The “Green” MBA: When Sustainability Becomes Mainstream

Concepts like sustainable business, corporate social responsibility and environmentalism, once relegated to the status of electives, have become mainstays of many MBA programs.

Profitability. Employee satisfaction. The environment.

For a long time, this was the triple bottom line of every businessperson who dreamed of more than Ebenezer Scrooge-esque preoccupation with profit, who wanted to run a green or sustainable company, who wanted to use business to solve social ills like poverty and climate change.

But officials and students at MBA programs that specialize in these topics say that this triple bottom line no longer applies only to business people who want to work in a nonprofit or to save the environment. Now, it applies to, well, everyone.

"I think that all business schools are seeing that that triple bottom line focus is becoming more important for companies. Not only because it's good for the planet and humans, but because it's good for the actual bottom line," says Tyson Davies, a student at the University of Oregon's MBA program who's specializing in sustainable business.

That preoccupation with sustainability is evident both in companies' business practices and in the way they market themselves, with many firms now posting information about environmentally friendly practices on their websites.

"More and more companies are putting together sustainability reports for their stakeholders, and more and more are realizing the benefits that occur from a sustainability program inside their business. More are realizing the business case for sustainability," says Laura Strohm, program manager for the Center of Sustainable Business Practices at the University of Oregon.

"It's becoming obvious that it is more useful than, say, just saving electricity. It goes way beyond that. I think sustainability has been driving innovation, and that's where it gets really powerful."

More companies interested in CSR

Technology is one realm where sustainability is driving innovation, says Andrew Crane, director for the Center of Excellence in Responsible Business at the Schulich School of Business at Toronto's York University. One example would be the development of car parking apps, which help people save gas by driving around looking for parking spaces.

Business schools across the globe say that this focus at companies has translated to an increased interest in sustainable business, corporate social responsibility (CSR) and environmentalism at schools--for students everywhere.

"Before we were preaching to the choir: a small group of committed students interested in sustainability," says Crane. "Now, there's a much larger group that's open to it. They may not be dedicating their MBA to it, but many more students now see the general relevance of viewing strategy through the lens of sustainability."

Crane says that Schulich now expects students who want to go into fields such as marketing, finance, and accounting to understand issues surrounding sustainability just as thoroughly as students who want to become sustainability specialists or run nonprofits.

"It's our time now. Finally, I think sustainable business is coming forward. It's going to be the way of the future. and it's the way of now for companies that are really thinking and really going to last," Crane says.

But this focus on sustainability isn't only stemming from student interest; it's also shaped by business schools that are increasingly pushing these issues.

"Business schools themselves have been advocating these issues in a much more systematic way, which I think makes a big difference," Crane says.

See the top 10 MBA programs for a career in sustainability, CSR, or social entrepreneurship.

An increased interest in sustainability “is not just coming from student demand, that's one side of it, but also in terms of supply from business schools."

On the ground level, this application of sustainable principles to business can encourage students to work on problems such as solving poverty through business principles, or understanding the economics of climate change, says Nick Barniville, associate dean of degree programs at Berlin's European School of Management and Technology (ESMT) , where a Center for Sustainable Business opened in 2015 and where a sustainable business class recently went from an elective to a core subject.

"I don't think [sustainable business] is enough in itself to attract a full cohort, but it needs to be integrated into the brand for the school to survive," says Barniville.

For students who are interested in pursuing a career in sustainable business, the opportunities are also becoming broader and more varied. Strohm of the University of Oregon says she has one student who recently finished an internship at a sustainable fashion company in Los Angeles.

"She is going to have a lot of options," Strohm says.

Tyson Davies, who earned his undergraduate degree in environmental science and spent ten years working on an organic farm before matriculating in Oregon's MBA, said good business practices were essential to the farm's survival.

"The one thing that I saw when I was there is that the farmers are great farmers, but it's such a slim-margin business that if a farmer isn't a good business person, the farm can cease to exist," Davies says. "We had one passable year, one break-even year, and one where we lost a lot of money."

Is it all just hype?

ESMT’s Barniville says that all of this interest in sustainable business has undeniably led to a greater focus at business schools, but he's not sure whether it's led to an increase in meaningful study and content.

"It's becoming bigger from a marketing perspective, but is it becoming bigger from a content perspective?" says Barniville.

But even if some schools' programs have yet to catch up to the marketing hype, officials agree that the focus on sustainable business is not going away.

"I've been in this field for 20 years now and people have been asking if it's a bubble the entire time, and there's been no sign of that. Attention has just grown and grown," Schulich’s Crane says.

"I think the challenges we're facing are getting bigger. They're not going away, we're not solving them any time soon, so absolutely it's going to continue." 

Image: "Keep your Business Feet on the Ground" by Ross Tucknott / Flickr (cropped and rotated)

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