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Q & A

Five Questions on Teaching Sustainability for… Giselle Weybrecht

While pursuing her MBA at London Business School a few years ago, Giselle Weybrecht wrote The Sustainable MBA: The Manager’s Guide to Green Business. Today, pursuing a commitment to ensure that businesses and their leaders fully understand sustainability in all its economic, social, and environmental dimensions, Weybrecht works with governments, universities, NGOs, businesses, and social entrepreneurs around the world. And this year, her book was required reading for first-year MBA students at her alma mater. A dynamic speaker, Weybrecht will speak at GMAC’s European Conference, October 10-11 in Madrid. She shared her perspective in an interview with Graduate Management News.

 

Q.  How well do business school students understand sustainability?
A.
  I wrote the book because I found that while students have a general understanding of sustainability, they didn't think that it had much to do with their careers or the businesses they were thinking about going into. Even today, a lot of the students I speak with think that they know what sustainability is about, but their knowledge is sometimes rather superficial.

Q.  How well do business schools understand sustainability?
A.
  There's a wide range. While many business schools teach sustainability, I have found that it is often done in a way that suggests that it's nice to have, but it's not really a business reality. When I ask business schools about how they teach sustainability, a typical response might mention a mandatory course in ethics or a center for ethics research. It sometimes sounds a little bit like checking off boxes. But having a mandatory ethics class or center in ethics doesn't necessarily mean that your students are getting fully exposed to sustainability issues. To me, what's most important is whether students are getting the information they need to be aware of sustainability issues and how they can integrate them into their business.

Right now, it feels like businesses sector is doing a much better job than business schools in teaching these issues. It's really important that business schools lead rather than lag in these issues, which are important for businesses both now and in the future.

Q.  Are there differences in approaches to sustainability between business schools in different regions of the world?
A.
  There is a little bit. Very generally speaking, for example, when I look for examples of campus greening, I usually look at schools in the United States, which seem to be quite good at that. Some of the schools that are just starting in this area—in China, for example—are looking at it more from an ethics point of view, and haven't moved into looking at the whole range of other topics that can also be included within sustainability. On the other hand, some of the most interesting approaches in terms of looking at sustainability from all perspectives within business education are coming from countries like Brazil, Canada, and Australia. There are interesting initiatives coming from all over the place—from Trinidad and Tobago, from across Africa, and from South America.

Q.  What do business school students need to know and learn about sustainability?
A.
  They need to know how society and the environment impact business decisions, and vice versa. The most important thing is getting students to understand the bigger picture, and how what they are doing fits into that. I fear that some students, faculty, and business schools are just seeing the tip of that iceberg, and that there is a lot more underneath that they don't realize that they don't know. Beyond that, I think it is important that students also understand that sustainability is a huge source of innovation for business.

Q.  If you could redevelop the curriculum for a business school to better reflect sustainability, how would you do that?
A.
  While I was working on the book, I found that sustainability wasn't being brought up in core MBA classes. Those were the classes that were most important to the students. For example students who want to go into marketing will pay particular attention to everything that is said in a marketing class. If sustainability is not being brought up at all, or it's being brought up as an add-on, it sends a very strong message to the students that this isn't something that they necessarily need to know.

One of the challenges of embedding sustainability into management education is the fact that faculty aren't fully aware of these issues. The more students are aware of these issues, the more they can bring them up in their classes, get other students involved, and hopefully also get faculty involved.

It is vital that students get core business knowledge, so I wouldn't necessarily create an MBA that's focused on sustainability. However, I would have sustainability woven seamlessly throughout the MBA program, not just in the curriculum but in a whole range of activities, such as consulting projects, volunteer projects, working abroad, speaker series, and many other such undertakings. It is important to embed a whole range of sustainability issues into the student experience—working with faculty on these issues, working out curriculum reform, and independent projects—to make sure the students are getting this information Differentiated Experience in a Globalised World, October 10-11 in Madrid. from a wide range of angles.

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