Published April 27, 2021
Judging from the lofty mission statements of many business schools, educational curricula and research portfolios are geared towards advancing the greater societal good. The number and prominence of business schools that presently declare their dedication to advancing societal welfare hold great promise. In their lockstep, major accreditation bodies such as AACSB increasingly count societal relevance in their business school accreditation exercises. This is a laudable evolution. Those who have been in academic circles for a while will vividly recall that, only two decades ago, corporate sustainability research was merely tolerated, with the ecological or social environment mainly serving as the empirical context of otherwise mainstreamed research topics. Educational activities were confined to dedicated ethics courses or peripheral playgrounds for tree huggers.
At the same time, we know that sustainability talks are not always walked. Furthermore, corporate sustainability and societal welfare are multi-interpretable, stretchable terms. As corporate sustainability scholars, our tasks are threefold to effectively advance sustainability practices in academia and business. First, we need to ensure that conventional, unsustainable business school activities are not simply relabeled as societally relevant. Administrators may want to gain legitimacy and earmark conventional practices as societally prodigious. With some imagination, most teaching and research activities are somehow related to the sustainable development goals, even though this relation may be marginal and partial. While nobody has a monopoly on wisdom, sustainability scholars are at least sensitized to detect blatant or more covert claims of greenwashing or bluewashing.
Second, we need to share our expertise. Well-intended colleagues who are novel to the world of sustainability may be naïve or short-sighted in their approach. For instance, green marketing cannot be reduced to using a biodegradable wrapper for an otherwise unchanged product. Business school teachers and researchers need to stretch their time horizon and broaden their scope to comprehensively weigh the broader social and ecological repercussions of knowledge shared with students and fellow scholars.
Third, we need to broaden the support base in our own business schools and the academic and other professional bodies in which we partake. Many, if not most, scholars in the field of corporate sustainability have a strong internal drive to generate research outcomes for the greater societal good. We may have acquiesced in ‘being different’ or happy that our sustainability courses enjoy more student interest. However, we need to seize the momentum and create broader change towards sustainable business research and education. Accomplishing such institutional change will require that social and environmental sustainability be integrated into the full breadth of research and teaching. Rather than operating in specialized niches and preaching to the converted ones, we need to reach out to the most conventional and skeptical students and scholars.
Examples of concrete actions we can take are in a recent article in AACSB’s magazine Insights (see: https://aacsb.edu/insights/2021/February/encouraging-business-scholars-to-address-societal-impact). The website of the global academic organization Responsible Research in business and Management Organization (https://www.rrbm.network/) also hosts a treasure trove of relevant resources. Only when corporate sustainability gets mainstreamed in business schools will future leaders in business, government, and civil society have the mindset, skills, and knowledge to massively transition towards sustainable business with positive societal implications. Let us, sustainability scholars, be agents in that important journey, as devil’s advocates, knowledge brokers, and institutional catalysts.