"Sustainability" Is Growing Theme of Business Schools

board & diploma

Environmentally conscious entrepreneurs looking to get a business degree now have a variety of options when choosing a graduate school. Four U.S. institutions offer “Sustainable MBAs,” or Masters of Business Administration programs that infuse sustainability concepts throughout the entire curricula. More traditional business schools are also including classes and coursework that reflect a growing awareness of the interactions between business and the environment.

Sustainable MBA programs, according to Miguel Esteban of Washington state’s Bainbridge Graduate Institute (BGI), are built “from the ground up,” with environmental considerations not just applied as a “band-aid” to traditional classes. Both BGI and the Presidio School of Management in San Francisco offer primarily online classes, with professors and students meeting in-person only once a month. Bainbridge is unique in its strong commitment to community, says president and co-founder Gifford Pinchot III. It also ranked first among 40 business programs surveyed by Net Impact, an organization that promotes using the power of business to make a positive social, environmental, and economic impact. The Presidio School, meanwhile, counts Hunter Lovins, co-author of the business-and-environment classic Natural Capitalism, among its faculty and is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

Green Mountain College, located in Vermont, is an accredited business program that offers true distance learning that is practical for working professionals, according to William Prado, director of the school’s MBA and Sustainable Business program. Students are required to meet in-person only twice during the two-year program. The accredited New College of California, on the other hand, values face-to-face interaction so much, says promotions coordinator Stacie Wickham, that its sustainable MBA program is conducted entirely in the classroom and is not available online.

Representatives of each of the four schools describe their sustainable MBA programs as practical and inclusive of all of the key components of a traditional business education. Each program incorporates a real-life project or “capstone,” and focuses on benefiting the three elements of “people, planet, and profit.” Critics, however, contend that these specialized programs still fall short when compared to more conventional MBA programs. “They're providing fundamentals, but they may not be as deep as your traditional M.B.A.,” said Mark Milstein, business research director at the World Resources Institute (WRI) and a lecturer at Cornell University’s business school, in a January 2006 New York Times article.

But prospective students will find that even traditional MBA programs are becoming more environmentally responsible. According to the most recent Beyond Grey Pinstripes survey, a biennial ranking of business schools’ social and environmental leadership sponsored by WRI and the Aspen Institute, 54 percent of participating institutions now require a course in ethics, corporate social responsibility, sustainability, or business and society, up from 45 percent in 2003. Stanford University's MBA program is rated number one overall among the 91 participants.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.