What sustainability means in an MBA curriculum

There is little debate about the responsibility of business schools to help achieve economic, social, and environmental sustainability by facing the global challenges of climate change, income inequality, urbanisation, migration, and an ageing population. What should MBA programmes do to develop managers with the requisite skills and knowledge?

Addressing different aspects of environmentalism alone is far too narrow to equip managers with the expertise needed to address the full range of sustainability challenges we face. Rather, sustainability needs to be interpreted through several different MBA topics. A good example of this is the Global Risk Report published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), which looks at the most pressing risks facing the world. The report identifies environmental risks, but it also uses four other risk categories: economic, geopolitical, societal, and technological. Each of these threatens, in different ways, the broader sustainability of our world and requires different knowledge and approaches from both individuals and organisations.

At Exeter, we open our full-time MBA programme with an intensive discussion of the WEF risks and their implications for the world, and for individual students and their MBA goals. Our focus is looking at sustainability through science, innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship. Science provides the knowledge base that inspires innovation; technology is the practical means to convert innovation into entrepreneurial projects. Finally, leadership enables entrepreneurs to build businesses for economic and social-wealth creation and to achieve environmental sustainability.

We should not underestimate the difference between learning about sustainability and having the skills to create sustainable practice. MBA graduates need to be capable of leading change, often by challenging accepted practice. Theory must at some point become real. Everyone in a classroom will readily agree on the problem of our excessive use of plastics and the terrible threat to our oceans this poses. But implementing action that leads to an actual reduction of plastic use in organisations is a different matter. One of our MBA students is addressing this challenge now, and has started working with British retailer Marks & Spencer to look at how plastic packing across its supply chain can be reduced, while protecting shelf-life and product quality.

Schools must find a way to integrate traditional, core business knowledge and practice with sustainable management techniques. For example, our students study circular-economy principles by using design-thinking techniques to reduce waste from a global fast-moving consumer-goods firm. The students’ proposals are assessed on how they apply principles from their economics, operations, and strategy modules—topics that sit squarely in a more traditional MBA curriculum. The exercise has the added benefit of creating a sense of shared purpose among the MBAs.

Partnerships are another vital component to the MBA, by allowing students to implement theory in the real world. Exeter’s approach to MBA teaching was initially developed in 2011 in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a charity, setting the foundation for our commitment to environmental sustainability. Since then we have engaged with a range of organisations and problems. These include understanding the implications of using synthetic microfibres for travel and adventure clothing with retailer Kathmandu, working with Coca-Cola to investigate circular-economy business models in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and carrying out a feasibility study for a “surplus-food-to-pig-feed” process. Our MBA students have worked in organisations’ sustainability teams, others in technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

Partnerships also bring current challenges into the classroom. Some of Exeter’s students have worked with a local charity, Hospiscare, to help develop its business model, to maximise future sustainable income. Taking account of social and technological trends, the students produced a comprehensive business-model innovation report, identifying a range of ideas.

MBA programmes need to take an integrated, detailed, and practical perspective on the full range of global risks and challenges. The creation of sustainable practice is rapidly becoming the mainstream of industrial, societal, and technological progress globally. Put simply, companies that are perceived to be uncaring of the impact of their practices do not have a sustainable future.

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