Why All Business Schools Should Mainstream Sustainability

The idea of mainstreaming sustainability has entered into my psyche over the past decade or more. I think about it when I remember graphs presented at board meetings at the Rocky Mountain Institute—bringing a certain practice to scale until it reaches a tipping point and becomes adopted by a particular industry or society as a whole, such as CFL lightbulbs, and now LED light bulbs. I remember being an arts administrator in the 90s and being excited about networked office computers and being a board president with a fax machine!

It is incredible to think about how certain practices in our lives were on the fringe ten or even five years ago, but are now just part of what we do every day—smart thermostats, cars with gas mileage over 50 mpg, energy star appliances, solar panels on rooftops, windmills in Iowa! People love to complain and foment fear, but I prefer to be optimistic. We humans may be stubborn, but we also can be creative, innovative, and cooperative. I’m all for innovation to improve society and the ecosystem. This post is about my journey to mainstreaming good behavior and practices that improve our lives and those of our fellow Earth inhabitants.

From art to the environment

Twenty years ago, my career in nonprofit management was at a turning point. Back then, my training as a tax and securities lawyer had helped me to resolve financial issues for various nonprofit organizations, and I was finishing a position as executive director of the Aspen Art Museum, which at the time was on the brink of going out of business. I had been hired in spite of my lack of an art history degree—what they needed in 1992 was a business leader, with a deep appreciation for contemporary art, and that person was me.

Seven years later after we got the Museum back on its feet, I was looking for a different challenge. During that time, and after the Museum’s’ fiscal situation was stabilized, I started paying closer attention to environmental degradation and climate change. The conditions around the world were beyond what any of us could ignore. The desire to participate in solutions to these issues led me to seek a master’s in liberal arts in environmental management from Harvard University Extension School.

I was nervous about going back to school in my late forties, but I ended up becoming obsessed with the education I was receiving. I was still living in Aspen with the Rocky Mountain Institute in my backyard and headquartered nearby. It was time to get involved with their mission: to transform global energy use to create a clean, prosperous, and secure low-carbon future.

Embracing systems thinking

Joining the RMI board was another education beyond what I’d learned at Harvard. Their approach is truly centered around systems thinking. They invite participants from various industries into one room to brainstorm solutions in a guided charrette process. Looking at problems from many angles, and involving all those who affect the system, helps to find solutions that go beyond solving a problem. They find the root causes of the problem and develop innovations that avoid unintended consequences—by viewing the entire process and understanding the effects of any changes along the way.

I realized that this type of whole systems thinking should be going on in companies and local communities. Communicating with all stakeholders helps to develop sound solutions and provide beneficial results that are lasting and that have the ownership of all those along the value chain.

After I received my master’s degree in 2005, I was recruited to help develop a new course in corporate sustainability strategy at Harvard’s Extension School and to write a textbook for the class, Mainstreaming Corporate Sustainability: Using Proven Tools to Promote Business Success. My further research and teaching brought me to a better understanding of leaders in diverse industries, and how they were using ESG to benefit their bottom line. This has brought me to a firm belief that businesses today are the future drivers of sustainability.

By promoting more responsible practices throughout their supply chains, and by attracting more customers who buy their products because of these practices, leaders in sustainability raise the bar for their industry. This pushes others to step up, and it helps the policymakers to support regulations to bring the rest of the sector up to minimum standards. Sustainability practices become mainstreamed into the field.

Apparel companies Nike and Levi Strauss are examples of those who have devoted research and development dollars to more efficient use of resources, like a new innovative “Flyknit” design for Nike shoes, more responsible cotton farming for Levi Strauss, and more conscientious labor practices in both of their supply chains. Lego is leading the toy industry by discovering ways to make toys from sugar cane, with a goal to produce their elements from 100% sustainable sources by 2030.

Dr. Farver with Ford Foundation President Darren Walker at the 2015 PGS Commencement

My journey led me to Presidio Graduate School

For me, finding ways to encourage leaders in corporations to implement sustainable systems starts with education. By helping business managers become sustainability leaders, we permeate corporations and governmental bodies with more responsible and resilient practices. Sustainability should be at the heart of every business plan, and every strategic community plan.

To that end, leading Presidio Graduate School—whose MBA, MPA, and dual-degree programs center on sustainability and systems thinking—was the next step of my journey. Business schools are poised to be the changemakers for a more responsible future. With the pressures of climate change on our doorstep, we need to be pressing even more urgently to mainstream best practices in both business and government management. PGS infuses environmental and social responsibility throughout the curriculum of our MBA and MPA degree and certificate programs. We aim to train the next generation of business and policymakers to work from within organizations to become leaders in social and environmental responsibility, while still turning a profit and promoting success.

Why haven’t ALL business schools mainstreamed sustainability?

Educational institutions are made up of human beings, and we can be obstinate about change. Surveys have shown that more and more businesses are moving toward emphasizing sustainability, but we need to move faster if we are to reduce heat-trapping gases in time to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius The latest IPCC report makes it clear that extreme weather events will increase dramatically even if we keep temperature levels to that amount. We are now beyond climate change and are in a climate emergency.

The tradeoffs for cost are clear. By investing in a lower carbon future, we avoid the horrendous costs of the climate results from business as usual. In addition, research has shown that companies that focus on ESG perform better in the marketplace and are more resilient.

So what is to keep us from accelerating the knowledge in our business schools? Many business schools have adopted sustainability tracks or concentrations, but we should see these practices emphasized in every facet of business education for meaningful change to occur. My own vision is that in ten years, corporate sustainability will be mainstreamed into businesses and society so that no one even thinks twice about it. The climate crisis may be what pushes business schools to the tipping point to change their curriculums to make sustainability a centerpiece like it is for PGS.

More than a dream

This may seem like dreaming, but at the same time, ten years ago no one thought legalizing gay marriage would be possible, and at the turn of the 20th century, it seemed the women’s right to vote was dead on arrival. But in each case, gradually momentum began to build in its favor and each was adopted. The graphic pictured below from Bloomberg.com provides a clear picture of how change can take on real life once a turning point is reached.

Climate opinion in the US has been slowly moving in the same direction, and already a large majority of Americans think global warming is happening. More and more of us are accepting the facts that the world’s leading scientists have long been promoting. It will be essential for business schools—as Presidio Graduate School has done since 2003—to provide sustainability tools to our business leaders for a better world, including lessening carbon impact. I am proud that PGS incorporates climate impacts into every course.

Once sustainability is mainstreamed into our lives, it will be time for me to move on from this challenge to the next. What will that be? World peace, perhaps? Income inequality? There are plenty of problems to consider. I look forward to the future, with Presidio Graduate School in the picture.