The Compounding Value of Climate Competitiveness

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Wednesday, May 15, 2024
By Bruce Piasecki
Photo by iStock/FatCamera
Our youngest students are primed to address the climate crisis and achieve social progress—they just need opportunities to hone their changemaking skills. 
  • Members of younger generations demonstrate a near-universal awareness of and concern about the worsening climate crisis.
  • To direct their concern into real-world action, schools can teach them to adopt “climate competitiveness,” a strategy based on developing simple yet effective solutions to social and planetary challenges.
  • Schools can achieve this goal by showing students how they can generate positive societal impact throughout their lives and careers—starting with the experiential projects they work on during their degree programs.

When our daughter was eight years old, she was fascinated by the biological world. Once, as we were walking deep in our backyard woods, we found the skull of a deer. She was full of questions: “Dad, what happens to the tongue?” and “Dad, when does the retina signal its last message to the brain?”

Later that night, she and I had a similarly thoughtful conversation, as we explained to each other why we had chosen “8” as our favorite number. I argued that I loved how it looked like the relentless spin of a Mobius strip. She said, “It’s my favorite because I know that the number 8 meant ‘infinity’ from the start. That’s why it’s stronger than all other numbers.”

I thought to myself, “How has she become so steady in her interests and perspective?” Today, my daughter is a doctor, but even now after her professional medical training, she remains an honest and nuanced observer of what is happening around her—including what is happening with the planet. I have found that she and others of her generation are nearly universally aware of and concerned about the effects of climate change on the natural world.

Perhaps that’s why I have become such a staunch champion of the idea of climate competitiveness. It’s an idea that I think will be central to business success and human well-being in the future, and one that should be part of every business curriculum.

What Is Climate Competitiveness?

At its core, climate competitiveness is about using all the tools of capitalism, science, and technology to address larger societal and environmental demands. It’s about developing solutions that, for example, keep the handicapped mobile, the elderly engaged, the government well-informed, and the providers of goods and services focused on the net good of the human population and planet.

As I argue in my book Wealth and Climate Competitiveness: The New Narrative on Business and Society, when businesses and individuals are climate competitive, they blend their proprietary scientific and market-based knowledge to create social and environmental solutions years ahead of when governments might address issues via taxes or regulations.

By the start of the 21st century, 20th-century assumptions were giving way to new presumptions that strike a better balance between building wealth and protecting the interests of the global commonwealth.

I have visited business schools in many parts of the world, and while many address sustainability, I find that it’s rare for schools to place a strategic response to climate change and social purpose on a par with profit maximization. However, I believe climate competitiveness is an essential strategy that students must learn so that they can help strengthen and improve the relationship between business and society.

A Return to a Classic Value

Throughout my own education, I have been made aware of the tensions between business and society—from my high school courses all the way through to my doctoral dissertation under literary historian M.H. Abrams at Cornell University. For years, our educational systems have promoted the wrong-headed assumption that business and society are at odds.

But by the start of the 21st century, when my daughter and my students were going to school, a new social contract began to emerge. It was as if 20th-century assumptions were giving way to new presumptions that strike a better balance between building wealth and protecting the interests of the global commonwealth.

The irony is that, in many ways, we are returning to a classic worldview of competition and the social good. Just think back to Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s founding fathers. In the 1700s, he and others conceived the first public libraries and the first sidewalks for pedestrians. Franklin invented bifocals to help people see the world better and lightning rods to protect people’s homes from damage during storms. In essence, Franklin was an early socially conscious entrepreneur.

We are heading in the right direction, but as a whole, higher education institutions have yet to place Franklin’s ideal at the front and center of their curricula. To secure our collective future, today’s generation must learn to adopt a more Ben Franklin-like approach to business—to develop what I like to call “doing-more-with-less” innovations that can work anywhere in the world.

By implementing simple solutions that support a more resilient, self-sufficient, and sustainable society, business leaders will put their organizations and communities years ahead of those less focused on social solutions.

Lessons in Globalization

Journalist James Fallows dramatizes self-reliance and simple practicality in his book Our Towns, in which he and his wife visit and describe hundreds of small American communities where wealth and the commonwealth coexist in harmony.

I saw this same mindset in action when my firm hired young leaders from Madagascar, Northern Australia, and Ireland. These individuals came to work with their sleeves rolled up, prepared to take action on both protecting the climate and staying ahead of the competition. This dedication to the planet was not limited to their working lives—they also demonstrated climate competitiveness in their own reduced consumption of resources and commitment to social causes.

Societies in many parts of the world are working to restore the balance between building wealth and preserving social well-being. While this dedication is less true in urban America, I have found that the new generation of future leaders can envision a different path forward.

For individuals and organizations in every nation, climate competitiveness balances innovation with competitive frugality. It enables families and firms to compound value without squandering resources.

Let me present this generational shift in the context of our global, industrialized society. In my 2007 book World Inc., I discuss the many ways that globalization has led to a deeper understanding of the implications of conscious capitalism, or “social response capitalism.” As I explored this idea, I met with decision-makers worldwide who realized what this new approach to business could mean, not only to the future of their organizations but to the lives of millions.

They understood that, for individuals and organizations in every nation, climate competitiveness balances innovation with competitive frugality. It enables families and firms to compound value without squandering resources.

Here, we face a paradox: For members of the young generation to enhance their creativity and thinking skills, they need to consume resources, particularly through early global travel. So, ironically, while I argue that the world needs to embrace greater simplicity in its collective decision-making and habits, I also recognize the need for excess.

But there is a problem with excessive excess. Unlike many professionals who are part of older generations, my daughter and most of her peers see little advantage to owning and maintaining multiple homes or accruing surplus possessions. By the time my daughter graduated from medical school, she and her classmates placed more value on pursuing meaningful careers and maintaining a lifelong ecosystem of friends and associated firms.

Five Changes for Business Curricula

What lessons can business educators extrapolate from these tales about my daughter? From her, I have learned that institutions can best prepare graduates for success by ensuring they take five lessons to heart:

  1. Their efforts matter to the world. Show students the importance of contributing to society throughout their lives. This starts in educational settings, through ethical case studies, job shadowing, and course projects. In fact, I believe that at least a third to a half of any degree program should include experiential learning in real-world settings. Students can learn more in one year participating in applied learning than in three years of learning theory in the classroom.
  2. No community or individual lives in a vacuum. Highlight the intersections between individual communities and the larger global community. Here, business students can learn a great deal from studying subjects such as cultural anthropology that help them look beyond their own biases and lived experiences.
  3. Business success and the social good can work together. Invite to the classroom executives and managers of large organizations whose leadership focuses on strengthening the relationship between business growth and the social good.
  4. Great leaders innovate with the larger society in mind. Remind students at all levels, during every term, that after graduation they will have obligations to be innovative thinkers and influential leaders who are mindful and responsive to social needs.
  5. They have much to learn from those around them. Reinforce the idea that, once students enter the workforce, their determination, adaptability, and willingness to appreciate and learn from the experiences of others will matter more than the degrees and certifications listed on their résumés.

Providing ‘Creative Force’ to the World

As a graduate student, I once traveled to the campus of the University of California Berkeley. There, I was waiting in line for a meal from a food truck when I saw a mural that students had painted on the side of the adjacent building. The painting depicted a long line of students crossing the stage at their commencement; as they each accepted their degrees and descended from the stage, their heads morphed from round to square. By the time they embarked on the road to their careers, their heads were as square as televisions.

The message of this painting haunted me then, and it haunts me today. What it represents—the commodification of knowledge and talent—is the opposite of the effect that global education should have in modern society and business.

Higher education institutions should take every step to produce graduates who are individuals, each ready to contribute unique talents and creativity to the world. The beauty of global education is not necessarily about inspiring outright revolution, but about increasing the creative force of future leaders.

Henry David Thoreau once said, “A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority, … but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.” Younger generations seem to understand this lesson of social history instinctively. That said, many young people—my daughter included—would prefer to use productive action rather than resistance to change the world for the better.

My hope is that educational institutions—especially those educating future global business leaders—will help their students effectively marshal and direct their creative talents toward positive change and societal impact. As they graduate and assume leadership roles, the beneficial effects of the solutions they implement will only continue to build over time. When educational institutions help reinforce the natural inclination of young people to address social problems, they will prepare this next generation of leaders to work toward the progress they want to see in the world.

Bruce Piasecki
Author, President and Founder, AHC Group
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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