SANTIAGO — The ESCP Business School, based in Paris but with campuses across Europe, recently opened a sustainability department. The goal is to shift away from traditional courses on corporate responsibility and instead train students and staff to understand and innovate along sustainability lines, a concept that is of growing interest to the business world.

Roxana Olaru, head of admissions and sustainability at ESCP Madrid, says the school has been working with sustainability for at least four years, "through consultancy projects and the creation of various, specialized masters courses." All MBA programs, she said, now have a sustainability module.

Another business school, Madrid's IE University, is boosting by 25% the hours devoted to social and environmental initiatives for students and staff and in its labs and workshops. And four yeras ago, ESADE, also in Madrid, created an Observatory of Sustainable Development Objectives as part of its Chair of Leaderships to evaluate how Spanish businesses were implementing the government's Agenda 2030 on decarbonization.

With sustainability's increasing relevance to all business sectors, it should come as no surprise that it's also an area of greater focus in business schools. Many have taken steps to enact one or more of the UN's 17 Sustainable Development goals, and some are even asking whether or not they contribute something specifically positive to society.

Results from a 2020 poll by the consulting firm Deloitte showed that despite the pandemic, millennials continue to prioritize environmental sustainability, socio-cultural diversity and inclusion, and expect corporations to do the same.

Businesses schools have gotten the memo, it appears, and are thus placing more emphasis on environmental, social and governance issues.

"The simple but fundamental reason is that these are places where people who will occupy leadership positions in all areas of society are trained," says María José Murcia, an assistant professor at the IAE Business School in Argentina. "These are the people who will be responsible for generating and creating conditions for global sustainability."

In addition to events and workshops such as the recent "sustainability week" at ESADE Madrid, "these issues must be woven into the fabric of curricula," says Marcos Sepulveda, head of LLYC, a corporate relations firm in Chile. "Universities must act as agents of change because pupils learn, incorporate knowledge and get to know experiences for application in the near future."

A new set of priorities

Business schools are adapting to the new scenario both in response to increased awareness among citizens and because firms understand the current economic model may soon threaten competitiveness and talent recruitment. And they're taking concrete steps, through one-off programs and curricular changes.

In 2019, the HEC business school Paris, one of eight partners in the Creative Destruction Lab, a nonprofit body that runs a science and technology-based program for firms, announced a new consultancy program, CDL Climate, aimed at 25 startups working on solutions to climate change. In Madrid, ESCP has a sustainable jobs fair, scheduled for October 2021.

In terms of teaching, there is the bachelor's program in transformational business and social impact at IE in Madrid, or ESADE's Sustainable Management and Agenda 2030, for executives. Other courses are being equipped with environmental or sustainability modules.

Paloma Baena, a senior executive at Chile's LLYC, says sustainability will not so much determine the success as "the survival" of firms in the future.

Proud and green at ESADE

"We can speak of a change in social attitudes," she says. "Firms ultimately live off what they can produce, and thus sell and offer as a service. And consumers are increasingly looking for other types of products or products that respect the environment, the people who make them and safety measures."

Investors, Baena explains, are also starting to hold corporations to account over sustainability.

Regional innovation

In Latin America, in the meantime, schools and universities in Colombia, Peru and Chile are gradually including environmental and social themes into studies. "Sustainability is becoming vital to the survival of firms," says Horacio Arredondo, a vice-dean of postgraduate studies at Chile's UAI business school. "But still, this wave of changes is essentially led by developed countries and economies."

Peru's Pacífico business school includes ethics and social responsibility courses in all its masters programs, which also address some basic notions of corporate governance. The UAI has launched an entire Corporate Governance Center, indicating the importance it gives it in raising the value of organizations, and a masters course in sustainable business. The school has also organized events and talks open to students and the public, like the New Agenda and Managing the Crisis.

Colombia's Universidad del Norte is moving ahead as well after making a sustainability declaration known as the DuNord Ecofriendly manifesto. Goals include the efficient use of power and water. And courses now include sustainability modules, says Camilo A. Mejía, head of the business school's Innovation and Sustainable Development Centre.

The university has likewise begun outreach and volunteer programs to involve students with the community and its specific problems. "There are also research initiatives applied to sustainability issues, not just in course subjects but also as an MBA graduation option," Mejía explains.


See more from Impact: Education Innovation here