Teaching sustainability in the business school: Challenging Business As Usual?

Sustainability has become an increasingly fashionable concept in management education as business schools seek to respond to growing social criticism of business activities. Unfortunately, much of what passes for sustainability teaching involves co-option of the concept of sustainability within existing neoliberal discourse. So, is teaching sustainability in a meaningful way possible in the business school, and if so what might it look like? Recently Daniel Nyberg and I wrote a chapter for a book on Reinventing Management Education that seeks to address this question (you can read a pre-publication version here). What follows is a summary of some of our arguments.

Historically the purpose of the business school has been to educate future managers in the technical and functional skills central to their role as custodians of shareholder capital. Echoing the concerns of neoclassical economist Milton Friedman, business schools traditionally accorded social and environmental concerns short shrift as the dominant view was that ‘the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits’. However, in recent years growing criticism of business has forced educators to acknowledge social and environmental concerns. For instance, a procession of corporate corruption scandals (e.g. Enron, WorldCom, Northern Rock, Lehman Brothers), human rights abuses (e.g. Nike and Apple supply chains, Raza Plaza), and the on-going global economic crisis, have led many to point the finger of blame at deficiencies in the way business leaders are educated. In response, many business schools now promote ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR), social entrepreneurship and sustainability courses in their MBA programs

Indeed, there are influential backers for such a trend. Leading management authorities such as Professor Michael Porter from Harvard and Dominic Barton, Managing Partner of leading management consultancy McKinsey & Co., have argued for a new approach to corporate-social relations. In Porter’s case this has involved his promotion of the concept of ‘creating shared value’ (CSV), billed in Harvard Business Review as the answer to ‘How to fix capitalism – and unleash a new wave of growth’. For management consultancy, the need for a new approach is driven by the fear that: ‘Business leaders today face a choice: We can reform capitalism, or we can let capitalism be reformed for us, through political measures and the pressures of an angry public’.

However, there is also much about the ‘mainstreaming’ of sustainability in business schools that is problematic for critical scholars. In particular, in embracing sustainability, business gurus and educators are often explicit about the limits of such engagement. Businesses need to do this in order to restore their ‘social licence to operate’. Business engagement with sustainability is thus a form of risk management. Much as corporations sought to incorporate earlier forms of social criticism by adapting critique for their own purposes, so we can see the incorporation of sustainability in a similar manner. Capturing the terminology of sustainability allows for some level of definitional closure and a limiting of a more fundamental sustainability critique.

Moreover, in promoting ‘sustainability’, businesses and business schools explicitly frame this within the dominant discourse of the ‘business case’. While promoters stress the many ‘win-win’ outcomes that are being achieved by companies through their sustainability initiatives, this raises the question of what happens when there is no ‘business case’ for action? While sustainability texts make much of the ‘three pillars’ of sustainability (economic, social and environmental), in practice the economic pillar is implicitly the dominant concern. As a result, the enactment of corporate sustainability involves a steady ‘corruption’ of the good of the environment in favour of the market. Indeed, as John Ehrenfeld argues, what we are often really talking about in the corporate re-conceptualisation of sustainability is being just a little less ‘unsustainable’.

This corporate conception of sustainability thus reinforces shareholder value and any positive social and environmental impacts remain at best a useful coincidence. Change from such initiatives remains incremental and based on existing understandings of ‘business as usual’. Moreover, in convincing civil society that business action is sufficient, it serves to divert attention from more substantial reforms.

So what might alternative possibilities in teaching sustainability in the business school look like? In our chapter we go into some detail about methods we have found useful in developing a more substantive sustainability program within the business school and draw upon the political economy approach we have developed in analysing the current ecological crisis. Suffice to say that sustainability, if taken seriously, is a heretical, and potentially even a revolutionary concept. Clearly this comes back to how ‘sustainability’ is defined. We argue that sustainability needs to be understood fundamentally as the ability of humanity and its economic activities to live within the carrying capacity of the planet. This simple statement is itself an anathema to our current economic thinking which is reliant upon ever-continuing growth and resource exploitation. Currently, the human race collectively consumes the equivalent of one and a half planets’ worth of resources every year, with the vast bulk of this consumption concentrated amongst the wealthiest in developed economies such as the United States, Europe and Australia. Thus the concept of living within the carrying capacity of the plant is, despite its physical necessity, revolutionary. It challenges the very basis of our economic system.

Teaching sustainability provokes numerous challenges in understanding the role of societies, business schools, and ourselves as employees, consumers and citizens. Through such teaching we can re-imagine existing hierarchies, where nature, rather than the economy or society, sets the boundaries for what is doable and desirable. We can re-imagine production and consumption, where relations between individuals and society, as well as people and nature, are not based on the ever-increasing consumption of natural resources. Environmental crisis has clearly illustrated that we cannot ‘manage’ the environment, we need to build new relations based on new verbs, where human mastery of nature is not taken for granted. The future role of business schools might then focus on understanding the limits to growth, letting the environment ‘manage’ the market, providing meaning to identity projects and relations that are not based on material consumption, and developing truly sustainable businesses. Less unsustainable is not sustainable. Are we up for the challenge?

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