An Epicenter for Sustainability

A longtime practitioner joins the Yale SOM faculty, and finds an "astonishing" amount of energy and activity related to sustainability.

March 2, 2015

There are plenty of sustainability practitioners coming out of business schools around the world. In fact, from my personal experience, it seems that sustainability is the most significant trending topic in business school, behind only “retire by age 40.” But there seem to be few sustainability practitioners entering the hallowed halls of B-schools.

So, with some trepidation (mostly from leaving the glorious Bay Area for the “wilds” of the Northeast,) I left 15 years of consulting behind to join the faculty at the Yale School of Management (SOM). My initial perception: that MBAs are ruthless, calculating machines bred for profit, but quite useful for driving sustainability (or any other initiative) swiftly toward the bottom line. My goal: to find out what they are teaching these MBA students and set them on a more empathetic, responsible and sustainable path.

The extent of the challenge has been shocking, but of course, it is not the same challenge that I expected. I expected that I would have to bang on the metaphorical door of the core MBA curriculum to insert snippets of sustainability principles. What has happened can be better likened to the poltergeist reaching out from the television and sucking me in. “They’re here!” The amount of activity in sustainability, the energy and enthusiasm for more responsible business practices, the curriculum, and research and partnerships, and entrepreneurship emanating from this school are truly astonishing.

There is far too much activity at SOM and Yale for one person to keep tabs. But perhaps a few examples of initiatives to which I have been directly involved might illustrate the scale of activities:

Among the fastest growing aspects is the SOM sustainability curriculum. In addition to the three courses I teach, SOM now hosts courses on sustainable operations (Alizimir), sustainability marketing (Uetake), management of social enterprises and nonprofits (Cooney), non-market strategy (Bach), and social entrepreneurship (Sheldon) just to name a few. This is only the tip of an iceberg that also includes courses from the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (FES), School of Law, and School of Engineering.

It is perhaps fitting that sustainability is the topic area for Yale’s flagship online course, Natural Capital. Eschewing the traditional, impersonal Massive Open Online Course (MOOC,) the Natural Capital course is conducted through multiple live and interactive online platforms centered around a substantial, multimedia online textbook and “raw” business case studies. This new model is termed a Small Networked Online Course (SNOC) and in many regards represents the future direction of education and global corporate team interaction. The Natural Capital course is currently attended by business students from 12 of the Global Network for Advanced Management (GNAM) schools across 18 time zones.

Outside of the classroom, research and collaboration opportunities in the field of business and sustainability are exploding. Student groups, formal centers, and emerging research groups abound. This is perhaps best illustrated by the Center for Business and the Environment at Yale (CBEY)— a center that involves itself in research, student advising, case study writing, course development, and entrepreneurial activities. CBEY is the center of activity for students pursuing the joint MBA-master of environmental studies degree from SOM and FES. This group of students numbers in the 40s today and looks to jump to over 50 in the 2015-2016 academic year.

The connections don’t stop at the border of the university, of course. In addition to research, faculty members are actively bringing corporations and their sustainability challenges into the classroom in the form of raw case studies. In the course of my short, seven-month tenure, I have been drawn into case studies on Alcoa and materials, Pemex and bio-ethanol, Santam and climate resilience, Axa and corporate sustainability metrics, and KPMG and sustainability accounting methodologies.

What to make of all this activity? I have described it, in discussions with Yale alumni groups, as a developing epicenter of sustainable business practices. To be an “epicenter,” our activity has to “shake” the sustainability world. Our activity cannot be introspective, but must generate people and ideas that change the world. The field of sustainability has emerged in response to global crises: climate change, poverty, conflict, faith (or lack thereof) in institutions. Incremental change won’t “shake the world.” Even innovation-as-usual will be insufficient. To claim status as an epicenter of sustainability, the people and ideas that emerge from these astonishing collaborations, courses, research efforts, etc.,will have to transform the landscape on which we stand. Time will tell if such transformations emerge, but as an “infiltrator,” it is clear to me that critical mass is building and I personally am preparing for the quake.

About the author

Todd Cort

Lecturer in Sustainability