How Business Schools Are Encouraging Solutions to the World's Sustainability Problems

Tuesday, March 19, 2019 at 1am

People across borders are feeling hopeless. Mother Nature is fulfilling the prophesies of climate change, throwing extreme weather in our path. The damage is wreaking havoc on resources. Some people are hungry and without shelter. Violence persists in many regions. Education is lacking. The gap between the rich and poor is deep and wide.

These are just some of the challenges facing societies and cultures around the world today. There is, however, room for optimism, and business schools play an important part in this. Here’s how business could be the answer to the world's problems.

The triple bottom line
Governments, despite their many promises, are failing to effectively address the issues mentioned above. On the other hand, innovators with grand visions for the future could solve the world's problems, either fully or partly. Businesses have the potential to effect real change, precisely because they aren’t weighed down by bureaucracy in the same way as lawmakers.

You can't talk about these ideas without mentioning the triple bottom line, a term coined by John Elkington in 1994. He was referring to businesses that focus on profits, people, and planet, according to the Economist.

The idea is that some companies take measure of how much they are earning and other societal consequences of their work. For instance, using cheap child labor to produce your goods in a country without regulations would be a negative measurement for the people bottom line, while polluting waters or air while manufacturing or delivering goods would lose you points on the planet bottom line.

Recognizing the world's problems
There was a time when companies were more concerned with profits than anything else. Some might argue, to an extent, that this is still true today. After all, Wall Street has responded favorably to the removal of regulations, including those protecting the environment, since the start of 2017.

But, in the mid-1990s, people started to realize the impact of businesses beyond job creating and selling goods and services. Their means of working had consequences - good, bad, and ugly - on humanity and the environment. "In the simplest terms, the TBL agenda focuses corporations not just on the economic value that they add, but also on the environmental and social value that they add – or destroy," writes Elkington.

With the rise of social media, consumers have become more aware of everything. As a result, businesses are held accountable through posts on platforms, such as Facebook, and in online reviews. There's no hiding.

At the same time, the generation behind millennials is already demanding more of business and government. The gun control debate in the United States, which recently has been led by students who survived the Parkland High School shooting, is proof of this. These students have helped to convince some companies to change their policies to make it harder for people to get a hold of guns.

One of the protestors, David Hogg, called on advertisers to boycott a leading conservative pundit who had attacked him on Twitter - and it worked. You may see this as good or bad, depending on your political leanings, but it can’t be denied that it’s evidence young people are holding businesses accountable. This tells us something about the future.

Obviously, businesses cannot afford to remain blind to what consumers see as the world's problems. They won't let them ignore anything. Any misstep is going to be visible and there could be a quick and efficient response. In the case of boycotts, entire businesses could be wiped out.

Examples of businesses taking action
"Businesses should be more than about making revenues and profits," said Apple CEO Tim Cook on "Revolution: Apple Changing the World," an interview that originally aired on MSNBC April 6, 2018.

During this interview, Cook was announcing education initiatives. The company is offering a curriculum, "Everyone Can Create," which intertwines courses already taught at school with technology. Basically, it’s offering coding courses.

"Our view is that education is the great equalizer of people," Cook said. "And if you look at many of the issues that we face in society today, that you can find their root in [the fact] people don’t have access to quality education. Maybe they don’t have access at all."

In addition, Apple is providing some teachers the opportunity to learn coding for free through a partnership with Northwestern University and Lane Tech, a high school in Chicago.

Elsewhere, Elon Musk has made an entire business of inventing ways to influence change, particularly when it comes to turning the tide on climate change. Also, healthcare companies are investing in renewable energy and other environmentally friendly policies. They’re also promoting diets full of locally grown produce, which is more sustainable.

“We understand the clear connection between a healthy environment and the health of individuals,” said Kathy Gerwig, a vice president at Kaiser Permanente, according to Entrepreneur.

“Preventing environmental causes of illness is the main objective of our sustainability program. We also recognize that the health care industry’s impact on pollution and waste is substantial, and we want to be proactive in combatting it.”

What this means for business schools
For years, graduate business schools have been recognizing the economic opportunities associated with addressing issues such as climate change. Yale School of Management was ahead of the curve, as the university has a long history of focusing on these environmental challenges through its School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. 

"For half a century we have dealt with traditional sustainability issues—resource availability, energy, climate change—by thinking about what you cannot do," says Paul Anastas, faculty director of Sustainability at Yale SOM. "There has been a transformation to thinking about what you can create, invent, and innovate by aligning sustainability issues with economic drivers and market forces."

Many other schools are taking notice of sustainability in business. At the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Center for Sustainable Enterprise, the priority is to integrate relevant issues and strategies into various programs. In addition, it supports the MBA Sustainable Enterprise Enrichment Concentration, which requires 15 electives.

Clearly, business schools are recognizing the demand for leaders who have the tools to address these challenges, and, in turn, they’re providing specialized programs.

Altruism is not the driving force behind this movement. Yes, doing the right thing has the potential to give you a good reputation, but that's not the only reason to try to solve the world's problems. It will resonate with many consumers, which could influence the bottom line.

Frankly, sustainability is the avoidance of depletion. In other words, it's a strategy for endurance. These innovations have the potential to be money makers. Green businesses, for instance, can replace obsolete jobs in energy.

True business leaders recognize that sometimes the greatest challenge serves as the best opportunity, and they seize it.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.


Written by Nunzio Quacquarelli

Nunzio is the founder and CEO of QS. Following completion of his own MBA from the Wharton School,
he has gone on to become a leader in education management with over 25 years of experience in the industry.
He is truly passionate about education and firmly believes in the QS mission to help young people to fulfil their
potential through educational achievement, international mobility and career development.

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