MBAs and Sustainability

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I'm about to leave tomorrow for a conference of business school faculty members who do research on the subject of business and sustainability. It will be a trip of much joy as the organizers include several former students who studied with me at MIT before I retired. It's with mixed feelings that I accept my role as a greybeard in this group.

When I began doing research in what was then business and the environment (sustainability was just coming on the scene), faculties at almost all the leading business schools had to keep their interest in environment under wraps. Only a few outspoken senior faculty spoke out about the importance of the issue and the need for the schools to take it on as a distinct area, not simply another subject for the government relations course. Junior faculty risked their careers by showing interest.

Now some twenty years later, the story has changed dramatically. It is hard to find a serious school of business that does not advertise some sort of sustainability program. Student interest is high with clubs like NetImpact active on many campuses. I went to a terrific sustainability event at MIT a week ago, completely organized by students. I would estimate that 250-300 people from MIT and outside spent the day.

A few days later I spent a day at a faculty retreat at Marlboro College in Vermont where they are about two years into a new sustainability MBA program. Marlboro is one of a handful of schools that are focusing their programs on sustainability. BGI in Seattle is another that is a few years ahead of the rest. I have taught there on several occasions.

The energy for all of these courses comes from both students and faculty. But the students are doing a lot of the pushing at what have been the traditional top 20 or so business schools. The demand has emboldened many faculty who had been afraid to align themselves with what had been considered too partisan an issue.

In any case, the timing is most propitious. Given the severe impact of the financial crisis, many companies are looking for younger managers that bring new ideas. Greening is hot these days with virtually every serious company doing something about it. Although I am critical of greening when it becomes the whole sustainability program (as it often is), the broad acceptance of environment, climate change and corporate social responsibility as bona fide concerns of a business can only be a very big move forward.

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