Dr Katell Le Goulven, Executive Director, Hoffmann Global Institute for Business and Society, INSEAD
Sustainability is the big buzz in business right now. It seems every company has a sustainability strategy and is going green. Yet by almost all major indicators, there has been little progress towards the global Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs.
In September 2022, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addressed the General Assembly and issued an SOS for the SDGs, saying “Even the most fundamental goals – on poverty, hunger and education – are going into reverse”. The climate is increasingly unstable, loss of biodiversity is staggering, and extreme weather is accelerating.
Building resilient communities and vibrant economies on a healthy planet requires a common understanding of sustainability. It also requires action by all. In this area, higher education can help make sustainability everybody’s business.
The term sustainability was coined by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987. The WCED Brundtland Commission Report defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
There are two important aspects of this definition. First, sustainability is a process, not a destination. It is a cycle of adaptation, learning and action.
Second, sustainable development is not simply environmental protection. Sustainability is about understanding interconnections between the economy, society and the natural environment and working towards positive outcomes for all three.
In 2015, governments set out a global agenda for sustainability by adopting the Paris Agreement on climate change and the SDGs.
The process of defining the SDGs revealed the importance of engaging the private sector to shape the agenda and lead in implementation. It also helped make the business case for sustainability.
Since 2015, a growing number of companies have adopted the framework and announced commitments to the goals. Investment in sustainable assets that align with the SDGs is also growing.
From public universities to private schools, higher education must align with this shift. Every school has a responsibility to prepare the next generation of leaders so they understand sustainability challenges, are equipped to addressed them and find their own opportunity in the sustainability space. Academia is uniquely positioned to provide evidence-based insights needed by decision makers to transform their organizations and lead progress towards the SDGs.
In 2018, INSEAD launched the Hoffmann Global Institute for Business and Society to integrate sustainability in the school. With the most MBA graduates per year and over 60,000 alumni and business leaders, INSEAD saw an opportunity for big impact by aligning the business school for the world with the SDGs.
Many business schools are getting on this path. Sustainability is gaining traction in the broader management education ecosystem. Higher education accreditation, ratings, rankings and reporting standards are all considering sustainability components.
While this progress is positive, as the UN Secretary-General points out, efforts must accelerate. Now is the moment to make sustainability everyone’s business across the entire higher education ecosystem.
The Hoffmann Institute can share insights from our efforts to integrate sustainability into knowledge, teaching, external engagement and how the school walks the talk. There were challenges along the way and we still have some work to do, but we have made progress.
INSEAD now has sustainability champions in all nine academic areas. The school is integrating sustainability into the core MBA curriculum. Alumni are aligning behind business as a force for good. The school has set out plans for gender balance and carbon emission reductions.
In research, the Hoffmann Institute increased funding for responsible research to give leaders tools to make responsible decisions. This research is shared on INSEAD Knowledge, at responsible research conferences and in fora such as the World Economic Forum and ChangeNOW, where we hear the need for new, more sustainable business models.
In the classroom, teaching business and society through practical experiences has proven successful. For example, our Master Strategy Day brings real-world challenges faced by social impact organizations into a student-led competition to provide solutions. Part of the core curriculum, every student gets hands-on experience applying business strategy to a sustainability challenge.
Engaging alumni and peers around sustainability can multiply results. Alumni-led INSEAD Community Impact Challenges brought together 8,000 people from over 100 countries to reduce single-use plastic consumption, change food habits and move towards net zero. Joining forces with seven other European business schools through the Business Schools for Climate Leadership initiative aggregated knowledge in a practical toolkit for alumni and leaders.
Integrating sustainability in school operations also mattered, not least for learning purposes. INSEAD developed an action plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across campuses on three continents that serves as business case for students and alumni.
We have faced challenges in these efforts. We learned that change in academia takes time while students want to see immediate adjustments. Partnering with clubs to develop extra-curricular activities such as our annual SDG week to bring latest sustainability practices on campus helped.
Using the governance structures of the school — channeling our funding for research through the school’s Research and Development Committee for instance — ensured that we would not develop a parallel structure that would side-line sustainability.
Engaging faculty on every front is needed to embed sustainability deeply in educational institutions. This is also true for changes in operations. Faculty involvement in the analysis and decision making of our carbon reduction strategy facilitated its adoption and brought many learning outcomes across our community.
Business schools also face the challenge of teaching the transformation away from shareholder capitalism. It takes a strong message of business as a force for good. Commitment from the top and buy in from senior leadership are essential and must be reflected in the sustainability strategy.
Now is a moment for bold leadership by business schools, universities and all institutions of higher education. Sustainability at the core of higher education can help deliver a stable, secure and prosperous future for all. Let’s work together and learn from each other’s efforts to make sustainability everybody’s business.
This article was from the 2023 Sustainability Rankings Higher Ed report. Download the full edition.