How to Embed Sustainability and the SDGs into Management Education

530 posts later…

This will be my last PRiMEtime post. It is hard to believe that it was already ten years ago that I proposed an idea to the PRME Secretariat to write a blog that would eventually go on to be called PRiMEtime. As a recent MBA graduate of London Business School and having just published The Sustainable MBA: A Business Guide to Sustainability, I had decided to focus my attention on how to change the way business schools approached the topic. I already had a decade working on sustainable development under my belt including as a youth delegate to the UN, a programme specialist with UNESCO and with various organisations on the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). It became clear during my MBA that none of the work we were doing around the MDGs would happen unless the business sector was involved but, more specifically, business schools (you can hear more about the why in my 2012 TEDx talk here and the how here). It was also apparent that most business schools weren’t sure what changes were needed, or how to go about making them.

What followed were several years of working across business school networks, business schools and business, to see what was needed in order to move forwards and adding my two cents along the way. With PRiMEtime, I set about trying to bring together examples of how business schools were engaging in PRME in terms of research, operations, curriculum, thought leadership and student engagement, just to name a few areas in order to inspire more ideas, and action. The focus was on highlighting a wide range of examples from an even wider range of schools from around the world, and I often bombarded certain quiet schools with emails until they agreed to share stories they didn’t realise anyone else would be interested in hearing.  I started off with a conversation with Dennis Hanno about how sustainability was embedded from Day 1 into Babson College USA and finished off, 10 years and 530 posts later, with Carole Parkes from the University of Winchester UK discussing how to take a whole school approach. 

So, what next?

I am so thankful to the hundreds of dedicated professionals working in business schools around the world for the contributions they have made to PRiMEtime. I’ve always tried to make time to help anyone in the network who needed it (and will continue to do so). There are a growing number of institutions, and individual professionals, leading the way in this field and providing inspiration for us all. However, while in some ways we have progressed a lot in the field of responsible management education, in many other ways we haven’t moved at all and that worries me. Some days it feels like we are living within the movie Groundhog Day, reliving the same day over and over again, having the same discussions about the same challenges while only taking baby steps towards possible solutions, solutions that are, especially today, fully within reach. 

As many of you know, I am a big fan of lists. For example, I made a list of 100 ideas of what I thought the future of management education would look like, not once, but twice. So, for this, my last post for now, I wanted to share my list of twelve ways to embed sustainability into management education. These are, of course, only my thoughts and may not be yours.  If they aren’t, think about what yours may be and share them so that we can all move forwards. 

1.The language you use is important. Sustainability, the SDGs, Responsible Management, these terms often separate out rather than connect. But it is important to remember that sustainability means nothing on its own; it’s a part of everything. It’s a part of marketing, it’s a part of management, it’s a part of finance, it’s a part of every decision you make as a business, as a business school and as an individual. Therefore, how we use this language and how we communicate these messages, is just as important, if not more important than whether or not we are communicating them. Our role isn’t necessarily to help students understand why they should save water at home (this is of course important). It is to ensure that they understand how this connects to marketing, to operations, to HR. It is for students and staff to understand how the SDGs are relevant, impact and are impacted by their work and be given the tools to be able to engage and make it their own, regardless of their career focus. We shouldn’t leave this job to the sustainability or ethics course. This is about business. 

2.Leave no one behind. While it continues to be committed and passionate individuals that are pushing sustainability forward at an institutional level as well as globally, we shouldn’t need to rely on them alone anymore. We don’t need passionate individuals to push finance, or marketing forwards. We need to find ways to get everyone involved. While many schools have impressive lists of initiatives relating to the SDGs, it is generally unclear how many students, faculty and staff have access to, are part of or are reached by these. How many within your walls are being left behind when it comes to education for sustainability?

3.Walking the talk. Just because we talk about ethics, that alone doesn’t make us ethical. Just because we are working in the field of responsible management, it doesn’t automatically mean that we are being responsible managers…but it absolutely should. This extends to your institution as well. If you aren’t applying what you teach and research to your own operations, both social and environmental, then you are potentially sending a much stronger message; do as I say not as I do. This isn’t just part of your engagement in the SDGs.  Your campus and organisation represent an exciting opportunity to engage your community in implementing and pushing the boundaries of what is possible in relation to the SDGs (and this is specifically included in Principle 2). 

4.It doesn’t just happen, it takes work. While there is no checklist of what you should be doing, there are a growing number of approaches you can be inspired from (this blog for example).  If you do a mapping, or an audit, you should find that you are already doing a lot when it comes to the SDGs. Everything you do, ultimately, connects to sustainability in some way so this isn’t surprising. Never take that as an end point though, but as your starting point. Put in place goals and targets (“being committed to the SDGs” or “embedding PRME into our institutions” are not SMART goals). This includes identifying what success (or failure) might look like and focusing on impact. Track these and keep moving them forwards. It’s a journey after all and there is no end point. Approach your role as a signatory to PRME, or any network, in the same way. It isn’t just about being a Signatory, it is about what you do as a Signatory.  

5.Focus on the (dis)incentives. The world is full of incentives to do the ‘wrong’ thing, or to do nothing at all. We regularly outline the incentives for business schools (e.g., accreditation, rankings, publishing) and the incentive structures within all institutions and job descriptions that slow us down. The problem is, there is little incentive to change the incentives. Without this change, this will always be window dressing. This also includes exploring how to increase the efficacy of organisations, including PRME, that influence this change.

6.Bring in a diversity of perspective. It is crucial that we recognise, and actively engage a wide range of voices in whate do. Be inclusive. There are others that have been doing this and are impacted by this a lot more than any of us and this should be respected, regardless of their education level or credentials. Everyone who can, or wants to enable change and make a difference, should be welcome. Engage students in particular in leading and not just receiving your efforts. Sustainability is interdisciplinary, but most people working in this field are not.  Challenge yourself by reading something different or attending an event in a completely unrelated field. New perspectives will give you a fresh lens through which to view your own work it.  

7.Focus on strengthening the connections. In many cases the connection with business schools and the SDGs are weak and superficial. It is often unclear whether the connection is being made by the marketing department or the coordinators of the initiative. It is also often unclear how this connection is being made in practice. The SDGs cannot be approached in a vacuum. Business schools should be working with and contributing to the work that is being coordinated locally or globally by governments, NGOs, business and including the university as a whole. We aren’t doing this enough.  If you open the door (the symbolic ivory tower door), you will hear a lot of voices (e.g., business, local community, NGOs, international organisations) telling us what they need. The voices may not always be clear, or loud, but they are there and represent a never-ending source of inspiration and opportunity. Beware that the loudest voices are not always the most important. Often, they are just the loudest.

8.Don’t be afraid of change: We talk a lot about change, but we don’t actually like to change. Build it in and celebrate it, both the incremental and especially the more fundamental changes. Approach your campuses, curriculum, partnerships, research more like living laboratories, constantly challenging yourselves to try different approaches and learn as you go. We need both thinkers and doers in order to move forwards. Doers are much more difficult to find. Don’t be afraid to explore ideas that may seem a little out there. They may lead you to some truly good “why didn’t we think of that before” ideas (and then make sure you actually follow up on those ideas). They don’t have to be big, or perfect. Give it a try (and apologise later if you have to). You are in a unique position that every year you have a whole new group of students to test ideas on. Have fun with it.

9.Learn how to share your story (the whole story).  There are good ideas coming from across business schools, regardless of rankings or where they are based. Remember that the story is in the details (e.g., everyone is “committed”, what does your commitment look like in practice?). Be honest with yourself, and with others about what you have and have not done and what comes next. Institutions that talk about ‘working towards’ embedding the SDGs into their institutions (in a genuine way) are often more progressive than those that ‘think’ they’ve done everything they need to do. Share your challenges and mistakes, not just your successes. Explore how we can use reporting as a way of doing this. We need to develop better reporting mechanisms in order to collect, understand and communicate efforts, challenges, progress and impact towards goals. We also need to make sure that these allow for the flexibility valued in the current reporting mechanism.

10.Learn how to sell it. After 10 years of writing up your stories, I’d say that while everyone has amazing experiences to share, far fewer are particularly good at communicating them effectively. If you can’t convince others around you and translate what you do, and why you do it into a language that others can understand and can use, it won’t matter how passionate you are or how important your work is. This refers to a range of audiences both inside and outside your institution. Take it out of its silos, use different language, make it relevant to different audiences, especially those who would benefit from the information the most. Beware of keywords, they are used too much and often mean too little. As the saying goes, if you can’t explain it to your grandparents in a minute, work on it until you can. 

11.Take inaction seriously. Schools are doing plenty around sustainability, the quantity is certainly there. But what schools aren’t doing enough of is questioning their current offerings and approaches in response to the SDGs. Are they simply being added on to the curriculum or are schools rethinking the purpose of business education and reframing or transforming the way they teach and engage students in business topics based on that? Has the rest of the curriculum stayed the same or have changes been made to ensure consistent messages? (Hint: it’s the word quality in SDG 4 that is key, not just the word education).  Are we just focusing on the easy wins and those areas where we have a positive impact while ignoring where we are potentially having a negative impact? This needs to be embedded throughout and needs to fundamentally influence the staff, faculty, students, what the school does and how it does it. At the moment, business schools are following rather than leading. The SDGs can’t be reached if higher educational institutions, perhaps in particular management education, aren’t fully engaged. 

12.It only takes one person. There are plenty of decisions that we each make every day that impact how our communities engage in sustainability, regardless of who we are or where we work. This includes in the courses we teach, the research we conduct, the partnerships we are engaged in, the discussions we have, or the work we assign (without needing a strategy, additional resources or even permission). PRME has always been a network of incredible and committed individuals working to get things done. Respect that and each other and give yourselves a pat on the shoulder.  What you do is not easy. It is also more important than you realise. We are where we are today because of you. 

Thank you all for being PRiMEtime, it’s been such a wonderful journey. 


*For more of your thoughts on this topic, see The PRiMEtime Guide to Implementing PRME – 100 Tips from Signatories from 2019.


7 thoughts on “How to Embed Sustainability and the SDGs into Management Education

  1. Hi Giselle,
    Thank you for ten years of PRiME Time. It has been a source of inspiration to me and a wonderful way to see what is happening in business schools around the world. You are a very engaging writer and your interviews and stories are powerful and help give our work meaning. I wish you all the best as you go forward, and wish you much success on the next chapter of your career.

    Heather Ranson, MBA, Associate Teaching Professor
    and Interim Director, CSSI
    Gustavson School of Business | University of Victoria
    PO Box 1700 STN CSC Victoria, BC V8W 2Y2 |T:250 721-6112| Room BEC 208
    Pronouns: she/her
    We acknowledge with respect the Lekwungen peoples on whose
    traditional territory the university stands and the Songhees,
    Esquimalt and the WÁSNEĆ peoples whose historical relationships
    with the land continue to this day.

  2. Thank you so much Giselle! I have really appreciated reading your blog posts. Wishing you all the best for the next part of your journey.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s