North American business schools increase focus on sustainability

Academics and students from North American business schools have produced some of the best recent research, teaching and student initiatives on sustainability, according to the FT’s second annual responsible business education awards unveiled on Monday.

In the category of academic publications, two of the four winning entries selected by a panel of independent judges included work by researchers from Northwestern’s Kellogg business school, Boston’s Questrom and Rochester’s Simon. There were also American-based co-authors on a further seven of the 18 highly commended runner-up papers.

European business schools — Iese in Spain, Bocconi in Italy and ESMT in Germany — most impressed the judges in the category of student start-ups and projects with organisations while taking their degrees, with the fourth winner coming from National Chengchi University’s College of Commerce in Taiwan.

Faculty at European business schools — Imperial in the UK, Antwerp Management School in Belgium and ESCP based in France — also produced three of the four winners in the category for teaching resources linked to sustainability, with the fourth coming from the Michigan Ross in the US.

However, North American schools, including Berkeley’s Haas and Canada’s Ivey Business School, performed strongly overall once the full range of highly commended entries in the three different award categories are taken into account.

The quality and quantity of projects reflects growing action by business schools to respond to pressures from students, companies and their own staff to pay greater attention to sustainability, triggered by concerns such as climate change and demands for a greater focus on purpose.

The influence of business schools in the US — the birthplace of the MBA — comes in spite of rising domestic criticism of companies embracing environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) factors. There is also a fierce debate over whether “stakeholder” capitalism should displace a longstanding focus on shareholder primacy to maximise returns to investors rather than employees and society.

However, the large number of business schools in the US and their substantial resources mean they continue to dominate in producing innovative research and teaching with varied themes and approaches, including ones that embrace ESG factors.

The AACSB, the US-based business school accreditation agency, has recently introduced a new framework to assess institutions based on their broader societal impact, with use of the UN’s 2030 sustainable development goals as a framework.

Other groups, including the Responsible Research for Business and Management network, have called for business school leaders to ensure their recruitment and promotion of faculty places greater emphasis on the societal impact of academics’ research.

The British Academy also last year called in its Future of the Corporation programme for business and educators alike to balance profit with people, purpose and planet.