Photo of green forest in background and hand holding lightbulb with circle of sustainability icons in foreground

Why Now Is the Right Time to Act on Sustainability

Sustainability may seem unimportant in the middle of a pandemic, but the crisis is magnifying many of the world's problems, which schools can help address.

Recently I was skimming through the ideas in a book I’d written a few years back called The Future MBA: 100 Ideas for Making Sustainability the Business of Business Education. I was struck by how many examples from that project are relevant to our current situation. For instance, Idea 24 proposes that schools should all have a class called “Today.” While a large percentage of teaching hours are focused on teaching students about what has happened in the past, this interdisciplinary class would look at current events as they happen and explore what they mean for business, how business should or could respond, potential opportunities and/or risks both now and in the future, and what lessons could be learned from the whole situation.

A dean from a business school contacted me at the time in response to this idea and wrote, “I don’t understand what this has to do with sustainability.” To me, it has everything to do with sustainability. Sustainability is not a separate concept; it is relevant to what you are doing every single day of your lives, at work and at home. It is about what is happening right now and how you respond to it. The question is no longer whether you are engaged in sustainability or not. The question is, where do you stand on the spectrum between helping and hindering?

With Earth Day 2020—the 50th anniversary of this observance—falling right in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, you may not think that sustainability, or the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), are important at a time like this, but they are. Health is a part of sustainability, one of a whole range of issues that impact our lives, and businesses, daily.

The SDGs are a handy cheat sheet for businesses about the world they are operating in, but all too often they are not given adequate consideration, particularly within business school curriculum. We are all unfortunately seeing very clearly the impact of one serious health issue, and the ripple effects this can have on virtually all other aspects of life. This event shows us how the rules we teach in business school can quickly lose their relevance, as almost overnight the rules have shifted, and are likely to shift again as other sustainability issues arise, potentially in equally devastating ways.

COVID-19 is without question a tragedy. But it should also be a wake-up call. What the pandemic has done in many respects is simplify things momentarily. It has given us a lens to see the world around us in a different light. We may be able to see more clearly what’s important, and what perhaps isn’t. It is a chance to ask yourself again whether what you are doing, what you are teaching, is really preparing your students to be the global leaders we need, the kind of leaders the world needs at a time like this, the kind of leaders who can make decisions based not just on spreadsheets but in a truly volatile environment.

This year, don’t simply see Earth Day as an opportunity to make a token mention of the environment in your school newsletter. Use it as an opportunity to take a serious look at how you are reacting to this crisis, what lessons you can learn, and what may come next. I don’t mean simply expanding online education. Business schools will need more than that to come out of this crisis intact. Those that survive will be the ones, like the local businesses surrounding them, that are able to adapt and learn, and that engage their communities in doing the same.

Start with what is right around you. You had a sustainability plan and policies in place for your university, but do you have them at home? Now that, for many of us, our home is our office, look at this same plan but in the context of your new campus, your home and your local community. Here you can see how different environmental, social, and economic issues, all of the SDGs, in fact, come together firsthand. Encourage others to do the same.

Use COVID-19 examples as a way of embedding the SDGs into your courses right now. COVID-19 isn’t just about SDG 4 on good health and well-being. Here you see, very clearly, how one specific incident is having a significant impact on every other issue, how all the pieces of the puzzle come together to create the unified agenda for global sustainable development. Governance, partnerships, gender equality, decent work—every single one of the 17 SDGs are relevant, involved, and impacted, and this is resulting in examples and related discussions that you can use in every class taught in a business degree, including in lectures, assignments, projects, and research.

Incorporate elements of the “Today” class into your courses. What we can learn from the COVID-19 crisis is not just about issues; it is equally about what skills your students and staff need moving forward. Just like many businesses are having to adapt quickly to survive, business schools need to be able to adapt content quickly to what is happening around them, not just to stay relevant but to engage students and their community. Make the world your new curriculum. This will help students survive in the difficult economic times they will find themselves in post-graduation, and it will help business schools identify new opportunities for relevant research and products that could be offered.

Support your community. Despite the countless bleak messages we’re reading every day, there are dozens of uplifting stories. Many businesses, organizations, and individual leaders are adapting and innovating in exciting and quite remarkable ways. Tap into these, learn from them, and contribute to them. Work with your local business community and organizations that you usually work with as a business school. Help them take care of their staff, rethink their offerings, and adapt, to not only survive but, in different ways, thrive. Offer them additional help in the form of student consulting teams and access to knowledge. This engagement not only offers opportunities for your students and staff but shows the wider community what you are all about.

Be a part of the solution. Think about sustainability even if others can’t at this moment. Just because they aren’t doesn’t mean it is not crucial. There are many decisions being made right now that are having, and will continue to have, serious ramifications on not just economic but social and environmental issues. For example, millions of protective face masks are being disposed of daily, and many of those increasingly are finding their way into riverways and the oceans. Consider how you can engage students in helping to explore solutions to this and other challenges. While students are missing out on some important elements of their business degrees by being fully online, they also have the chance to contribute in ways they wouldn’t usually have the chance to, and they will fare better because of it.

Consider which budgets are getting cut. It’s often said that one way to find out where a business’s priorities lie is to look at what they cut first when forced to make budget reductions. While balancing budgets is extremely difficult at present for many schools, what you choose to cut, and how, can send a very powerful message about what your priorities are as a business school. Be mindful of this when reviewing your school’s sustainability budget. While how you spend this budget may change, don’t downgrade its importance, particularly now.

Think about what will be needed to get us all back on track (and what “back on track” should look like) after this passes: Is your curriculum preparing leaders to deal with situations such as COVID-19—situations or shocks to business as usual that are likely to continue to occur? Are you able to adapt quickly, to work together, to innovate? As we move past merely surviving this crisis, what happens next is becoming increasingly important. How can we use this event as a crucial opportunity to rebuild better than before, and how can you, as a business school, as a lecturer, as a researcher, contribute to that goal?

Every day is Earth Day. Once we realize that, we will all be in a better position to contribute in positive ways. Use this moment to take a serious look at how relevant your business school really is to your community and what you should—what you need—to do to fulfill that responsibility moving forward.


Giselle WeybrechtGiselle Weybrecht is an author, advisor, and speaker on sustainability. Her most recent book is The Future MBA: 100 Ideas for Making Sustainability the Business of Business Education. Follow her on Twitter @gweybrecht.