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4 Steps Business Schools Must Take To Tackle Climate Change

As Extinction Rebellion takes to the streets, the pressure on businesses and governments to tackle climate change has never been greater. This starts at business school

Thu Oct 10 2019

‘We are facing a man-made disaster on a global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change’—David Attenborough, United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP24), 2018.

Around the world, climate change activism group Extinction Rebellion is taking to the streets and shutting down cities. 

Their message is clear—time is fast running out to address the serious impacts of climate change on the world around us.

COP24, the global climate agreement, has issued a number of urgent directives to reduce carbon emissions and stop warming of over 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degree Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial levels.

Politicians are being forced to respond—the UK government recently pledged to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050—while businesses are becoming increasingly oriented around the ‘triple bottom line’, achieving environmental results alongside financial and social ones.

For business schools, Extinction Rebellion's message is putting pressure to force change in the world of business.

“We’re teaching stuff to students for a world that won’t exist after they graduate,” says Geoff Moore, professor of business ethics at Durham University Business School.

Here’s four steps business schools must take to tackle climate change:

1. Re-evaluate the way capitalism is taught

Extinction Rebellion's protests have taken on a distinctly anti-capitalist message. 

Modern capitalism, with a focus on profit and shareholder interest, seems to be fundamentally at odds with sustainability. A central focus on profit places sustainability second in priority—a message still perpetuated by many financial institutions and by business schools.

“This is one of the central fallacies in what we are teaching,” underlines Dr Shubhro Sen, director of Shiv Nadar University and co-founder of the Conscious Capitalism Initiative.

A re-evaluation of capitalism, one in which sustainability is at its heart, is necessary to progress business towards a green future.


This isn’t at odds with growth. “[The misconception] is that we need to ‘de-grow’ to accomplish something. Actually, it involves an acceleration of growth,” stresses Dr Charles Donovan (pictured), director of the Center for Climate Finance and Investment at Imperial College Business School. 

Does this involve a radical reassessment of economic systems? Actually, no. The economy has shifted drastically overnight before, Charles notes—when we’ve moved from horses to cars, or from steam to electricity. “When that’s happened successfully, things have progressed at a great rate.”

“We’re teaching stuff to students for a world that won’t exist after they graduate.”

2. Change the rankings system

As it stands, a business school’s reputation is based largely on its performance in the rankings. The metrics used to calculate these rankings, however, have more recently been brought into question.


“The incentive structures are a little dated,” explains Peter Drobac, director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford. “MBA rankings focus on salaries and earnings, rather than the impact they are having.”

Naturally, it becomes more important for schools to focus on producing high performing graduates, rather than those with a social or environmental focus.

The Business School Rankings for the 21st Century, a report based on inputs from business schools and various industry bodies, emphasizes the need to focus on social impact rather than salary as an indicator of success. The Financial Times this year incorporated corporate social responsibility into its Global MBA rankings for the first time.

3. Integrate sustainability into the curriculum

As the ranking measures start to shift, the MBA curriculum needs to shift too. Sustainability is commonplace on MBA curricula—yet it is still often taught as separate, or even contradictory, to other management practices.

Geoff Moore (pictured) explains that Durham University Business School has ethics, responsibility, and sustainability (ERS) as one of its ‘transversal themes’ for its MBA, running through all areas of the curriculum. “We don’t have a core module on ERS—we believe it’s better for it to infuse curriculum of other subjects, otherwise students see it as separate,” he says.


Rotterdam School of Management (RSM) at the Erasmus University is another trailblazer for putting sustainability at the core of not just its curriculum but also its school philosophy.

The school’s mission statement—'a force for positive change in the world’—derives from the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out by the UN. This guiding principle, director of marketing and admissions Brandon Kirby highlights, is reflected through all stages of the school, starting at student entry level and traveling all the way through its MBA program.

Courses on RSM’s MBA cover the Circular Economy—“the entire value lifecycle of markets and how it relates to sustainability”—and management through the lens of sustainable development, identifying environmental changes that can be made at every stage of business operations.  

4. Address real-world problems

It’s all well ticking the sustainability box on paper, but what really matters is whether business schools are identifying real problems, and making practical efforts to address the effects of climate change.

“Many of the world’s challenges can be solved through business,” Brandon from RSM mentions.

RSM offers its MBA students nine different study trips based around making real changes. An expedition to Costa Rica, one of the world’s most sustainable economies, exposes students to on-site case studies of sustainable business models; a trip to Iceland, meanwhile, shows students the eco-tourism for which the country is renowned.

Business school research resources, meanwhile, are at the forefront of understanding the innovations and changes that must occur to save the environment.

The Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, at Oxford Saïd, runs the Global Opportunities and Threats Oxford (GOTO) program, which frames a year-long research project around one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

This year’s theme is ‘the future of energy’, positing students with sustainable energy challenges which can be applied to real world problems. Challenges include improving efficiency and extending access to those who live off the grid.

“We are reimagining what leadership in the 21st century looks like, and giving students a more systemic perspective to act on problems around climate change,” Peter Drobac explains.

There are also grassroots ways that business schools can enact practical changes. The Ethica Club at SDA Bocconi School of Management, in Milan, is leading a project to make the school plastic-free.

Extinction Rebellion have deliberately targeted governments and big business in their protests, as the people in power with the biggest capacity to enact change. 

It's crucial that business schools, as the first step for many in a business career, view climate change as their responsibility.

As Geoff from Durham concludes: “MBA students are going to be the leaders of the future, and we really want to make sure they’ve got the message.”

BB Insights examines the latest news and trends from the business world, drawing on the expertise of leading faculty members at the world's best business schools.