Sustainability Across the Curriculum

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Wednesday, March 23, 2022
By Erik Foley
Photo by iStock/arthon meekodong
An online resource shows students that every business major has a vital role to play in helping the world achieve its sustainability targets.
  • To effectively integrate sustainability into business curricula, educators first must know exactly what learning objectives they are targeting.
  • By defining learning objectives for sustainability separately for each major, business schools can show all students how they can effect global change.
  • Sustainability should reinforce business fundamentals in the curriculum, not replace them.


Over the last decade, we have seen Fortune 500 companies issue sustainability reports and expand their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives. We also have seen the public show growing interest in investing for impact, combating climate change, and promoting equity. In that context, the urgency for business schools to embrace sustainability is clear. But what their destination should look like, in terms of real-world impact, is not.

As author and speaker Zig Ziglar once said: “You can’t hit a target you cannot see, and you cannot see a target you do not have.”

In 2018, we began a four-year effort to define our sustainability target more clearly at the Smeal College of Business at Pennsylvania State University in State College. In April, we will launch the result of this work: an online platform called Major Sustainability. The platform allows business students to explore the complementary roles their majors play in addressing global issues and effecting change.

Like many business schools, we have been engaged with sustainability for a long time. And like many, we haven’t known where we were going—until now. By creating this resource, we have set a destination for our programs. We want to reinvent business education around sustainability and link every student’s major to sustainability concerns.

The Integration of Disciplines

In their efforts to pay more attention to sustainability, business schools have made well-intended efforts to launch new courses, degree programs, and study abroad opportunities; hold case competitions and pitch contests; and organize conferences. But too often, these efforts are not linked to one another in complementary ways, and they reach only a relatively small group of students who self-select into such opportunities.

In the real world, however, the interconnections among jobs and disciplines are many. For example, most people appreciate the fact that COVID-19 vaccine was developed in just 12 months, when the process of formulating a vaccine typically takes up to 12 years. What is less appreciated, however, is that this accomplishment was not just a scientific marvel. It was a business marvel as well. All business disciplines had to work together for the COVID-19 vaccine to end up in people’s arms, saving millions of lives.

In a May 2021 Harvard Business Review article, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla explains why his company was able to formulate its vaccine so quickly. “Success is a team effort,” Bourla says. “Every single person in our company and at BioNTech—from senior executives to manufacturing and transportation staffers—was instrumental.” If one department or discipline hadn’t done its part, the whole effort would have failed. The way companies such as Pfizer and BioNTech integrated operations across disciplines offers a valuable lesson to business schools as they determine how to teach sustainability most effectively.

Missing Targets We Never Had

For its part, the Smeal College of Business has been engaged in sustainability since the early 2000s and launched a formal initiative in 2008. When I became the school’s first full-time director of sustainability in 2015, I inherited a wealth of initiatives and a vision to reach every business student.

But at the time, we were uncertain what “reaching every student” really meant. What should we be teaching business students about sustainability?

We needed to view sustainability as a challenge for the existing curriculum, not to it.

Soon after I started at Smeal, I held individual meetings with the department chairs. They expressed concerns that I would toss out (or at least water down) the fundamentals of business in the curriculum for the sake of adding in sustainability content. But I had no intention of “throwing out the baby with the bathwater”—of tossing out the old curriculum to make room for the new. On the contrary, I reassured the faculty that we needed to keep the existing curriculum intact and view sustainability as a challenge for the existing curriculum, not to it.

After I provided this assurance to the chairs, a group of faculty began to work on determining what “reaching every student” would actually look like. We knew we wanted to educate and inspire students about business’s capacity for advancing social justice and environmental protection, but we had not defined what that would mean. Did we need to teach more cases on climate change and human rights in supply chains? Invite more guest speakers from corporate sustainability departments? Offer more elective courses, and if so, courses about what exactly?

In other words, we were aiming at a target we didn’t have. We needed to define the target before we could go after it.

Our ‘Major’ Breakthrough

What happened next might sound like the beginning of a joke: How many professors does it take to agree on sustainability learning outcomes for business students? Together, my colleagues could not determine a single approach to integrating sustainability into the entire curriculum. The concept is too difficult to define and measure at an abstract level, and every discipline has its own approach to teaching. But we realized that if every department defined sustainability learning outcomes by major, we could arrive at the destination we wanted. That was the breakthrough we needed.

We quickly assembled teaching faculty in each department to develop sustainability-learning objectives for their relevant majors. Faculty worked in small ad hoc teams, rather than large task forces. We were inspired to take this approach, in part, by how former Unilever CEO Paul Polman wrote his company’s famous Sustainability Living Plan.

In his recent book Net Positive: How Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More Than They Take, Polman notes that he completed the plan with just two other people—that’s it. Three people wrote one of today’s most impactful corporate sustainability strategies.

This is another lesson that administrators can take to heart: Even as we are making big changes in our business schools, we need not be burdened with lengthy committee work.

Simple Objectives, Big Impact

We knew that if faculty created learning objectives that were too comprehensive, they would only exhaust themselves and their students. So, we asked faculty to keep the learning objectives simple—view them as a way to introduce undergraduates to the broader concepts of sustainability. Our ultimate vision was to make students realize that, no matter what their areas of study, they each have roles to play in creating a better world.

Each department created a simple yet powerful PowerPoint deck with a slide containing two key elements:

  • A one-sentence statement that explained how the major contributes to sustainability performance for a business.
  • A bulleted list of learning objectives described using language from Bloom’s taxonomy.

For example, one learning objective for accounting students emphasized that students should know how “to differentiate between various reporting, ranking, and standards frameworks.” Finance students should learn to “evaluate the effects of sustainability data on the firm’s stock price and cost of capital.” In supply management, students should “understand and be able to explain common human and labor rights issues in second- and third-tier suppliers and possible solutions.”

At this point, we knew what aspects of sustainability we wanted to teach. Not only that, but we had ensured that our new sustainability-focused learning objectives complemented our existing, traditional curriculum.

Keeping Baby and Bathwater

Throughout this process, we were driven by the belief that sustainability is more than soft “do-gooderism.” We viewed sustainability as an advanced form of business built on business fundamentals. As educators, we can use its concepts to raise the bar for hard-nosed analysis, as well as train students to apply those fundamentals in different ways to solve the world’s problems.

As I have told the most ardent world-changing business student: “I love the passion. Keep that. But if you can’t read a financial statement or master the fundamentals of your discipline and industry, you’ll never change a thing.”

I have told the most ardent world-changing business student: “If you can’t read a financial statement or master the fundamentals of your discipline and industry, you’ll never change a thing.”

When it comes to effective corporate action to address climate change, for example, we will need management to determine strategy and governance, finance to determine how to pay for initiatives, supply chain to implement the strategy across suppliers and logistics, accounting to measure and report progress, and marketing to develop new products and engage customers.

In other words, it’s not just that every major has a role to play in advancing sustainability. The corollary is also true: If a particular major or discipline doesn’t make its contribution, that contribution will not come from anywhere else.

An Educational Companion

The final part of this process was to use learning objectives defined by our faculty to develop the Major Sustainability platform. The platform was designed by a team of eight outstanding interns, who worked with more than 30 faculty over more than two years. With content that conveys the essential wisdom in each major, the website is meant to be an educational companion—each student’s own personal “sustainability Yoda,” so to speak.

Students can visit Major Sustainability to learn not only each business major’s unique contributions to sustainability, but also key concepts in the field. The platform also shares career tips, course recommendations, and lists of companies that are exemplary for their sustainability commitments.

After conducting user testing, we identified three types of students who are using the site:

  • Pathfinders are first- and second-year students who want to choose their business majors based on the impact that choice can have on the world.
  • Researchers are second- and third-year students who are seeking interesting research questions to explore in their various classes and honors programs.
  • Job Seekers are fourth- and fifth-year students, as well as alumni, who are looking for jobs that contribute directly to positive social and environmental outcomes (jobs that have “sustainability” in their titles) or jobs that contribute indirectly.

In the future, we plan also to include resources on the website for faculty looking for new ways to incorporate sustainability into their teaching.

Sustainability Is a Team Effort

In April, we will begin sharing the Major Sustainability tool with business schools everywhere. We hope that the platform and the lessons that drove its design will help other schools meet their sustainability goals as much as they are helping us.

We see the site as a foundation on which to build a number of initiatives. These might include the development of summer workshops to show faculty how to modify their syllabi, certificate programs for students, and career resources that link jobs to impact. We hope that Major Sustainability might even inform the development of new, more rigorous standards for sustainability education among accrediting bodies such as AACSB.

All disciplines have roles to play in solving the world’s problems—and some have more potential for doing good than we perhaps give them credit for. Supply chain is recognized as doing the “heavy lifting” of corporate sustainability, but finance and actuarial science also carry a lot of weight. Finance characterizes the social and environmental risks of investments and the benefits of funding projects that revitalize neighborhoods and clean the air. Actuarial science quantifies the environmental benefits of, and creates incentives for, operating facilities more responsibly or selling vehicles that generate less pollution.

The Major Sustainability platform is meant to help business schools identify this potential, communicate that potential to students, and inspire them to contribute to solving global problems. We want all students to know that regardless of their course of study, they have critical roles to play on the global team taking sustainable action.

Erik Foley
Director, Center for the Business of Sustainability, Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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