The SDGs as ‘Necessary, Useful, and Beautiful’

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Tuesday, October 25, 2022
By Richard Harvey Jonsen
Photo by iStock/kynny
A 100-year-old treatise on the purpose of business provides a new way for students to apply the concepts of the Sustainable Development Goals.
  • In the early 20th century, R.H. Tawney argued that business should support the common good, not individual gain.
  • Tawney’s ideas of a functional society are reflected in today’s sustainability movements that focus on the triple bottom line.
  • Using Tawney’s framework, business students can learn how the SDGs can be categorized by the ways they contribute to society.

“The purpose of industry is obvious,” wrote R.H. Tawney, an economist and historian from the early decades of the 20th century. “It is to supply [humanity] with things which are necessary, useful or beautiful, and thus to bring life to body or spirit.”

Many people understand the sustainable development movement to be primarily a post-World War II phenomenon that reached a critical milestone with the 1987 publication of the Brundtland Report. But Tawney made his observation more than 100 years ago in The Acquisitive Society, which was published as Britain recovered from World War I and the 1918–20 influenza pandemic. In the book, Tawney argued that business should serve the common good rather than build personal wealth for individuals.  

No doubt Tawney would recognize some of his own themes in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. These 17 objectives are dedicated to uplifting humanity and preserving the natural world that provides us with joy and supplies all our needs. Over the past three years, our lived experience has shined a spotlight on the importance of the SDGs and the need for serving the common good.

Business schools, particularly those that have signed on to the U.N.’s Principles for Responsible Management Education, have sought to integrate the goals into their curricula. This can be challenging because, in many cases, students are not familiar with the concepts. In fact, a 2020 article from Cecilia Smaniotto and her colleagues found that students at nine Italian universities had a low knowledge of the SDGs. It’s likely that these results are representative of students at most Western universities.

It can be overwhelming for undergraduate students who have never encountered the SDGs before to try to grasp the details of all 17 goals. A common pedagogical approach is for a professor to introduce students to the SDGs, then have them focus on one or two as they research issues and develop projects. This approach is valuable because it sparks student interest and generates potential solutions for pressing global problems. But it is problematic because it can compartmentalize student thinking, potentially causing them to lose sight of the proverbial common-good forest for the individual SDG tree.

This is where Tawney’s century-old conception of business good might help us integrate the SDGs into our curriculum and teaching.

A Functional Society

In The Acquisitive Society, Tawney challenged shareholder primacy and sought to resolve industrial strife. He believed that the key to rebuilding the economy after World War I and the influenza pandemic was to understand that economic interests are but one aspect of life. Tawney believed that capital and profit were necessary for what he referred to as the “functional society,” but he felt they should be deployed to help society flourish rather than allow individuals to build wealth.

Tawney’s functional society bears similarity to our contemporary vision of a world that is supported by sustainable development and responsible management.

Tawney’s definition of a functional society is a just world built on the dignity and value of each human person. In a quote that could be taken from a contemporary discourse on social justice, he describes the implications of equality in human interactions: “A belief in equality means that … nothing can justify my use of power which chance gives me (the chance of a majority as well as wealth or birth) to the full, that nothing can justify my using my neighbor as a tool, or treating him as something negligible which may be swept aside to realize my ends, however noble those ends may be.”

In addition, Tawney believed that, in a functional society, industry utilizes natural resources in a fashion that benefits all people, not just a wealthy few. While Tawney’s focus was on the well-being of humans, he recognized that human flourishing is dependent upon the flourishing of our natural environment.

Tawney’s functional society, then, bears similarity to our contemporary vision of a world that is supported by sustainable development and responsible management. In 1994, John Elkington coined the now-ubiquitous phrase “the triple bottom line,” and a few years later he expanded on the idea in his book Cannibals With Forks. As business educators, we can discuss both a functional society and a triple bottom line as we help students think about sustainability.

A Framework for the SDGs

To familiarize students with sustainability concepts, I suggest that educators in introductory management courses consider integrating several steps into their teaching.

Begin by polling students on their current knowledge of the topic. What do they think of when they hear “sustainability” or “Sustainable Development Goals”? Break students into small discussion groups, then ask them to share their thoughts with the class. As students make their reports, identify common themes. Briefly introduce the 17 SDGs and describe their origins, then find ways to connect the SDGs with the themes that students have uncovered.

Recognizing that 17 goals are a lot to remember, introduce Tawney’s necessary-useful-beautiful framework as a way to think about the SDGs. Provide context here to illustrate that sustainability is not a recent topic, but one that has long been a concern in industrialized economies. Be sure to capture how economic, social, and natural capital issues are integrated into Tawney’s framework.

In the context of sustainability, what does it mean for a business to produce goods or services that are necessary, useful, or beautiful?

Next, task small groups to read the SDGs and categorize them according to whether they are necessary, useful, beautiful, or some combination of the three. Caution students not to take the easy way out by assigning all SDGs to all categories. Once students complete the categorization process, ask each group to define the three terms based on the SDGs they have assigned to each one. In the context of sustainability, what does it mean for a business to produce goods or services that are necessary, useful, or beautiful?

Capture the developed definitions on a whiteboard, asking groups to discuss how they came to their definitions and conclusions. Identify themes and novelties, then have the class discuss implications for business and industry.

Ask additional questions that tie the day’s discussions back to the specific learning objectives of the course. During sustainability discussions throughout the rest of the semester, continue to use the definitions developed by students so they see how Tawney's framework can apply to all aspects of business.

Final Thoughts

If business professors decide to bring Tawney’s observations into the classroom, they need to be aware that he was a socialist who served on a commission that recommended the nationalization of the British coal industry. (Parliament did not implement the plan.)

However, whatever educators may think of Tawney’s political views, they should not dismiss his necessary-useful-beautiful framework. Biographer Lawrence Goldman observes in The Life of R. H. Tawney that Tawney viewed his writings as contextual platforms from which to measure societal change. And as societies and their problems evolve, so will their potential solutions.

The SDGs provide a comprehensive set of sustainability objectives for our 21st-century circumstances. Tawney’s 100-year-old framework offers a doorway into the topic of sustainability. It allows us to reflect more broadly on the meaning of conducting business for the common good.

Richard Harvey Jonsen
Senior Lecturer, Rohrer College of Business, Rowan University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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