Sustainable business schools – is a new story of business being written?

13487588_10153684632673568_488090969_nLast week, we attended the “International Conference on Business, Policy and Sustainability” at Copenhagen Business School (CBS). The extremely intensive two-day sessions covered timely topics related to solving sustainability issues in society, ranging from shipping industry examples to panel debates on sustainability education.

The mornings were action-packed with presentations as well as panel discussions, covering the role of policy, business and education for sustainable solutions and mindsets. We agree with all speakers: this is a challenge that should have been addressed a couple of decades ago. Although well overdue, as of today, it is necessary to fully integrate and concretely act towards sustainability.

One of the focal points in the panel debates at this International Conference on Business, Policy and Sustainability was a topic close to heart for many of the attendants, namely that of sustainability in business schools or the sustainability of business schools. This is a topic we are not immune to in Sweden, see not least the recent critique and debate regarding our own alma mater Stockholm School of Economics and its critics (Holmqvist, 14th April 2016: and the answer from our own blog from Lerpold, Wahlund and Werr)  – what role do business schools play in promoting ethical values, and teach/promote sustainability for the betterment of mankind? These are questions any forward-thinking business school such as CBS or SSE should ask themselves, and are righteously so doing. We are of course delighted that the new BSc Programme “Global Challenges” is being implemented at SSE, with the possibility of engaging students with such important questions.

Professor of Strategy Dirk Matten from Schulich School of Business at York University, and one of the most widely cited scholars on CSR, argued that business schools could and should take a prominent role in shifting frames and promoting sustainability. Unfortunately, business is frequent encumbered by a first-mover disadvantage in sustainability. Edward Freeman, the father of modern stakeholder theory, and Ethics Professor at the Darden School, University of Virginia, expressed his disbelief that business schools can take this role and walk the talk, whilst simultaneously promoting the old paradigm of eternal growth, profitability and the ideal assumption of the homo economicus. Business, rather than business schools, was hailed as the way to move forward: “there is a new story of business being written”.

Others such as Peter Jonasson, former director of CBS, as well as PRME’s Jonas Haertle argued that it is necessary to work with the paradigm of old, in order to enroll the new generation. It is important to take the financial bottom line in to consideration, and understand other people’s vantage points in order to ascertain that sustainability is embedded into organizations. In this sense, it was argued that the business for CSR cannot be dismissed. It is clear that this topic is in no way exhausted, and it was proposed as a theme for the next conference.

We were also presented with examples of student involvement at BSc and MSc level, helping to promote these values internally – the CBS Oikos chapter; Oikos is a student-driven organization present on four continents. The CBS chapter with 45 members is the second largest in the world, and current president Julia Andre Junge-Jensen presented us the numerous forms of engagement that students enable, such as the Sustainability prize cup with former winners including expanding social enterprise Rubycup. Perhaps the time has also come for a new chapter of Oikos at SSE?

Our brains and batteries were charged over a delicious lunch buffet, giving us the opportunity to network with PhD students and senior faculty from all over the world. It is always inspiring to hear new perspectives but also that there are shared views and aspirations among an international crowd. Without any doubt, the interest in academia is rapidly growing in our field. The sessions encompassed ranged from gender and governance to the Scandinavian cooperative advantage, proving indeed that the relevance of CSR and sustainability research goes far and wide beyond a niche subject.

The presentation of our paper “What is it with you Swedish Companies?” – Bridging the responsibility gap: A digital device for workers’ rights as partial organization” was well perceived and we received constructive feedback that certainly helps us to shape our research ambitions. It was especially useful for us to receive feedback by Robert Strand, professor at Haas Business School, Berkeley, who is one of the leading contributors to the “Scandinavian CSR” literature.

Other Misum-related contributions included PhD Student Enrico Fontana presenting his co-authored paper (with Ravindra Nyaupane of Swansea University) “CSR performance: from society or from company? The cases of H&M and M&S” as well as Mistra Financial Systems-affiliated Sophie Nachemson-Ekwall presenting her paper “Swedish institutional investors as value creative stakeholders”.

We are happy to be part of this growing community and believe that conferences as this one in Copenhagen are crucial to spreading the idea that “sustainability” should not be considered as a cost/efficiency issue. It should instead be regarded as a life-style or mindset, knowing no limits of application.

Written by: Clara My Lernborg and Tina Sendlhofer, PhD students at Misum

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