Active Lessons in Sustainability

Active Lessons in Sustainability

When it comes to teaching sustainability and corporate social responsibility in business school, a blend of theory and action may succeed best.

There will always be a few adherents of old-fashioned, “robber baron” capitalism with the view that sustainability—not to mention the whole concept of corporate social responsibility—has no place in the cutthroat world of business. Most of us have come to accept its value, not just as a good thing to do, but as a commercial imperative. One of the latest pieces of research on the subject, for example, by C.B. Bhattacharya of Germany’s European School of Management and Technology (ESMT) and Xueming Luo of the University of Texas at Arlington seems to conclusively prove that even a modest improvement in CSR ratings can deliver increase annual profits.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that the teaching of sustainable and responsible approaches to corporate management is now as commonplace as the teaching of entrepreneurship on business school campuses around the world. But what is the best way to get the message across in MBA programs? Should schools focus on making the academic case for doing the right thing, or will students only get the point if they are prompted by their teachers to put theory into immediate practice? The problem with the former is that it risks turning CSR into something of a classroom debate, easily forgotten once back in the workplace. The problem with the latter is that it can become an extension of a student charity that seems to have no relevance to the challenges faced by front-line business managers.

Off-campus in the real world, one high-profile individual who has had to face up to the “teach or do” question on a dauntingly massive scale is Irish musician, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Bob Geldof, who came up with two answers. The Live Aid approach of 1985 was all about tackling an immediate challenge, namely the Ethiopian famine. The Live 8 solution of 2005 was designed not to get us to send in our money (to bowdlerise Mr. Geldof), but to raise awareness and educate the public.

Which was more effective? Judge for yourself. While the first is etched in my memory—and Geldof’s infamous exhortation to contribute certainly got everyone I knew straight on the phone with a credit card—all I can really remember of the second event was watching Pink Floyd put their differences aside for half an hour—and seeing just how bad Pete Doherty, lead singer of the Libertines, could be.


Business schools seem to be taking the view that the practical element is essential if CSR lessons are to be rammed home. The Desautels faculty at Canada’s McGill University, for example, has packed students off to India on a field trip this month to get a first-hand view of what’s going on in one of the world’ s newer economic superpowers. The school is making sure that participants get some hands on CSR experience as part of the deal. Everyone taking part has been charged with contributing to an online business model that will raise funds via social media to help educate girls in some of India’s most-disadvantaged areas.

The organization Net Impact, which brings together a network of students and professionals who believe that a more socially and environmentally sustainable world is created through business, now counts 95 MBA programs from around the world as members. School chapters, such as one at the UCLA Anderson School of Management are attracting a new breed of students that wants to put business skills to use in a positive way, whether by incorporating environmental management practices into a large corporation, bringing microfinance to developing countries, working for a small nonprofit, or launching into the world of social entrepreneurship. At the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, students take part in a Habitat for Humanity project that involves raising funds for the construction of low-cost housing, then taking part in physical building work.

The most effective approach to creating a new generation of more responsible business leaders seems to lie not in one extreme or the other, but in a hybrid that embraces policy and theory on one side and rolled-up shirtsleeves on the other. As Nick Barniville of Germany’s ESMT puts it: “While we teach the value of sustainability, responsible leadership and the role of business in society, that’s simply not enough for today’s students. They want to take their newly acquired knowledge and put it into practice, not at some ill-defined point in the future, but right now. Teaching and action have to go hand in hand.”

Bob Geldof yelling for cash in a business school lecture room? We might just be onto something very big here.

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