There was a time when, in parts of the economy, the idea of running a truly sustainable business was seen as little more than a bonus – a secondary luxury.
Today it is hard for any business leader to ignore sustainability.
In the Ethical Corporation’s recent ‘State of Sustainability’ report, 71% of respondents said that their organisational leader is convinced of the value of sustainability. Even where corporate leaders are not fully engaged, 87% of respondents agree sustainability is becoming increasingly critical to business strategy.
While the wider economy awakens to the need to look far beyond a short-term economic context, at London Business School the sustainability agenda is already deeply embedded.
Yesterday, the School hosted His Royal Highness, The Prince Of Wales to speak to deans and programme directors from leading business schools, and leaders from the business and investment community, on the implications of natural resource restraints, climate change and resulting social conflict, for the finance community’s practice.
The meeting was arranged by The Prince’s Accounting for Sustainability Project (A4S) and the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), with support from London Business School.
So what of the role of business schools?
Ioannis Ioannou, Assistant Professor, Strategy and Entrepreneurship, London Business School believes a business school claiming to have the solutions before business does, is like a doctor who claims to have the cure without any experiments.
“While there isn’t a comprehensive set of best practices that business schools can confidently prescribe, what we can do is to be actively involved in an exciting series of experiments and active learning with the business community, and its stakeholders,” he explains.
“Sustainability has to be discovered. The role of business education therefore, for now, isn’t to teach best practice. It is rather to provide a structured understanding of the challenges, establish the parameters of possible solutions and accordingly drive curiosity, collaboration and adaptability.”
For many years the School has upheld an unerring commitment to the evolving agenda on sustainability, hosting the kind of informed debate that brings leaders together to create solutions.
As one of the academic institutions for the prestigious international post-graduate fellowship the Schmidt-MacArthur Fellowship, our students have been cultivating creative and innovative thinking on the Circular Economy. And, as a partner institution for Deloitte’s Social Innovation Pioneers, the School supports socially innovative businesses, providing them with a package of support to help them grow to scale and become investment-ready.
The appetite from students is clear.The Net Impact Club, for example, is one of the fastest growing student clubs of recent years. Today, it presents the 2015 edition of the annual Society.Economy.Environment Summit (S.E.E Summit) at Linklaters Conference Centre.
Student-led and featuring speakers such as Marks & Spencer director of sustainable business, Mike Barry and Richard Gomes, head of policy and advocacy at Shell Foundation, the event demonstrates the School’s commitment to facilitating and nurturing the fresh attitudes needed to drive innovation in the field of sustainability.
As well as having a dedicated student committee for sustainability, London Business School students are also engaging with sustainability and social responsibility through other student-led clubs and initiatives such as the Energy Club. The club organises very successful, annual events including the Global Energy Summit, and the Clean Tech Challenge. The School has also partnered with the Global Social Venture Competition, which students take part in.
“Through these activities we encourage our students to understand that training managers is only one piece, albeit it an important one, of a much bigger sea change that needs to happen. What’s involved here is a cultural shift and a change to the very identity of organisations,” Dr Ioannou adds.
Impact felt worldwide
At London Business School sustainability is taught as a core part of the curriculum in many programmes.
Through several core courses such the Business, Government and Society course, the School introduces tomorrow's business leaders to the challenges of sustainability.
Professor Sir Andrew Likierman, Dean, London Business School, says: “I very much support the call to incorporate sustainability in the business school agenda. Indeed, the issues are already taught as part of the core curriculum in many of our programmes.
“This is not only because we see their importance, but as a response to the keen interest of our students. We are also delighted that our alumni are involved in organisations that promote sustainability across the world.”
The impact of the School’s driving position is felt all across the world.
The School’s Global Executive MBA programme of 2012 harvested a renewable energy company crowned both “best innovative idea” and “one of the Top-30 hottest and fastest growing CleanTech companies in Europe”. VERT Labs - based in Russia and Japan - is the brain child of Takuma Baba and Oleg Dmitriev, who used the School’s programme to source equipment and gain insights for their wave power harnessing company.
Then there’s Rasbora Consulting in Singapore, formed by MBA alumna Chere Chapman, who considered the impact of training the management of not-for-profit organisations in corporate responsibility. She helps them develop impactful CSS programmes and improve their social impact through their core businesses.
Similarly, Executive MBA student Sanmit Ahuja is now CEO of ETI Dynamics, a Technology Accelerator, Infrastructure Developer and Investor focused on sustainable development through multidisciplinary innovation. Working across multiple sectors - including water, smart cities and transport - the company invests in technologies, projects and innovations centred on sustainable development through innovative financial and business models.
As Dr Ioannou explains: “Where companies are making great strides in sustainability you will see this not only in their management training but also in their corporate governance and in incentives which motivate executives to move beyond financial outputs.
“The successful sustainable company will have a board sub-committee overseeing the company’s sustainability work and structured processes to engage with managers rather than prescriptive contracts which do little to build real trust and that imaginative spirit of experimentation and collaboration which are so crucial if sustainability is to thrive, not just survive.”
A sustainable future
There’s no doubt that the future of developing sustainability hinges heavily on collective learning.
Knowledge-sharing between peers, competitors from our own industries, and beyond, will advance the push and lead to more breakthrough moments.
“Embedding sustainability and social responsibility in business education is an evolutionary change, well underway,” Dr Ioannou says.
“It requires motivation, co-ordination, and engagement of multiple stakeholders, including students and faculty, as well as the broader academic system.
“There is no doubt that the attention these major and other specialist conferences are focussing on sustainability, is reflective of a shifting mind-set in terms of sustainability becoming part of mainstream research, and indeed becoming core to the study of organisations.”