Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho

Business Education for Sustainable Development

  • Meredith StoreyEmail author
  • Sheila Killian
  • Philip O’Regan
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-63951-2_199-1


Business education Sustainable development Responsible management 


Education and collaboration from business and management faculties contributing to Sustainable Development, which is understood as advancing ‘the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’


The field of business education for sustainable development is a dynamic one, with the positions of both business and business schools constantly changing with regard to sustainable development. An overarching trend, however, is a move away from accepting the pedagogical patterns of the past and toward innovation-seeking to meaningfully contribute to a sustainable society. This triggers a paradigm shift in the field of business education. As well as imparting knowledge and skills, business and management educators must prepare students to be citizens who are mindful of sustainability, responsibility, and ethics within whatever field they occupy on graduation.

Education for sustainable development first came to international prominence following the 1987 UN General Assembly “Brundtland Report” and “Our Common Future” publications. “Sustainable development” was defined as “… development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987, pp.43). This has become a seminal definition, providing the foundation for current work, which stresses the importance of education in shaping students to be future business leaders with the knowledge and skills to address the needs of an unsustainable world.

Over time the broad call for education to foster sustainable development became more focused on ways in which individuals and groups might support sustainable development through the Millennium Development Goals. The Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005–2014) significantly advanced the efforts of the UN to embed sustainability in education. Post-2015, the current period is dominated by the Sustainable Development Goals. This moves the field past a simple call to support sustainable development through education, to a series of more specific challenges calling for the actions of business and business education to align for sustainable development (UNESCO 2005).

Business education is understood to incorporate all higher-level education in business, and so includes university-level schools of business and/or management education faculties. Advancing sustainable development requires support in the form of curricula, assessment methods, student engagement, teaching resources, and pedagogical approaches. Each of these methods for advancement is discussed in more detail below. The next section draws upon both UN-based foundational texts which highlight the urgency of sustainable development and the academic literature for sustainable business curriculum. Building upon this, this section looks critically at organizations which partner with and contribute to embedding sustainability and responsibility through partnerships, curricula, and student engagement. Each initiative is evaluated for usefulness in line with the SDGs. Aligning key actors who embed the SDGs and the ethos of responsible management education frames the discussion to address the present work contributing to business education for sustainable development and opportunities that exist across higher education.

Efforts to promote business education for sustainable development have been supported by platforms such as the Principles for Responsible Management Education initiative, the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative, Aim2Flourish, Oikos, and many more actors in the field who contribute to business school engagement with sustainability. However, it is also important to be cognizant of the dynamic relationship between business and society, the rapid pace of change, and the way in which these shapes both sustainable development and business education.

The need for sustainable development underpins both UN texts and academic sustainability research. Advancement of the SDGs has become progressively more important among organizations and initiatives that focus on business education since the launch of Agenda 2030. For that reason, this text seeks to develop an understanding of the scope of business education for sustainable development. To a large extent, the current UN focus is on business school curricula and the language of sustainable development in academia. This critical framing of organizations and initiatives in the field builds on this foundation and draws attention to the significance of collaborative action for sustainable development.

Business Education for Sustainable Development

Within the field of sustainable development, a number of key texts from the United Nations and UN bodies such as UN DESA, the UN Global Compact, and UNESCO, have become influential in setting the scope of business and education in delivering on sustainability goals (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987; UNESCO 2005; United Nations 2016; Sustainable Development 2017; Global Climate Action Playbook 2017; Business Solutions to Sustainable Development 2017; Making Global Goals Local Business 2017; Blueprint for Business Leadership on the SDGs 2017). There is an increasing recognition of the key role of private or for-profit corporations in contributing to sustainable development. This, in turn, has led to a focus on the role of business schools and education more broadly to deliver on sustainable development; this is a role supported by key actors in the field of business education including accreditation bodies and international networks (AACSB 2015, 2016, 2017; Global Compact LEAD 2015; UN PRME 2015, 2016; EFMD 2017). These bodies bring a range of different emphases, including themes such as anti-corruption, climate action, gender equality, human rights, and the development of sustainable mindsets (UN PRME 2017).

The significance of the role of business education in delivering on sustainable development is underscored by an emphasis in a recent statement by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Stressing the urgency and importance of educating business students to become bold leaders and innovative thinkers so that on graduating, they can become drivers of sustainability, the Secretary General remarked: “Never has the task of nurturing responsible leaders of the future been more important… Students that understand the values of corporate responsibility, sustainability and ethics can be more effective change-makers, and their work can advance the common good” (Guterres 2017).

How to Design Business Curriculum for Sustainability

Sterling (2004) proposes three potential response levels for embedding sustainability in teaching practice: (1) educating about sustainability, (2) educating for sustainability, and (3) capacity building. In terms of the first element, it is important that curricula cover the main organizations that support business activities for sustainable development. The United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), for instance, aligns mainly large corporates around ten principles of social and environmental sustainability. The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) provides a consistent and comparable reporting platform for business responsibility, with a range of optional reporting levels and key performance indicators. The Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) addresses the financial sector, furthering the dialogue on sustainable investment with a focus on environmental, social, and governance issues. The International Labor Organization (ILO) is a UN body that develops global standards on labor and supply chain issues and acts as a resource for business, government, and civil society. It is important that business students become familiar with these and other organizations that shape the field.

Beyond this “educating about,” the emphasis on values and understanding in Guterres (2017) underscores the importance of education for sustainable development to incorporate more than knowledge and skills. The social, environmental, and economic challenges that the current cohort of business school students may face in the future have not yet become apparent. In order to future-proof their education along the sustainability dimension, it is important to focus not only on our current knowledge of the issues but also to foster students’ abilities to think critically and make responsible and ethical decisions in a range of circumstances. Visser and Crane (2010), for instance, suggest that performance as a sustainable business leader comes from intrinsic factors which motivate an individual to be an agent for change as an expert, facilitator, catalyst, or activist. In order to develop these capacities within an individual student, business schools need to do more than impart skills and knowledge. There is also an imperative to include a range of intangible elements that address the place of values, attitudes, and beliefs in work for sustainable development. Visser and Crane stress these “intangibles” as critical elements in developing individual education and awareness. Students need to develop their own relationship and narrative around sustainability. By understanding this relationship and orientation, their capacity to make a contribution and lead in sustainable development issues can be fostered.

Another key issue to address is language. It is important that graduates are equipped with an appropriate vocabulary to engage with their employers and other stakeholders (Young and Nagpal 2013; Painter-Morland 2006). Unfortunately, the terminology on sustainability, corporate social responsibility (CSR), corporate citizenship, and conscious capitalism is somewhat confused in business and business education. Texts such as Habisch et al. (2005), Perrini (2006), Crane (2008), Idowu and Leal Filho (2009), Aras and Crowther (2010), and Killian (2012) tend to use CSR as a unifying term while stressing the need for clarity in language, specifically defining sustainable topics so they may be meaningfully understood. Others prefer social responsibility, corporate responsibility, or more transient terms such as corporate citizenship or conscious capitalism. Because CSR and sustainable development themes have different implications in different fields, it is important that vocabularies can be developed and imparted in order to translate, for example, from marketing to engineering. This is important within both education and stakeholder dialogues. Research is ongoing in the area, seeking to define common vocabularies across these different fields. It is important that this work is kept current through ongoing connections between theory and practice. These connections also allow the main issues in the field to enter the classroom and facilitate a more developed and holistic understanding within students and faculty alike (Filho 2000).

In order to bridge the gaps between disciplines and between the classroom and the boardroom, faculty must actively engage in promoting engagement with other disciplines that take them and their students outside of a siloed understanding of what sustainability might mean (Waddock 2007). The tools and solutions students will need to contribute to sustainable development in the future will be interdisciplinary. Professionals and educators in business need to find ways to translate their own field-specific expertise and make it accessible to others while at the same time remaining open to acquire new knowledge and ways of looking at familiar problems from other perspectives. Sharing insights and best practices across diverse disciplines will help to minimize any misalignment between bad management practices and education in the field (Ghoshal 2005). This ethos is built on a foundation of reflective practice, helping to understand the norms in one’s own field (Gosling and Mintzberg 2004).

With shared understandings, innovative and responsible leadership also needs to be developed in students (O’Toole and Bennis 2009). This enables them to both inspire and be inspired and develop critical perspectives on how to lead based on principles of accountability, good governance, and stewardship. The call to align reflective practice (Gosling and Mintzberg 2004), good management practices (Ghoshal 2005), and innovative leadership (O’Toole and Bennis 2009) is gradually being mainstreamed for business as well as business schools. Business is increasingly seen as one element of an ecological system (Senge 2006). This aligns with a shift from education in the form of “fractured knowledge” (Waddock 2007) toward a focus on graduate attributes and responsibility as holistic traits developed within students.

Support from Partnership Organizations

As set out in Storey et al. (2017), a range of partnership organizations and networks have coalesced around sustainability and responsibility in management education, and they provide support for business schools in education for sustainable development. In this section, we outline the role of five such groups: United Nations’ sponsored Principles for Responsible Management Education initiative (UN PRME), the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative (GRLI), the Academy of Business in Society (ABIS), the Global Business School Network (GBSN), and the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC).

The UN Principles for Responsible Management initiative is a network of over 650 business school signatories and supporting organizations working to promote responsible management education. This global network operates across six continents to connect purpose, values, methods, research, partnerships, and dialogue for responsible business education (UNPRME.org 2017). The vision of PRME has evolved to support the SDGs, connect actors, and build upon best practices in the field. The implementation of PRME in supporting suitable curriculum design and practice is well supported in the literature (Bendell 2007; Wals 2010; Rusinko 2010; Solitander et al. 2012; Young and Nagpal 2013; Sunley and Leigh 2016; Parkes et al. 2017; Haertle et al. 2017; Annan-Diab and Molinari 2017; Storey et al. 2017; Rosenbloom et al. 2017; Gentile 2017a; Decamps et al. 2017; Weybrecht 2017). Proximity to the UN Global Compact offices allows UN PRME to promote partnerships for the SDGs and international dialogue for progress. UN PRME has vigilantly embedded the SDGs into their core ethos by updating the mission to “transform management education and thought leadership globally by… developing learning communities and promoting awareness about the United Nations’ SDGs” (UN PRME 2017). UN PRME is closely tied to the SDGs and facilitates opportunities across higher education institutions (HEIs) to educate around the SDGs.

The Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative (GRLI) originated as collaboration between the UN Global Compact and the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD).

The focus is on the development of responsible leadership, generally using a collaborative approach and stressing innovation. In supporting business education for sustainable development, GRLI provides a holistic framework for considering “I, we, all of us” within the greater relationship of business and society. GRLI promotes the SDGs in the context of global leadership and the underlying crises of climate change and migration, emphasizing links between responsible leaders, sustainable advancement, and whole-person development. Similar to UN PRME, the GRLI has also updated their attention to align work toward the SDGs as they “promote awareness of global responsibility as the highest order of responsibility and contribute to the realization of the UN SDGs” (GRLI 2017). The GRLI’s network of leaders, activists, and educators aims to drive change in the field of business education for sustainability and beyond. As a partnership organization for higher education, the GRLI overtly includes the SDGs in work with all collaborators to inspire radical and innovative education for sustainable development.

The Academy of Business in Society (ABIS) emphasizes shared research and networking events. ABIS takes as a foundational underpinning the “… belief that challenges linked to globalization and sustainable development require new management skills, mindsets, & capabilities” (ABIS Global 2018). ABIS was founded at INSEAD Business School in France and has a largely European focus. It aims to align collaborations, hosting round tables and experiential learning opportunities related to economics, finance, and thought-leadership. These initiatives contribute to partnerships and dialogue in business education for sustainable development. The inclusion of the SDGs is implicit to the work of ABIS. Sustainable development is core to their work while striving to create thoughts, partnerships, and innovations to drive change across their global network. The work of ABIS broadly fits the duality of global and local calls for sustainable development and creates dialogue among business and social partnerships. More specifically, ABIS ties the work of business in HEIs to individual goals through collaborations with Innovation for Sustainability, which aids economic growth, industry and innovation, sustainable communities, and responsible consumption (Sustainable Development 2018).

The Global Business School Network (GBSN) is a nonprofit partnership aligning businesses, business schools, foundations, and aid agencies for collaborative, responsible management learning and engagement. GBSN has a specific focus on the contribution that can be made by business schools to increase prosperity and sustainable development in the Global South. Through collaborations with business schools, businesses, foundations, and aid agencies, real-world alignment of business priorities and sustainable development can be developed in business school education (GBSN 2017). These partnerships contribute to both global and local collaborations and network building in the field. This is underpinned by GBSN’s mission to “build management education capacity for the developing world…[by] harnessing the power of a global network of leading business schools to facilitate collaboration and knowledge sharing, advancing management education that delivers international best-practice with local relevance” (GBSN 2017). GBSN strives to be a leader in contributing to Sustainable Development Goal 4: Quality Education (GBSN 2017) and supplements their collaborations with explicit reference to the SDGs. GBSN aims to develop synergies between business schools and businesses to inspire social development, economic benefit, and sustainable education.

The Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EUAC) is a good example of a regional network of HEIs aiming to advance curriculum reform, divestment, sustainable food, climate justice, and societal impact across business education (EAUC 2017). The network operates out of the UK and Ireland and supports research and dialogue on best practices to embed environmental topics across curriculum and into business education. The network’s vision strives to manage university engagement and action “…Where the principles and values of environmental, economic, and social sustainability are embedded” (EAUC 2017). This work directly couples SDG 4, Quality Education, and SDG 13, Climate Action, to inspire thoughtful and innovative education. Sharing individual experiences and organizational best practices within a relatively homogenous region can be particularly useful to faculty working in the area and also contributes to the global and local implications of the SDGs.

Classroom and Curriculum Support

A range of organizations offer support and resources for sustainable business education at the classroom and curriculum level. Four such initiatives are Aim2Flourish (Aim2Flourish 2017), Giving Voice to Values (Gentile 2010), The Sustainable MBA texts (Weybrecht 2010; Weybrecht 2013, 2016), and the Sustainability Literacy test (SULITE 2017).

Aim2Flourish is a storytelling platform using appreciative inquiry to highlight businesses, often smaller firms, who are contributing to sustainable development as understood by the SDGs. The idea is for groups of university students to find and tell the story of business innovations that contribute directly to the SDGs and exemplify best practices in the field. This work connects students directly to businesses through interviews and thoughtful dialogue (Aim2Flourish 2017). This platform aligns directly with Agenda 2030 and the SDGs to highlight best practices and scalable work which contributes to sustainable development. As an online platform related to the global Agenda, Aim2Flourish is scalable and practical in introducing students to the complex nature of organizational stakeholders, decision-making, and the greater external environment in which an organization operates. Aim2Flourish exposes students to innovative sustainability practices in for-profit industries, developing critical thought between classroom engagement and real-world activity. The online portal requires students to self-select relevant SDGs to each innovation story, allowing them to embed sustainable development principles against for-profit businesses as a meaningful classroom supplement.

Giving Voice to Values (GVV) is a resource platform that empowers individuals to voice their own beliefs and take action when their organization is acting in conflict with their own values. The Giving Voice to Values book, curriculum, and online platform empower students at every level to address concerns about unethical workplace behavior (Gentile 2010; Gentile 2017a,b). The text is supported by online resources which stress how to address unethical and greed-driven workplace practices. The series highlights skill-sets and individual choice which one can develop to be powerful and effective in suggesting changes in their workplace and beyond. This series provides strong research to support the ethos of sustainability and responsibility in business classrooms worldwide, empowering leaders and educators to act ethically and share best practices for sustainable development and responsible behavior. The core GVV texts predate the SDGs, but the message and tone possess the same ethos to advance ethical, responsible, and sustainable thought-leadership.

The Sustainable MBA texts present sustainability within traditional business school disciplines including accounting, economics, entrepreneurship, ethics, finance, marketing, organizational behavior, human resources, operations, and strategy (Weybrecht 2010). The platform provides tools to share sustainable practices in business curricula, endorsed by industry leaders including Net Impact, United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), UN Global Compact, Unilever, Tata, and World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). Similar to the GVV series, the Sustainable MBA texts predate the SDGs, though they do make explicit reference to embedding the MDGs in business education for economics. The tone of the text fosters sustainable development throughout a wide range of business school curricula to holistically engage the learning process with sustainable themes.

The Sustainable Literacy Test (Sulitest) is an international tool for assessing university students’ level of global and local knowledge on sustainability topics (SULITE 2017). The test, which is taken online, incorporates a randomized set of questions covering both global issues and a set of questions localized to the individual country. The full question bank is aligned with the SDGs and partners with the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI) and themes of core knowledge, skills, and mindsets to measure individual knowledge in the field. The mission of this testing platform is to “Improve and measure sustainability literacy worldwide by providing citizens and organizations with internationally recognized and locally relevant assessment tools; by promoting and advocating for Education on Sustainable Development, and by sharing meaningful information and data with researchers, educators, and other relevant stakeholders” (Sulitest 2017). The test is useful in tracking learning in a group of students over time and across a wide variety of sustainable concepts, reflective of local and global knowledge. The Sulitest provides a strong measure of knowledge, around questions and themes directly contributing to the SDGs. These tools can be used by groups of students or individuals on an ad hoc basis but are perhaps most useful when integrated into curriculum and assessment. They can be used individually but, because of the dominance of the SDGs, lend themselves to integration.

Student Opportunities

Students enrolled in business programs may also take advantage of a number of student-centric initiatives. Two examples are Enactus (2017) and Oikos International ( 2017), both of which act as student networks aiming to connect with businesses and other external stakeholders around sustainable development issues.

Enactus is a global community of business leaders, academics, and students with a focus on entrepreneurship, the environment, and the economy. Enactus advances community development, human empowerment, and innovation throughout their global network of business schools (Enactus 2017). With participation in 1710 HEIs across 36 countries, this global organization offers international student competitions and engagement opportunities, particularly in the area of transformative entrepreneurship. Student engagement with social enterprise facilitates the development of localized content and the documentation of best practice in a regional context. Enactus’ local chapters advance their global sustainability work, contributing to SDGs 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 11, 12, 13, and 16 through their promotion of entrepreneurship with positive social, environmental, and economic impact. Focusing on the singular discipline of business entrepreneurship allows the lessons and opportunities around sustainable development to be deeply explored and implemented.

Oikos International, or Oikos, is a global, student-driven network which offers sustainability-based conferences, games, cases, and competitions for students, aiming to foster dialogue on sustainability at global and local levels (Oikos 2017). Oikos differs from other resources as their 40-student chapters advance sustainable development with alignment to UN PRME and GRLI collaboration, creating an Oikos-UN PRME Research Hub (UN PRME 2017). Partnerships between Oikos and other major partnership organizations create synergy with student engagement. Oikos support for the Research Hub and student research aligns the work of each organization to promote a unified message for research and dialogue for sustainable development. The work of Oikos does not specifically reference the SDGs but does aim to strengthen sustainable action competence among students around themes such as climate, energy, resources, inclusion, and well-being. The core foci of Oikos research directly aligns with the SDGs and allows students to advance the work that inspires them.

Student-led networks play a major role in generating student engagement around issues of equality and sustainability. They offer opportunities for hands-on student learning, engaging with the sometimes messy but always current practice of business organizations. With support from faculty, such networks have the potential to elevate business education for sustainable development from the silo of an individual course on CSR, management, or entrepreneurship to allow for more holistic engagement with the SDGs.


Currently, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) has published 3772 partnerships that contribute specifically to the SDGs (Sustainable Development 2017). These partnerships represent 11,227 users and organizations taking action for sustainable development. These projects are supported by for-profit, not-for-profit, and governmental originations working toward sustainable development relevant to their field. Moving beyond the influence of business schools and higher education specifically, these organizations play a broad role in contributing to global sustainable development. The employees of these for-profit, not-for-profit, and governmental organizations must be knowledgeable in their specific field to contribute to economic, social, and environmental success. With that understanding, employees should have a holistic education in both their field of work and the sustainable implications of their actions. Many of these employees have received formal education from business schools. Therefore, embedding themes of responsibility and sustainability in business school education will benefit organizations in their core business and pursuit of sustainable development.

Business education for sustainable development is an increasing part of business school accreditation, and its current momentum is likely to continue as sustainability becomes a more important topic for action and research. While there are many actors at play in the field, each serves a unique purpose in the support and promotion of responsible management in business schools and beyond. The resources listed above are intended as examples rather than as a comprehensive list, and the field is very dynamic, with regional variation and an array of new opportunities open to students and faculty each year. These partnerships, classroom supports, and student opportunities are most effective when implemented in an integrated way by the business school. To a large extent, this is contingent on the school having an explicit expression within their mission or values to promote sustainable development, or sustainability more generally, in their education. With an increased emphasis on research-led education, it is also important for faculty to be given the opportunity to set research agendas on topics related to sustainability and responsibility, and that publication in these fields is recognized as valid within the research strategy of the school. While business education alone cannot solve present issues of sustainable development, interdisciplinary engagement centered on the business school can more holistically engage students of all disciplines. Combining the school’s strategy with teaching and research in related areas can cement sustainability in business education so that graduates are well-positioned to react to the changing economic, ecological, and social environment around them.


Business education for sustainable development aims to embed an ethos of sustainable and responsible decision-making across higher education and business schools. Because of the power wielded by corporations in society, the strategies adopted by their leaders at various levels within the organization can greatly influence the development and impact of sustainability initiatives. For this reason, students in business schools need to develop skills, knowledge, and values during their time in tertiary education. Enhanced critical thinking on sustainable themes and topics prepares them to have positive impacts on their workplaces after they graduate. This understanding is broadly supported in the above literature and initiatives; however there is great urgency around the SDGs and Agenda 2030. Building on this excitement in the field and embedding sustainable development globally into business school partnerships, curriculum, and engagement not only promotes the SDGs but also educates students to be mindful and critical of the urgency for sustainable development throughout business and society.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Meredith Storey
    • 1
    Email author
  • Sheila Killian
    • 1
  • Philip O’Regan
    • 1
  1. 1.Kemmy Business SchoolUniversity of LimerickLimerickIreland

Section editors and affiliations

  • Ingrid Molderez
    • 1
  1. 1.KU LeuvenLeuvenBelgium