Companies That Do Sustainabililty Right Make it Mainstream, Not Niche

Twenty-five years ago, sustainability was not a part of standard business discourse. Today it is—and business schools helped make that happen. But we’re reaching the natural limits of what B-schools started. Only a wave of innovation in management education will help businesses get fast enough to meet customers’ needs in a hotter, flatter, more crowded world.

The first step is to take sustainability out of its silo existence and make it part of the core business school curriculum. Sustainability can’t just be an orientation exercise, an elective course, an institute, or a specialty degree. It can’t be something that some students go deeply into, while some just get familiar with it.

Unfortunately, that’s where we are now. In management education, sustainability departments have produced lots of specialists. The knowledge those departments have accumulated should be brought into the mainstream to reach students who would never think about taking a sustainability course.

Every business school graduate knows enough about finance and accounting to be conversant on numbers, budgeting, and profit and loss—and able to apply that knowledge to routine decision-making. Today’s companies should expect managers to have the same fluency with environmental issues, making this part of the calculus when they size up problems and opportunities, price options, and make decisions.

Alcatel-Lucent (ALU), for example, is developing products and services that help customers meet carbon reduction goals, which becomes harder as exponentially more people use communications devices around the world. BASF (BAS:GR) insists that every employee—from the factory floor to a senior scientist office—have specific sustainability goals.

These examples are neither unusual nor extreme. MBAs who go through school thinking that concern for the environment is only for Whole Foods (WFM), Unilever (UL), and solar power companies are selling themselves and future employers short. Business schools with such views are selling their students short.

Beyond giving sustainability a place in the core curriculum, business schools must help students understand how to use this knowledge in real-world situations and to be ready when an opportunity or problem presents itself. Think of it as applied sustainability. At Calvin Klein (PVH), for example, sustainability is factored into every decision as to what garment factory to use, not just pure business/cost factors.

Business schools must address an additional key piece of the puzzle: human resources. Sustainability has taken hold in companies, but it’s running up against some limitations in how far it can spread through top-down and organic development. One of the most stubborn obstacles lies in middle management. It’s not necessarily the managers’ fault, but it would be a shame if sustainability were to stall because we haven’t done a good job at setting up recruiting, performance evaluation, and reward systems that shake loose the notion among employees that sustainability is not relevant to them.

In business schools, the core human resources class should teach specifically how HR and sustainability are linked. Most HR executives don’t know the answer. Equally important, neither do most chief executive officers, department heads, and senior executives.

In some ways, sustainability is still kind of exotic to many business leaders for whom it needs to be routine. We can change this by making sustainability a mainstream part of business education.