How impact and CSR feed into the sustainability debate, and what Business Schools could and should be doing to exert a greater influence on business and society
A new way to do business with social impact is emerging – purposeful, ethical and sustainable. This approach, with a focus on business as a ‘force for good’, disrupts established thinking around traditional profit-based models, but is this model viable?
With the most forward-thinking organisations actively putting people, the environment, and positive impact first to achieve a fairer society and a more sustainable economy, there is evidence that pursuing a ‘force for good’ business model can be more successful than a profit-driven approach.
There is also a growing consensus that business leaders have a responsibility not only to shareholders, but also to wider society – customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and the environment.
What does this mean for business education? A session of the AMBA & BGA Festival of Excellence gathered CSR experts for a debate on the subject of positive impact, innovation, sustainability, and responsible management.
Topics under discussion included: the challenges surrounding the role of Business Schools; how sustainability and social impact could and should be integrated into every MBA programme; how MBA students can learn the key skills required to become forward-thinking leaders; and how the sector can challenge the business models that have resulted in the unintended consequences of today. The following paragraphs are just a selection of highlights from this panel debate.
Pavlina Proteou, Founder and CEO of BeyondCSR, started the conversation: ‘The challenge, in part, is that lots of corporations still view sustainability as a PR activity, rather than a core activity. It should be CEO level; it should be the umbrella strategy – the only strategy, actually,’ she said, before adding: ‘When you have CSR and you have that budget, you can use it to come out with a positive measurable impact, because impact has to be measured; it’s not just adopting initiatives and corporate philanthropies. CSR is there to progress and accelerate sustainability strategies, but it has to be part of the core business development, not a marketing division.
‘This is how you make impact, and social impact is part of sustainability. We talk about sustainable development and social impact as if they are two different things but it’s one thing. If you have concrete sustainable strategies, then you can make measurable social impact and environmental impact.
‘One of the problems is that corporations feel it’s like ticking a box. There are game-changing companies, but if the approach is only ticking a box, you’ll never have the desired outcome.’
Echoing calls for a reset
James Gomme, a Director at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, added: ‘In the long term, businesses will only be successful if they are operating sustainably. All governments are moving in that direction and societal expectations are moving very strongly in that direction as well.
‘There were calls at the World Economic Forum for a complete reset of our capitalist model, of the way financial markets work and the way financial markets value sustainable business behaviour.
‘I would encourage Business Schools to start to echo that and to incorporate sustainability-related topics into the class on financial accounting, the class on strategy, the class on HR-related discussions, and so on.
‘It is a topic that touches everything you do as a business. Purpose should be something that runs through all of these different functions and those functions should be in support of that purpose.’
Being held to account
Celia Ouellette, Founder and CEO of the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice, noted that there is a clear link between diversity, CSR and social justice, against a backdrop defined by unrest.
‘Diversity should be the bedrock of good teams,’ she asserted, before pointing to her experience of leading and running a non-profit organisation: ‘The strength of our team lies in the diversity of experience, culture, ethnicity of our organisation, as well as the diversity of its agenda. You need to continually look at each aspect of an MBA programme through these lenses. It will create more sustainable businesses in the long run.
‘You can create businesses that are less risky and more future-proof. I think that “cancel culture” is just one symptom of what will come when businesses don’t align their purpose and values with the people that they are employing, or that they are selling to.
‘One of the things that businesses will really need to face is how they’re being held to account, particularly post-Covid-19.’
Chair: Andrew Main Wilson, CEO, AMBA & BGA
Panellists: James Gomme, Director, World Business Council for Sustainable Development; Celia Ouellette, Founder and CEO, Responsible Business Initiative for Justice; Pavlina Proteou, Founder and CEO, BeyondCSR
This article was originally published in Ambition (the magazine of BGA’s sister organisation, AMBA).