10 Things Business Schools Must Teach About Sustainable Development

The acceleration of sustainable development initiatives across the global marketplace has stimulated a variety of responses from both global companies and business schools as they race to adapt to increasingly powerful demographic, economic and technological changes.

Yet the direct relationship between companies and business schools remains uneven, both in actions and in results. This is reflected in the often ad hoc nature of their collaboration, the differing approaches to teaching sustainable development, and the burgeoning need for new skill sets among graduates.

The World Environment Center recently convened 40 thought leaders from multinational companies across a variety of sectors, as well as representatives from academia and non-governmental organizations, to examine the critical skills required of business leaders implementing sustainable development. GBX logo inset

Following an examination of current teaching approaches, 10 major ideas emerged around which business schools can integrate sustainable development into their teaching methodologies and curricula:

1. Understand Geo-political, Economic and Marketplace Trends Related to Sustainability

The structure of competitive relationships within the global marketplace is changing in response to a range of drivers, including population growth, rapid expansion of mega-cities, growth of the middle class in less-developed nations, and climate change. As a result, business schools must convey the importance of these factors as they relate to a company's continued survival and the sustainability of its products and practices. Students must understand these linkages and recognize their role in reshaping markets and business strategies.

2. Emphasize the Role of Science and Innovation in Advancing Sustainable Business Opportunities

Sustainability has become a catalyst for developing new products and processes that create value for business while solving a societal problem. Students that understand how scientific investment and innovation inform the product development cycle will experience a smoother transition into the private sector.

3. Demonstrate that Sustainable Business Strategies Must Ultimately Yield Profits 

From an executive's perspective, sustainability is less about feeling good about your company's operations and more about how to maximize profits. Companies are increasingly modifying their product portfolios to take advantage of market opportunities introduced by sustainable development, such as alternative energy technologies, aircraft design, consulting services, green chemistry, information management services, materials design, and transportation fuels.

4. Examine the Role of Meaningful Partnerships and Opportunities for Efficiencies Along the Entire Value Chain

Sustainability encompasses the interconnectedness of players in the business world and cannot be fully achieved without considering both upstream and downstream activity. Global companies continue to experience rapid transformation in their structures, decision making processes and relationships with other companies through their value chains. Factors such as new business partners, the speed of decision making and sourcing of raw materials have become more prominent factors of success.

5. Stress the Importance of Communications Skills with Customers and Stakeholders

Given the evolution and greater transparency of civil society, combined with more product and service choices available to customers in many markets, the need for clear and effective communication at all levels of a company is essential. The ability to articulate the value that a company creates for its customers and stakeholders can expand its own flexibility in making and marketing its products and gaining access to key markets.