If ever it were true, sceptics can no longer say that Business schools are all about creating the next generation of billionaires.

I’ve been a sustainability educator in the Business School for more than a decade. Over that time, I’ve noticed a massive shift in students’ motivations from making money as the primary focus to being catalysts of change for better futures.

A legacy focus on technical skills, risk and opportunity 

The focus of business degrees was on technical business skill development. Few business educators focused on guiding students to anticipate situations where environmental or social issues would impact business activities; nor were students encouraged to consider how businesses affected people’s wellbeing, ecological health, or the dependability of resource availability for future generations. 

We had one sustainability-focused subject, and lesson plans tended to emphasise how and why sustainability issues such as overconsumption and biodiversity loss, persistent inequality, and climate change pose risks and opportunities for business.  

From why to active engagement 

We used to include a slide in our PowerPoint that read: ‘you might be thinking, isn’t sustainability all about trees, isn’t business all about $$?‘. This always drew a laugh from students and was our entry into talking about how valuing people, planet, and profits (the ‘Triple bottom line’, as it was known) could be a superior means of accounting for business value. We introduced students to social and natural capital, blended accounting methods and how to manage a business to enhance social, environmental and economic performance, with varying degrees of engagement. 

Recently I’ve noticed a pleasant and dramatic change. Business students no longer resist discussions about irreversible negative human impacts on the environment and want to know more about how business can lead transformative change. Students have started to push harder on the sustainability imperative for business in the past few semesters, asking questions like: How can companies build back better to save the planet? How can we address climate change or the social problems that affect everyone coming out of the pandemic? What can I do? 

Reflecting real-world changes in business and industry 

This is mirrored by industry sentiment, too. Australian business leaders more readily accept that acting on climate change is urgent, not only for future generations but for successfully operating a business and living justly and well in today’s communities. Responsible investors want to know if their money is destroying or restoring the planet, and leaving a positive legacy.

Business students want to work with companies leading with purpose, committed to positive change. Entrepreneurs can see the business case extending beyond traditional return on investment and demonstrating how they make a difference by solving seemingly intractable problems like providing clean and reliable energy. Peak business industry associations and  independent regulatory authorities have made public statements about the need for action on climate change in support of the Paris Agreement.

Learning design moves from engagement to how 

Our lesson plans have evolved to match the consciousness and curiosity of business students who want to explore interdependencies between business activities and the social and ecological systems within which they operate. It’s less about why sustainability issues are important for business and more about how business can can formulate strategies, business models and frameworks to address those issues or create solutions. Key elements of this learning design are:  

  1. Business students are exposed to concepts from other disciplines to develop basic literacy about the key issues that affect business, like the Planetary Boundaries and how they signal over extractive activities. Insights from different fields enable business students to interpret evidence and imprint the implications and impacts of their decisions. 
  2. Consideration of business imperatives that set ‘super-wicked challenges’ for businesses to solve, including issues like resource overconsumption, climate change, and persistent inequality. 
  3. Stakeholder capitalism sets the strategic framework where the ultimate purpose of business activities is to create social, ecological and economic value for suppliers, customers, employees, owners and communities.  
  4. Critical analysis of the business’s defining purpose, and identifying what can be improved. Do the aims support sustainable development goals, for example, and can business goals can be aligned with science-based targets to keep us operating within a safe habitat? What are the material risks for investors in different industries? 
  5. Apply a phase model to help analyse what companies are currently doing and what they could be doing better.  
  6. Develop adaptive change plans targeted to amplify the best and most rapid transition to a more sustainable way of operating.  

Making it relevant and personal 

When students analyse companies where they work, some are surprised and inspired by progress already being made to decarbonise operations or ensure workers’ wellbeing. Others realise how far their business needs to go in resetting their fundamental purpose and aims before any transformation is possible. 

The best part of my job is working with talented, ambitious, and creative people who want to harness the power of business to create change for sustainable development. These innovative and enterprising individuals won’t stop when the problems are solved because they know that the next challenge begins at that last discovery point. Making money becomes their means to create a world where people and the environment flourish. 

Feature image by Alexander Abero 

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