Teaching sustainability management

Rüdiger Hahn observes: I have two children, both at kindergarten age. When they approach me or my wife with questions on sustainability (“Dad, why is there so much garbage lying around?” or “Mom, why don’t we do something to help the polar bears when the glaciers melt?”), it always strikes me that we could be so much further forward with sustainability if everybody would do their part.

Sustainability and sustainability management are inherently complex topics, and even if we generally know what we need to do as humankind, we are still very far away from actually doing it. Against this background, I recently wrote a textbook on sustainability management. With this book, my aim was to shed light on the complexity of organisational sustainability management from a diverse stakeholder perspective as well as various approaches for different managerial subdisciplines, such as marketing, accounting, supply chain management, to improve a company’s sustainability performance. In this article, I highlight three of my perspectives on a set of important issues when teaching sustainability management.

The wicked problem of sustainability (management)

Sustainability Management is a wicked problem. Already in 1896 (!), Svante Arrhenius discussed in a scientific article “the influence of carbon acid in the air upon the temperature on the ground.” And in 1912, Francis Molena even more vividly argued, again in a scientific article, that the carbon dioxide emitted when burning coal “tends to make the air a more effective blanket for the earth and to raise its temperature.” More than 100 years later, there is vast scientific consensus on human-caused climate change, and at the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference held in Paris, the global community agreed on the goal of limiting global warming well below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels. However, responsibilities were unclear, commitments remained vague, and important countries refused to ratify the agreements, with many observers agreeing that valuable years had been lost in combating climate change. This example (as well as many others) shows that sustainability cannot be achieved by the isolated activities of a specific group of actors. This is because regulators and politicians are usually restricted by their national borders, individuals often do not know or do not care about the consequences of certain purchase decisions or behaviours, and companies might feel the pressure of market forces if stricter environmental regulations do not pay off financially. At the same time, it’s easy to think as educators that knowledge changes action. Facts about sustainability, on their own, however, often won’t drive the necessary behavioural changes that are required.

Moving beyond kindergarten logic when teaching sustainability management

One reason is that, unfortunately, there is almost always “somebody else” who has to (not) do something to improve sustainability. This fact is often the biggest excuse not to do anything. When I begin my lectures on sustainability management by illustrating the status quo of sustainable development and then ask what we can do to improve the situation, there is always someone claiming that “without the actions of customers/investors/governments/… sustainability management is doomed to fail.” And this is often correct! At the same time, however, it is not helpful to always expect others to take the first step. I usually call this excuse “kindergarten logic” (“If he does not stop teasing me, I won’t stop teasing him”). I firmly believe that future managers need to embrace the complexity of sustainability management to be able to improve their company’s sustainability performance. To be able to embrace the complexity and find ways to walk the talk of sustainability, students first need to understand the complexity. Otherwise, they risk succumbing to the aforementioned kindergarten logic.

Offering multiple perspectives helps to understand and embrace complexity

In my courses and throughout my book, I, therefore, try to offer multiple perspectives on sustainability and sustainability management. Gaining a holistic picture provides students with the means to grasp the complexity. To steer the global society in the direction of sustainable development, multiple actors need to play their parts. Politicians need to recognise the need to embed sustainability goals and principles into rules and regulations at different levels, consumers need to recognise how their behaviours add up and contribute to or hinder sustainability, and civil society organisations need to recognise their influence on other players and advocate different elements of sustainability. Not least, of course, companies, as central and powerful players in modern society, need to contribute their share using various elements of sustainability management, either by reducing their environmental and social footprint or by actively and positively contributing to sustainable development with sustainability-oriented business models, goods, and services.

Sustainability management potentially has an impact on many different actors in society. For example, on employees through environmental and social standards at work, on customers through the sustainability or unsustainability of product offers, or on civil society organisations through the sustainability projects they conduct in cooperation with companies. Furthermore, various societal actors influence the way companies approach questions of sustainable development and implement sustainability management. Some customers, for example, might be willing to pay a price premium for sustainable product alternatives while others do not care about sustainability. Similarly, some employees might prefer to work for a company that cares about societal issues while others do not, and civil society organisations might put public pressure on companies to enhance their standards and name and shame those who behave irresponsibly. The potential mutual influences between different stakeholders and companies are thus manifold. Therefore, I approach sustainability management from a stakeholder perspective and delve into the relationships between companies and governmental actors, civil society, investors, consumers, and employees, respectively.

Providing a realistic picture of sustainability management

Against the background of this complexity, I think it is important to illustrate how companies actually do make a difference by embedding suitable best practice examples while not staying silent on the dark side of business. In fact, also portraying worst practice examples might be as important because it provides you with the necessary credibility as an informed and independent teacher because—let’s be honest—there are probably as many black sheep in the business world as there are visionary sustainability leaders. The majority of managers probably muddle through when trying to deal with the expectations of society and with sometimes conflicting claims of different stakeholders. If we expect our students to make a difference as future business leaders, we need to equip them with the tools and a critical, yet optimistic, mindset that they, together with the companies they will be acting for, can indeed make a difference in the quest for sustainable development. And companies have a wide range of instruments at their disposal to improve their sustainability performance, to deal with various stakeholder expectations and, potentially, to influence different stakeholders to behave more sustainably. In the book, I focus on various functional perspectives (e.g., marketing, HRM, production, accounting) and their related instruments. Not all instruments are relevant for all companies as their usefulness depends on specific company characteristics (e.g., industry or size) or other circumstances (e.g., country of operation). Furthermore, successful sustainability management is always interdisciplinary and requires efforts throughout a company and potentially even beyond so that none of these instruments should be viewed in isolation. I firmly believe that equipped with this knowledge, students and, not least, practitioners and even teachers can overcome the mentioned kindergarten logic. They can then build upon the vigorous optimism most kindergarten children harness to quiz their parents and badger them to be more sustainable human beings.

Sustainability Management – The textbook!

If you want to know more about my approach to teaching sustainability management, have a look at my textbook “Sustainability Management – Concepts, Instruments, and Stakeholders from a Global Perspective”. With this textbook, I try to enable others to follow my approach sketched above. The book covers not only the concepts of sustainable development and sustainability management but also the relevant instruments and tools used in all essential management domains, such as marketing, accounting, supply chain management, strategy, or innovation management. Furthermore, it employs an extensive stakeholder perspective to illuminate the influence of various actors, such as employees, customers, investors, or governmental/non-governmental organisations. Various features enrich the book with lively examples of thought leaders in sustainability (“Faces of Sustainability”), examples of sustainability and unsustainability in business practice from all over the world (“Sustainability in Business”), on practical challenges, ideas, and concepts of sustainability from a societal point of view (“Sustainability in Society”), and on seminal research articles on different aspects of sustainability management (“Sustainability in research”).

View my introductory video on sustainability and sustainability management:

teaching sustainability management

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