Sustainability has been a hot button issue for many Americans, especially Millennials and Gen Zers. But as the pandemic, climate change, and social justice concerns prevail, the environment and social justice have become even bigger priorities for many.
“Climate change is the existential crisis,” says Sandra Navalli, Managing Director for the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise at Columbia Business School. “I think we hear it a lot in media outlets, but in the business world, it’s going to affect everything.”
More than half of global consumers say environmental sustainability is more important now than just 12 months ago, according to a February 2022 study conducted by IBM’s Institute for Business Value.
And consumers aren’t just thinking about it, they’re shifting their behaviors. In IBM’s study, 49% say they’re paying a premium—on average 59% more– to support sustainable brands and products.
“Every part of operations and the environment we operate in- it’s hard to think of any part of a business that couldn’t be potentially affected by climate change,” Navalli says.
That means it’s no longer enough for business schools to just focus on maximizing profits, future business leaders must know strategies to address environmental and societal concerns.
“Whether you’re talking about the Black Lives Matter Movement, or #metoo or the war in Ukraine, what are companies doing to respond to those issues and when should a company say something or do something and when should they not and how do they come up with that rubric to decide,” questions Carolyn Miles, Special Advisor and Executive Fellow at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.
As businesses grapple with policies around sustainability, business schools are beefing up their curriculum to prepare students.
Back in 2021, Miles, the first female CEO for the nonprofit, Save the Children, developed an overview course on sustainability for Darden.
“This was just a year ago in the summer, I really had a hard time finding cases on sustainability,” she says. “I was just on the case center website and looking at cases now and if you look at the case studies, a lot of them written in 2021, 2022, so really it is becoming a much bigger piece of the curriculum.”
In her course, students learn about the evolution of sustainability from the days of corporate social responsibility to the current ESG (environmental, social, and governance) era.
In the past, business schools prioritized shareholder theory, which says business leaders should only focus on maximizing shareholder value.
Miles says stakeholder theory is becoming more prominent. That concept prioritizes all of a company’s stakeholders, such as customers, employees, and the community.
Grasping stakeholder theory is key for all business students, according to Miles, even if they don’t land a job with ‘sustainability’ in the title.
“If I’m an operations person, I’m going to be held accountable for what’s happening in my supply chain and if I’m not understanding of how sustainability affects my supply chain, it’s going to be very difficult to do my job,” she explains.
The Student Perspective
Priya Prasad graduated from Columbia’s Business School in 2022. Through the school’s Tamer Center for Social Enterprise, she helped implement sustainable solutions for businesses in real time.
“My team worked with a local company based out of New York City that was designing sustainable office spaces and we worked to essentially quantify their emissions footprint,” she says.
She says the experience helped prepare her for a new position at the Department of Commerce, helping governments provide sustainable energy.
“I’m really excited to leverage what I learned there and continue to learn in this new role,” Prasad adds.
Darden and Columbia are working to add electives covering topics like “Climate Finance” and ‘Transitioning to Net Zero,” while also infusing these principals in the core, first-year curriculum.
Students are not only embracing these shifts– they want more of them.
“They want more courses,” says Navalli. “They want more experiential learning, and they want to see more conferences on this topic.”
“They want it to be very current,” adds Miles. “They want the latest that’s happening in their field to be part of what they’re learning. It’s a field that’s changing really really fast.”
Why it Matters
Miles says everything is at stake, especially for vulnerable populations.
“The poorest people in the world live in the most unsustainable environments a lot of times,” she says. “They live in places that are super susceptible to drought and floods and typhoons and really climate-driven disasters. They’re also very socially excluded.”
“It’s part of your life,” Prasad says. “We all live in the planet, and we want to leave it in a good way for future generations. So for me it’s a part of living and seeing what businesses can do to be a part of the solution.” “And we have to move faster,” says Navalli. “We need to accelerate impact because when you look at the latest on emissions data, it’s a dire emergency, so how do we help businesses implement and grapple with these challenges but in a much faster way?”
Photos by Noah Buscher & Mika Baumeister
About the author
Shernay is a mom, entrepreneur, and lifelong learner who's been fortunate to spend her entire professional career telling stories. She has more than a decade of experience as a TV, print, and radio journalist for local and national news outlets. In 2016, she launched a content firm to help nonprofits and businesses tell their stories more strategically. Her passions: mom empowerment, entrepreneurship, and self-development.
She lives outside of Baltimore with her two sons.