• 11.03.11

The Wrong Kind Of Green: Business Schools Fail At Teaching Sustainability

Want to get a leg up on a job after business school? Focus on sustainability. Businesses are starting to put environmental and ethical issues at the executive level, but they’re finding their recruits more than disappointing.

The Wrong Kind Of Green: Business Schools Fail At Teaching Sustainability
“It’s very rare to find an integrated view of sustainability together with finance.”

It seems like nobody is very happy with the way business schools are teaching sustainability. Last month, we wrote about Aspen Insitute’s Beyond Grey Pinstripes report, and its criticism that b-schools are still failing to integrate social and environmental issues into mainstream teaching. Now comes a similar conclusion from a different direction: companies themselves.


The nonprofit World Environment Center and Net Impact, a professional networking group, interviewed 33 sustainability managers at companies like DuPont, Walmart, IBM, and Unilever, and found that many are dissatisfied with today’s MBA graduates. The managers said they often have to retrain new recruits when they join because their skills and knowledge are either outdated, or impractical.

“Many business schools lag behind where companies have evolved,” says Terry Yosie, president and CEO of the WEC. “They are still teaching sustainability in the context of the Brundtland Report, which provided a framework for sustainability back in 1986. Companies have moved well beyond that, because of the reality of the marketplace.”

Yosie says there has been a general failure to properly integrate sustainability teaching into mainstream subjects, such as finance. Too often schools continue to treat the environment as a nice-to-have, rather than an essential part of doing business.

“There are a number of business schools that treat sustainability as philanthropy or good citizenship, whereas the companies are looking at it as part of a business process. It’s very rare to find an integrated view of sustainability together with finance, marketing, and operations research.”

An exception is the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, which is singled out in the report as a model for others. “There you have some of the environmental faculty in one part of the university working very closely with faculty in the business school, and students are taking coursework, so they are understanding how the environmental issues integrate with the business issues,” says Yosie.

But the report recommends that businesses collaborate more closely with b-schools, so teaching is relevant. It also suggests that schools listen to their students more, as they are often aware of the latest sustainability trends before teaching staff are.

Above all, companies need graduates who are able to apply what they learn to the reality of company life, Yosie says. “There are going to be very few specific sustainability jobs. Mostly companies are going to be looking for people to integrate sustainability in their day-to-day jobs in the company.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.