Sustainability programs are popping up in universities around the world, apparently in response to popular demand from students. More and more graduates want careers where they'll make an impact, do something for the environment, or be involved in corporate social responsibility. Probably there are already more aspiring Chief Sustainability Officers (CSOs) than jobs to go around-even though it is a relatively new field.

But in fact, sustainability isn't going to stay in a silo. As companies embrace environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategies and programs, and as they try to integrate these strategies throughout their businesses, they are going to need chemical engineers with an understanding of a sustainable company's processes and objectives, investor relations officers who can chat about ESG, and logistics managers thinking in terms of multiple stakeholders and long-term benefits.

A recent roundtable of business leaders, meeting at the United Nations in New York, told business school executives they want new hires across all functions to have knowledge of sustainability. "I don't need sustainability professionals, I need professionals capable of making sustainable decisions," said one, "decisions that will stand the test of time. This is going to be critical to change the mindset across business to longer term thinking." "The CSO's job is really to be a change maker," said another, "to figure out how to incorporate sustainability across the whole corporation. The world is moving in this direction very quickly."

The UN Global Compact, a part of the UN which rallies companies to align strategies and operations with principles on human rights, labor, environment and anti-corruption, created a community specifically for business schools called Principles for Responsible Management Education, or PRME. PRME is trying to tackle what its members consider a problem: business schools present shareholder value maximization as "the centerpoint of a siloed curriculum, with ethics and societal issues sitting around the edges."

So PRME set up dialog and working groups to outline what the business schools of the future should be teaching and how they should integrate sustainability across the curriculum. This week, Giselle Weybrecht, author of a business guide to sustainability called "The Sustainable MBA," led a brainstorming session at the UN with business school leaders from PRME and corporate leaders from the UN Global Compact's LEAD group of best practice companies. The group talked about how companies can get more involved with business schools, and how to teach business school students skills that are useful to the sustainable companies of the future.

"The generalized skills required for the future won't be just numeracy and literacy anymore," said one business leader. "They'll be business and entrepreneurship, with a sustainable approach."

Weybrecht emphasized that the call for more sustainability at school has come from students.

Proof of that is the story of Net Impact, which was founded as a campus club and is now an association of more than 60,000 students and professionals, organized in more than 300 chapters, committed to "making a difference" through their careers. Everyone wants to get on board.

When Net Impact released its latest edition of its annual Business as UNusual: The Social and Environmental Impact Guide to Graduate Programs-For Students by Students last September, the group found that students continually want more focus on social and environmental issues.

"This year, more than half the schools surveyed reported new innovations in impact-oriented curriculum or experiential learning to meet increasing demand," reads the press release. "And yet, students want more! For the third year in a row, student satisfaction with their programs' integration of these issues has declined." A couple of key survey findings:

- of the student respondents, 93% thought focusing on social and environmental issues is very important or essential to a business' long-term success;

- 88% of respondents felt learning about these issues is a priority, and an increasing number of students felt their schools could do a better job of integrating social and environmental themes into core curriculum.

At the UN this week, as the corporate and business school leaders exchanged ideas, the excitement was building. Companies thought about asking student groups to do research or projects for them as case studies, while academics welcomed the interplay with businesses.

"One day, every job will be a sustainability job," mused a business school chair of strategy. "That's where we should be headed."

Published on: Jun 25, 2015
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