Integrating Sustainability Concepts and Practices Into Business Education

The challenge of how to integrate sustainability concepts and practices into business education continues to occupy my thoughts.

Recently, I attended two helpful webinars that dealt with this issue. One was offered by Harvard Business Publishing. The other was offered by Ivey Business School. Both had interesting speakers and panelists.

One issue that these webinars discussed is the choice between creating a new stand-alone course dealing with sustainability or integrating sustainability ideas into existing courses. I am focusing on the later, though I do have a sense of excitement in thinking of what a stand-alone course might entail.

I believe that wherever and whatever one teaches and at whatever level one does so, one should seriously consider building in appropriate sustainability concepts and practices.

In my pursuit of integrating sustainability into existing courses thus far, I have some suggestions and examples which I would like to share.

1. Move beyond the use of paper handouts.

I am working hard to move beyond the previous workshop mentality where there was a paper handout for everything to now posting materials online and relying on students to access them appropriately.

I realize that I have to trust that students will take the initiative to access materials. I also have to remind myself that students are very much at home with doing this. This is aided by the omnipresence of university learning systems and their functionalities. Google Docs is also a helpful application in this regard.

Often students remind me when I stray with an occasional paper handout. At these moments, I once again become aware that change can be challenging because it requires letting go of the way we have gotten used to doing things.

2. Make use of sustainability-related business cases.

I continue to search for business cases that will cover course topics while also focusing on sustainability-related practices, issues or contexts.

As time goes on, there are more business cases that have a sustainability-related theme. Ivey Publishing, which creates and publishes business cases, is now tagging cases with reference to which of the seventeen U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) it relates to.

I am currently using a case, “Wilderness Safaris” (Harvard Business School, 2018) which discusses the use of a quadruple bottom line: commerce, conservation, community and culture in an ecotourism enterprise located at multiple sites in seven African countries. The case stands for the proposition that one can have such integrated, encompassing goals as a path to being successful and discusses the issues encountered along the way. In so doing, it provides an expanded view of success. The case also covers topics of business models, multiple stakeholder collaboration, and entrepreneurship in international business.

3. Commit to exploring the underlying assumptions of a sustainability worldview and apply these to current business issues.

There are a number of taken-for-granted assumptions which underlie our current worldview that can be revisited and compared to assumptions underlying a sustainability worldview. Doing this can have a high leverage impact on how we approach business issues.

One conversation that can occur here is to what extent we will continue to maintain the dualistic way of thinking that ends up positing humans vs. nature as opposed to a more integrative approach that sees humans as part of and interdependent with nature.

To a great extent science is a product of this dualistic world view that puts us in the position of an outside observer vis a vis the phenomena that we seek to understand. This should not be abandoned but supplemented with an appreciation of the times when this worldview needs to be updated to be more of an integral view that includes human as participant rather than observer.

Related to this is the idea of personal identity. The idea of personal identity and the sacrosanct boundaries that it fosters can be seen as an Enlightenment concept that while it provides value can be tempered by also seeing identity in terms of being in relationship and interdependent with nature. Joanna Macy talks about, “the sense of an encompassing self, that deep identity with the wider reaches of life” and “a process view of the self as inseparable from the web of relationships that sustain it.” (“Greening of the Self,” 2012.)

The older dualistic concepts lead to the idea that we can do whatever we want to nature as a matter of course because we are separate from nature. Business can take from nature at will and deposit its waste back into nature.

These older concepts can also limit our ability to learn from nature and its millions of years of experience. As revered as the Enlightenment has been, it is time to move beyond some of its ideas which are no longer in keeping with our current challenges and the world that we are trying to create.

All of this requires guiding students in revisiting such concepts and deciding for themselves to what extent these concepts remain useful. To what extent do these older concepts limit our current day business success? Would a circular approach to business and the economy, for example, which is more efficient in the use of natural resources and managing waste help business be more successful and our surrounding communities be more livable? Such a circular approach mirrors the life-death-renewal cycle of nature.

4. Reframe business practices to have more of a sustainability perspective.

The key reframing I believe is to see the purpose of business as enabling all of its stakeholders, including customers and employees to flourish (or thrive).

While this includes being profitable, it also includes providing healthy and equitable working conditions, supporting clean air and water in the surrounding communities where the business has its location and maintaining a low carbon footprint. It entails living in harmony with the surrounding natural environment. The U.N. SDGs are helpful here in covering what is necessary for such a desirable end result.

It is admittedly a challenge to reframe in such an encompassing way what makes for a successful business. On the other hand, it is hard to argue with the proposition that the result of doing business should be that those connected to it in one way or another should flourish. And common sense tells us that it takes more than profit to attain this.

If we don’t explicitly address this, it leaves growth as the de facto goal of business. Growth is a means that has prevailed recently but it does not necessarily reflect a desirable end state. Business education can support thinking about what is this desirable end state. This brings us to my next suggestion.

5. Explore the topic of what it takes to flourish or thrive.

What it takes for an organization or individual to flourish is a huge topic though it might be easily answered in a conversation at a back-yard BBQ. Deep-down, I imagine that we all know what it will take for us to flourish beyond our more habitual responses to such a question. The first step along this path may be giving ourselves the permission to honestly pursue this topic. Though the topic might be shocking at first in a business school curriculum, I imagine that students will warm to it. Exploring this actually helps us be more strategic because we will have a clear sense of where we want to end up and can then use approaches such as backcasting to figure out how to get there.

This ties in with other themes that have recently been discussed such as the role of humanities in a business curriculum. Should the business manager or consultant be conversant in literature, music or art?

Another theme finding its way into our business practices is that of wellbeing. Among the questions this topic raises is should we create more space in our lives for family, recreation, hobbies and being in nature.

The role of nature in education and in leading a fulfilling life as well as stress-relief and sanity (yes, sanity) is currently an increasing topic in the literature. I note a book which I recently saw advertised, “Last Child in the Woods,” by Richard Louv which is subtitled “Saving our children from Nature-Deficit” disorder. It may be that even older people need some assistance here.

6. Provide learning on business topics that support sustainability practices.

One such example is business ecosystems. The term ecosystems is being used more widely now but not necessarily by being explicit about its origin in a biological-ecological context.

We could start by being explicit about this connection. There is a good deal of literature on the principles which can be derived from nature which find residence in the ecosystem concept that we are now using in business.

I believe that it is important to remain congruent with the underlying biological-ecological basis while we seek innovative uses of the ecosystem concept. Otherwise, the term “ecosystem” runs the risk of being reduced to simply another way of describing business as usual or reflecting something quite antithetical to its biological-ecological origin. There are learnings from nature that are quite useful in our business ecosystems such as interdependence, ongoing adaptation, collaboration as well as competition, and diversity.

Transformation is another topic that has a relationship to sustainability. What I think of here is that the outer transformation that business literature often speaks about needs to be mirrored by the inner transformation of the consultant, manager and members of the organization. This can be related to the “Teal” organization that writers such as Frederick Laloux, Clare Graves and Ken Wilber have spoken about. There is a helpful discussion about this by Giles Hutchins and Laura Storm in their book “Regenerative Leadership” (2019). I teach my students that being open to one’s own inner transformation as consultant-leader is a part of supporting the transformation of an organization. This is an important theme in the courses that I teach. This approach will support our sustainability goals.

7. Get out of the classroom into nature.

Another way of saying this is to make nature our classroom. This is a growing edge in my teaching. I had planned an activity that fit with a module I was doing on epistemology — the various ways we know and how our goal should be to expand our ways of knowing individually and to expand the diverse ways of knowing resident in a team. I was looking forward to this activity of learning in nature. I imagined that the students would gain practical experience in how we know things about nature and Place. Place has an important role in Regenerative thinking and with the idea that a business should be in harmony with Place.

Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond our control, the class ended up having to be on Zoom. However, in the process of scouting out a suitable site for this class experiment, I encountered some amazing trees on campus.

8. Educate ourselves as teachers in the field of business and sustainability.

Just as we have been educated in terms of the practices and ideals of democracy as a foundation for being a participating citizen in our democracies, we can educate ourselves to what is required to be a good global citizen in the context of sustainability.

There are so many paths that one can pursue in this regard depending on one’s interests. These paths include business and popular literature, webinars, video lectures, professional associations, guided activities in nature and courses.

Among the topics one can pursue are: Ecology, Regenerative Development and Design, Economics, Philosophy, Environment, Climate Change, Organization Development, Biomimicry, the Business Value-chain and Circular Economy, Psychology and Ecopsychology, Government, Urban Life and Development, and Permaculture.

The literature on the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals is now quite plentiful and includes specific applications to business.

For those interested in literature, I can suggest Wordsworth’s poem “Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” in which Wordsworth describes his return from his busy adult life to a familiar place in nature from his earlier life.

Feel free to contact me. I am always happy to recommend a book or two.

I hope these ideas will be useful to others as I hope to continue to learn from our collective efforts as time goes on.

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