Sustainability MBA Is Not an Oxymoron

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I have just returned from a weekend participating in the Marlboro College MBA in Managing for Sustainability program. It was a rich and rewarding experience, reminding me of my past experience at The Bainbridge Graduate Institute which offers a similar program. These two programs and a handful of others carry the mission to transform business as the creator, not destroyer of sustainability. An ambitious goal, but a critical one. The students at Marlboro and now at many other schools of business are joining hands within Net Impact which calls itself “a global network of leaders who are changing the world through business.” I addressed these group at the Ross School at the University of Michigan earlier this year and was very impressed with their seriousness and energy.

The Marlboro program is just a couple of years old and will be admitting its third cohort of students very soon. Like its peers it has started by bringing in adjunct teachers like me to supplement a small core of permanent faculty. Roger Saillant, one of the others working this last weekend, has just been named to head the Fowler Center for Sustainable Values at the Weatherhead Business School. During the weekend, I joined an exercise to help shape the school’s brand. The unique spirit of entrepreneurialism and concern for the world that permeates Vermont industry has played a key role in their development.

In addition to giving the students a sound foundation in how to manage along traditional lines, the curriculum adds pieces to challenge the conventional roles of business and build transformational leadership capabilities. Every day of the 3-day intensive begins and ends with a circle designed to build and enrich the community of students, faculty, and other participants. Given the unusual group of students and others who have come to Marlboro and its peers, the conversation in the circle is moving and inspirational.

Sustainability pervades the courses, instigating itself from strategy to accounting and finance. That’s very positive, but not without some problems. Sustainability, the word and concept, has yet to settle into a well understood and accepted meaning. When it is as present as it is at Marlboro, this situation can lead to confusion and cognitive dissonance, and create lots of diversion away from the main task of learning. It can also become a a strength by revealing its multiple personalities and contested nature and by exploring it explicitly. For me, sustainability follows two main streams. One springs from the recognition that we are living in an unsupportable way, using up the human and “natural” resources at a pace that exceeds the sustainable yield from the global system. I use scare quotes to call attention to the common usage that separates humans from the natural system of which we are a part when we talk about the shape of the world. This is one of the roots of unsustainability. In this mode, greening, sustainable development and other labels generally speak to maintaining our present cultural bases, but acting in ways that diminish our impacts and may even restore damaged goods. I usually refer to this conversation as reducing unsustainability.

The other branch refers to sustainability as some form of emergence from our complex, living, global system. In this sense, sustainability is the capacity of the Earth’s system to bring forth and maintain qualities we all want or need to survive. Basic is the property of life itself, that mysterious property that has come forth from the relationships present at some critical evolutionary moment. As we have become civilized, humans have added other essential properties, like freedom or justice, as important properties that define our species. I put all these together under the normative rubric of flourishing.

It is critical not to see these two branches as oppositional. We must move along both. Greening as representing the first meaning, is critical to restore the mechanics of the human and natural systems both of which are badly out of kilter. At the same time we need to follow the second path and move toward realizing the vision of flourishing. The second is, in many ways, more difficult and challenging that the first. We have been striving for flourishing ever since we had language to express what we mean, but have never quite gotten there. We have experimented with many forms of social life and flourished only in brief periods in our species history. So we still have to seek alternative guides for our cultural life.

Most of our inventiveness is being expended towards the other end, to green our practices and reduce the deterioration everywhere. This leaves little resources and intention for the other branch. We need as many (or even more) efforts and experiments to find restorative cultures and sustainability as flourishing as we need to halt the present patterns of unsustainability. One place to start, among many, is to make these distinctions explicit in schools of business and elsewhere and clear up the fuzziness and confusion around the goals of transformation. Students need to leave with commitments to green and to transform business. The first of these two can spring from the present base of theories and practices that constitute today’s business, but the second requires a new vision of what business is and does. It may and I believe will take more than transforming business. The whole of our cultural beliefs, values, and institutions need a critical reexamination and a new design. Given the power and capabilities of the institution of business, it can and must play an important, maybe the key, role in the transformation.

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