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Sustainability and Business: A New Type of Multi-disciplinary Undergraduate Program

Sustainability is good for business.  For example, members of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) successfully attract investment capital from socially responsible investors, reduce insurance premiums by reducing environmental risks and liabilities, attract and maintain a mobile workforce increasingly motivated by green values, improve public image among ever-more conscious consumers and, of course, save money by reducing energy consumption and waste disposal.  Similar benefits flow to businesses that qualify for listing on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index or sign on to the Global Compact.

Industries as diverse as wood products, electronics and sports apparel now hire or train experts in sustainability. Businesses need people that can respond, for example, to the Security and Exchange Commission’s new requirement for corporate annual reporting to speak specifically to climate change.  They need people to work with the Federal Trade Commission’s  “Green Guide” requirements for product certifications that claim “renewable energy,” “renewable materials,” “carbon offset” and the like.   They need people who understand ecological systems because volatility and scarcity of ecosystem services are affecting competitive advantages.  They need people who understand product life cycle analysis, carbon accounting, and water markets.  Most generally, businesses need professionals who have skills to help navigate the increasingly resource scarce, energy uncertain, and climate-changing world.

Where do students go to start careers of this type? Business schools are taking a leadership role educating this next generation of professionals.   Beyond Grey Pinstripes spotlights graduate programs integrating social and environmental stewardship into traditional business curricula. These programs prepare students for tomorrow’s markets by equipping them with the “social, environmental, ethical and economic perspectives required for business success in a competitive and fast changing world.”  At least that is the hope.

But business schools don’t go far enough.  In fact, they can’t go far enough.  What is needed is full collaboration and integration with schools that specialize in resources science and environmental management.  Universities must create new pre-professional undergraduate programs that emphasize business management, natural resource management, and environmental sciences.

“While the academic world plays catch-up, individuals wishing to pursue, or retool for, careers in sustainability-driven investing and analysis may find their needs met at a small but growing group of American universities and a larger universe of international academic institutions that have made a serious commitment to sustainability” writes Susan Chang for Finance Professionals Post.

American land grant universities are well positioned to fill this niche.  Most have established and respected academic programs specializing in both business and environment. Many of the business schools are flush with high student demand for their courses but struggle to differentiate their graduates from other programs.  Many natural resource, agricultural, and life science programs face stagnant or falling enrollment and need new career tracks that attract students aspiring to opportunity and influence. Synergies on these campus will emerge if administrators can overcome the tendency of programs to build disciplinary silos.

Land grant universities should fertilize the fields where hybrid programs can flourish at the intersection of environmental and business schools.  These hybrids will grow the next generation of professionals who will invent and manage the emerging green economy.

R. Bruce Hull, IV, Ph.D. is a professor in the College of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech practicing social ecology. His work focuses on healing forests fractured by pressures of urbanization and globalization. He is author and editor of over 100 publications, including two books: Infinite Nature (Chicago 2006) and Restoring Nature (Island 2000). He serves on the editorial advisory board for Gale’s GREENR environmental and sustainability studies web portal.

Posted on: June 16, 2011, 10:56 am Category: Getting a Green Job, Profiles in Sustainability Education, Sustainability and Education, View from the Lectern Tagged with: , , , ,

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