustainability managers at companies like DuPont, Walmart, IBM, and Unilever, and found that many are dissatisfied with today’s MBA graduates. The managers said they often have to retrain new recruits when they join because their skills and knowledge are either outdated, or impractical.

“Many business schools lag behind where companies have evolved,” says Terry Yosie, president and CEO of the WEC. “They are still teaching sustainability in the context of the Brundtland Report, which provided a framework for sustainability back in 1986. Companies have moved well beyond that, because of the reality of the marketplace.”

Yosie says there has been a general failure to properly integrate sustainability teaching into mainstream subjects, such as finance. Too often schools continue to treat the environment as a nice-to-have, rather than an essential part of doing business.

“There are a number of business schools that treat sustainability as philanthropy or good citizenship, whereas the companies are looking at it as part of a business process. It’s very rare to find an integrated view of sustainability together with finance, marketing, and operations research.”

An exception is the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, which is singled out in the report as a model for others. “There you have some of the environmental faculty in one part of the university working very closely with faculty in the business school, and students are taking coursework, so they are understanding how the environmental issues integrate with the business issues,” says Yosie.

But the report recommends that businesses collaborate more closely with b-schools, so teaching is relevant. It also suggests that schools listen to their students more, as they are often aware of the latest sustainability trends before teaching staff are.

Above all, companies need graduates who are able to apply what they learn to the reality of company life, Yosie says. "There are going to be very few specific sustainability jobs. Mostly companies are going to be looking for people to integrate sustainability in their day-to-day jobs in the company."

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3 Comments

  • Guest

    As a top-tier business student who is pursuing concurrent degrees in sustainability, I would fully agree with the article. My own school does emphasize sustainability fairly well, but it is clearly an afterthought - tacked on after the fundamentals of finance, accounting, operations, etc. when sustainable, holistic approaches require fundamental shifts in mindset which need to be woven in from the beginning.

    However, I am currently searching the job market for internship possibilities and find there is very little interest in sustainability-minded business students - at least in the advertised portion of the job market. As I am aware of the trends I am sure this will change, but it is frustrating at the moment to see.

  • Alice Korngold

    For companies looking at long-term shareholder value, not
    simply quarterly returns, sustainability is part of the company’s core strategy
    and even on the board of directors’ agenda. One good example, as described here in my Fast Company blog is
    Kimberly Clark: http://www.fastcompany.com/175...
     We’ll be discussing this at my plenary
    panel next week at the Thunderbird Global Business Dialog http://bit.ly/jdCmuH with KC and Ignia, http://www.ignia.com.mx/bop/ leaders in
    Impact Investing Venture Capital; 900 attendees will be joining us from around
    the world.

    Yes, MBA programs should prepare students to understand that sustainability is essential to the core strategy, and should also teach about board governance. But much of this learning is experiential as well.  There's only so much one can learn in a classroom.

  • Kate

    Ok. Yes, the educational system, as reported, is kinda...failing. Nevertheless, maybe, the other part that is missing, is that these companies need a broader view of the array of professionals out there that are capable to manage the challenges they are facing in the actual context of sustainability.  Not only business professionals are the ones that get the "gist" of what is sustainability. A broader spectrum of disciplines are incorporating sustainability into their programs (yes, in there the Brundtland report was the foundation of where are we standing now). Unfortunately, existing partnerships with these companies for them to get into internships are kinda rare; therefore, it is really difficult to them to show the added value they bring to the companies.
    In conclusion, it is also a matter to get out of the preconception that "this type of professional" is the only one that "gets the gist of sustainability" and "is going to make it work". We are in the era of "cross-functionality". Kudos to those which this post didn't tell them nothing new.