Business schools’ sustainability teaching needs a Rethink

A client shared a session from a brand name school: “Building scenarios in a climate positive world – Using AI to envision the future.” Perhaps ironically, it was conducted in the hottest month in recorded history. Untethered optimism is unsustainable when it distracts from the hard work needed to redesign our societies.

Corporate-centric curricula put markets and profit-seeking above limits and rules. Selective mitigation of negative impacts provides competitive advantage but ignores the unsustainability of increasing consumption. Western business education is biased against regulatory intervention and even effective governance, despite its essential role in protecting public interest and reigning in excesses of private corporations. Emphasis on voluntary initiatives like CSR and philanthropy perpetuates power differentials within society. It also deflects corporate accountability based on the assumption that individuals should lead change. They cannot.

ESG has been elevated to something of a panacea. Yet our most pressing challenges fall outside the reach of financial markets and are better addressed by socio-economic policies and improved governance. Externalities is a more potent subject than reporting. Recognising the true costs of products and services can be transformational. Beyond self-congratulatory buzzwords, executives should look at other stakeholder vantage points: Suppliers struggling under 90-day payment terms, for example.

In the current paradigm, executives are taught that any company can do sustainability, even if the business model is fundamentally unsustainable. Consider bottled water or packaged snacks. Honest inquiry is needed and is what we do at The Global Institute For Tomorrow (GIFT).

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