Sustainability trends on the business school campus

sustainability trends on business school campus

From companies, investors and workers, to communities, regulators and policymakers, no one is immune to the physical impacts of climate change. 

Business schools play a key role in shaping the mindsets and skills of future leaders and can be powerful drivers of corporate sustainability. The students enrolled in business school today will grapple with both the immediate challenges of climate change and the long-term challenges of ensuring a sustainable planet, no small feat. Increasingly, they are recognizing their responsibilities and prioritizing schools that reflect their passion for the planet. When it comes to school selection, many seek out sustainability coursework and principles that match their personal beliefs. Rising to the challenge, some business schools are pivoting and developing programs to better prepare future leaders to tackle the global environmental emergency.

Rise in student interest

For over a decade, the Princeton Review’s Guide to Green Colleges has acted as a go-to resource for applicants seeking schools with strong commitments to the environment in their campus policies, programs, and practices.

“Since we debuted this project 13 years ago, we have seen an increasing interest among college applicants in attending colleges that are committed to the environment and to green practices,” said Rob Franek, Editor in Chief of The Princeton Review. He noted that of the 10,400 college applicants participating in The Princeton Review’s 2022 College Hopes & Worries Survey, an overwhelming majority—77%—said information about a college’s commitment to the environment would affect their decision to apply to or attend the school. Of that cohort, 37% said such information would contribute “strongly” or “very much” to their decision about a school.

“Over the years, we have also seen a significant growth in the number of colleges pivoting to sustainability-related policies and programs,” Franek added.

Similarly, a survey of over 2,000 MBA students led by the Yale Center for Business and the Environment finds that business students are increasingly concerned about the climate crisis and want sustainability to be more integrated into their education and their professional lives. 

The percentage of students who consider themselves knowledgeable about environmental sustainability is on the rise, too. 41% say they are “very” or “extremely” knowledgeable on the topic, up from 21% in 2015. Students say that business leaders must take an important role in solving environmental problems like the climate crisis. Sixty-one percent of students believe that businesses should share the responsibility for environmental crises equally with the government, with another 15% believing business should take a more primary role. But only 20% say that businesses are making the necessary efforts to address the current challenges.

Priya Prasad, who graduated from Columbia’s Business School in 2022, helped implement sustainable solutions for businesses in real time through the school’s Tamer Center for Social Enterprise.

“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 told MBAchic

The experience prepared her for a position at the Department of Commerce, helping governments provide sustainable energy. She says coursework that’s focused on sustainability is relevant to all industries, and can be a part of anyone’s career path. 

“We all live on 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,” Prasad said. 

Schools get serious about sustainability 

Engaging in sustainability issues through tailored coursework and co-curricular activities allows students to deepen and apply their understanding of sustainability principles as they learn. Institution-sponsored co-curricular sustainability offerings, often coordinated by student affairs offices, can also help integrate sustainability into the campus culture and set a positive tone. Some MBA programs are taking the necessary steps to equip faculty and staff with the tools, knowledge, and motivation to adopt behavior changes that promote sustainability and keep them competitive. Nearly 1,000 higher education institutions are already accessing sustainability resources through The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. Below, MBAchic is highlighting a few examples of successful innovative sustainability initiatives across various MBA programs. 

Darden on decreasing carbon footprints

In Financial Times’ latest Global MBA Ranking 2023 of the world’s Top 100 global business schools, Darden jumped to the top of the category “Best for Carbon Footprint,” which assesses how schools tackle emissions. FT reported that Darden “achieved neutrality partly by guaranteeing payments for electricity generated without fossil fuels, allowing the provider a new solar plant that supplies the school.” The carbon footprint ranking is calculated using the school’s net zero target year for carbon emissions set by the university and school along with a carbon emission audit report.

Darden reached carbon neutrality in 2019 and has set ambitious sustainability targets to be reached by 2030. Darden school professor of practice, Carolyn Miles, tells MBAchic that the school believes they can achieve even more progressive goals, preparing MBAs to tackle difficult climate change issues. 

“In 2021, we rolled out a set of new sustainability goals for 2030 that represent how we live (operational goals) and how we learn (research and teaching goals),” she explains. 

On grounds, Darden is focusing on reducing waste, sourcing sustainable goods, and electrifying and greening building systems. In the classroom, educators are working to expand the number of sustainability-focused courses and incorporate sustainability themes into core curriculum. 

“Our Sustainability Advisory Council, which includes faculty, staff, students, and alumni, has been pivotal in developing strategies for implementing projects in support of the 2030 goals,” she adds. “We believe that to truly have impact, sustainability must be incorporated into everything we do.”

Durham University doubles down on ERS

Durham University Business School has ethics, responsibility, and sustainability (ERS) as one of its MBA transversal themes, running through all areas of the curriculum. The overarching goal of the University Strategy is to secure academic success and a world-leading position on a sustainable basis. As part of the requirement to be sustainable, the University is committed to making Durham one of the most environmentally sustainable universities in the UK. Through enabling behavioral change, actively reducing CO2 emissions and working with the academic and student environmental champions, it jumped 66 places in the 2021 People and Planet Green League rankings, making it the most improved university in this league table which ranks sustainability at UK universities. 

A dedicated Energy and Sustainability Team coordinates university environmental initiatives, aided by staff environmental champions and student representatives. Each year the university runs a Green Move Out scheme, which allows students to donate unwanted items to charity; a MyGreenspace app allows staff and students to log environmental activities; and last year Durham launched the Greenspace Festival – a now-annual opportunity to raise awareness and share ideas.

It is one of more than 850 business and management-related higher education institutions across 96 countries that have joined the UN Global Compact’s Principles for Responsible Management Education, which was formed in 2007 and requires schools to submit progress reports.

“The PRME initiative was launched to nurture responsible leaders of the future,” said United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. “Never has this task been more important. Bold leadership and innovative thinking are needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Part of Durham’s Environmental Sustainability Vision, Policy, and Strategy is to be constantly improving to meet new goals. This is why they have pledged to introduce more environmental sustainability into their research agenda, teaching curriculum and Durham Award scheme; improve governance regarding environmental compliance; reduce waste, energy and water consumption proportionally against growth in staff and student numbers; and better monitor and improve on the biodiversity of their estate.

Wharton works towards a brighter world

At The Wharton School, MBA students can major in business, energy, environment and sustainability (BEES), adding in-depth foundations in the complex relationships between business and the natural environment, management of environmental risks and the business and economics of energy. Starting in the 2023-2024 academic year, in addition to existing programs, students can also pursue new academic paths like environmental, social, and governance factors for business (ESGB), as well as social and governance factors for business (SOGO). As part of the University of Pennsylvania, ranked the eighth most sustainable university in the world, quality students share a passion for sustainability but span a variety of cultural and industrial differences.

Brian Berkey, a Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics, recently co-authored The Climate Imperative for Business, an article published in the California Management Review. It aims to answer a few questions every professional should ponder: what do we have to do to change the world toward a sustainable path on climate, and are businesses making this kind of progress toward slowing climate change? “Some firms have made significant strides and taken real steps to change the way that they operate, while others have done little or nothing,” Berkey told Wharton. “And some have engaged in quite a bit of greenwashing – claiming to have become more environmentally friendly while doing little to actually improve their environmental practices. So, while some progress has been made, it’s been uneven and much too slow overall, and so there’s quite a long way to go.”

Still, this is where the active MBA student clubs and innovative student activities provide some much needed hope and strategy for more sustainable future business decision makers. 

After attending ClimateCAP, second-year Wharton MBA candidate, Elsa Mou, told Wharton she was further convinced that companies can do well by doing good. “Whether or not returns are concessionary is no longer a discussion, because impact funds are increasingly demonstrating market-rate returns.”

To incentivize clean energy adoption and energy efficiency, some governments have responded with new proposals like the historic U.S. Inflation Reduction Act or Europe’s REPower EU. These plans could help maintain investment momentum in key technologies and ultimately deliver a faster energy transition with increased energy security for countries and companies alike. Undoubtedly, future leaders will be faced with weighing long-term climate goals and near-term urgencies. Time will tell if more business schools will make a concerted effort to reimagine coursework to reflect the increased interest in business environmental sustainability and better prepare MBAs to shape the business and climate issues of tomorrow.

sustainability trends on business school campus
Sustainability trends on the business school campus

Photo from Danist Soh

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