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Teaching Business Sustainability – Insights from New and Experienced Educators

Experience the GRONEN workshop on sustainability teaching from the perspective of new educator Sophie Klein.

This fall, I attended the GRONEN workshop “‘Revitalize your Teaching on Sustainability – Best Practices and Novel Approaches,” in Hamburg, Germany. GRONEN is the Group for Research on Organizations and the Natural Environment, an international network of scholars. The workshop focused on best practices and trends in sustainability education — very valuable for me as someone who recently started to teach! 

A Newcomer’s Experience Teaching Business Sustainability

I completed my master’s in Sustainable Business and Innovation. As of 2023, I am a Ph.D. Candidate at Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. That means I suddenly find myself on the ‘other side’ of academia and have started to teach and supervise student projects. 

I find teaching very enriching; it not only imparts and amplifies knowledge but also empowers students to take action and navigate the complexities around key concepts such as sustainable value creation, double materiality, and developing and executing sustainable strategies.

But starting to teach sustainability also presents me with challenges. When we educate students about wicked problems and the severity of sustainability challenges, students may find the insufficient (corporate) response discouraging. This struggle resonates with my own experiences as a student and also working. We are all wondering how one person can make a meaningful impact without becoming overwhelmed by the multitude of problems.

It is also challenging to address the needs of students from different cultural and academic backgrounds. For example, discussing sensitive topics like human rights in the coffee supply chain requires empathetic facilitation, especially when students come from both Europe and the global South, representing coffee-producing countries. Our students also have diverse disciplinary backgrounds; for instance, some have an undergraduate degree in mathematics or engineering. How do we respond to student questions, such as “where we can find the equations for tackling strategy development”?

Gaining Insights on Sustainability Teaching

During the GRONEN workshop, I valued the opportunity to talk with more experienced educators. They helped me figure out how to help students achieve impact and how to foster a nuanced understanding of sustainability issues. I learned from both presenters and other workshop attendees.

The workshop participants were passionate individuals dedicated to advancing sustainability teaching with creative approaches. One overarching learning for me was that developing skills for sustainability requires moving far beyond conventional classroom practices. Here are some ways that educators have revitalized their sustainability teaching:

Make it real.

Simulations such as Saving Our Planet – En-ROADS and Sustainability Management Simulations let students experience – and possibly overcome — the challenges of implementing sustainable strategies. Sara Soderstrom (University of Michigan) shared another hands-on example, describing her work with “living labs.” Students engage with real-world sustainability projects, diving into challenges such as managing community gardens. They learn to adapt and innovate, tackling challenges they may also encounter in their careers. They’re not just reading about sustainability; they’re actively shaping it.

Make it inclusive.

Participants emphasized the importance of inclusive activities and debates on sensitive topics. Valentina De Marchi and Jonatan Pinkse used very simple yet powerful techniques, such as:

  • Having students move around the classroom to align with different statements, in order to spark a discussion

  • Talking with one other classmate about a question before discussing with the whole class

  • Giving students time to think before responding

These approaches are ways to avoid taking opinions from only the loudest, most confident students, and instead include everyone. Students often feel more confident after having time to think about an issue and perhaps write some notes.

Make it holistic.  

Case studies have always been important teaching formats but traditionally have had a relatively narrow focus. A new generation of case studies takes a broader view. Johannes Meuer (Kühne Logistics University) presented a 360° case study of Coop, a large Swiss food retailer. The case study supports role-playing around tensions and trade-offs in sustainability.  Students act as board members, collectively negotiating proposals to address various sustainability challenges. They cultivate soft skills such as negotiation and leadership, crucial for sustainability communication and advocacy. The case study focuses on a broad spectrum of issues, a longer time horizon, and the complexities in sustainability-driven change.

A holistic view can also come from exploring open-source programs and content like the Transform Sustainability Platform set up by Gorgi Krlev (ESCP Business School) or the crowd platform OpenSustain. These initiatives are collaboratively curated to widen access to high-quality sustainability teaching materials. The goal is to democratize sustainability education.

Make it visual and tangible.

Causal loop diagrams (CLDs) are critical tools for systems thinking and mapping. They can help students explore sustainability issues because they operationalize systems thinking concepts such as interconnections and feedback loops. CLDs offer powerful visualizations that lay bare assumptions, scrutinize causal logic, and communicate mental models, explained  Steve Kennedy (RSM Erasmus University).

Gamification can also bring issues alive. Jan Kyhnau and Charlotte Bruun (University College of Northern Denmark) use the teaching principles of Practice-Based Learning (PBL) and the concepts of Doing Good Business, which fuse value creation, governance, and behavior. Their approach to teaching sustainable business models incorporates game-based tools such as the Doing Good Business Game and the Doing Good Business Diamond, designed for studying the interaction between business models and the external environment.

Gaining experience in teaching business sustainability

Looking ahead, I have lots of new inspiration and many remaining questions. For example:

  • How can we scale up sustainability teaching more effectively, amplifying the methods and scale of sustainability programs?

  • How can we inspire colleagues from other disciplines to venture into this territory, exploring new methods, tools, and techniques to integrate sustainability?

Another question: What roles can and should our students play in the classroom?  Workshop host Johannes Meuer said: “I don’t think we’ve yet thought enough about how we can more purposefully give students an active role in our courses. Especially in sustainability, students’ diverse expertise and experiences can challenge traditional teaching methods, making it difficult to engage every student uniformly. But we can leverage this diversity by giving students a more leading, active role in our classroom.”

I am excited to be part of these changes. I think the future of sustainability education will emphasize innovation, inclusivity, and working with students as proactive agents of change in the evolving landscape of sustainability.

More Information

The GRONEN Workshop “Revitalize your Teaching on Sustainability – Best Practices and Novel Approaches” took place on 13 October 2023 and was organized by Ambra Galeazzo, Christina Bidmon, Johannes Meuer, and Javier Delgado Ceballos. It was hosted at Kühne Logistics University in Hamburg, Germany.

Would you like more details on this workshop? Below are the links to the recordings, and stay tuned for upcoming GRONEN events and developments here.

Session recordings     

Additional teaching resources

Explore resources on teaching sustainability from the Network for Business Sustainability

Thank you to Johannes Meuer and Christina Bidmon for their contribution to this article.

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  • Sophie Klein

    Sophie Klein is a PhD Candidate in Sustainable Business and Finance with a diverse background spanning research institutes, the corporate sector, and international organizations. Her primary research interest revolves around financing the sustainable transition of incumbent business models. This includes the mapping of corporate financial structures in transforming business models, financing the phase-out of 'unsustainable' business models, and investigating the role of financial intermediaries and the effectiveness of financial instruments in sustainability transitions. Her commitment extends to teaching activities, such as the master course "Strategy, Economics, and Societal Impact" and "Social Impact Consulting Challenge" module. Sophie actively engages in facilitating collaborations between Utrecht University and external stakeholders, fostering shared research projects with broad impact. Within the Pathways to Sustainability community, she leads the interdisciplinary program "Scaling up nature-positive investments and biodiversity finance". She also serves as a board member of the UN Global Compact Young Sustainable Finance initiative. More about Sophie: https://www.uu.nl/staff/SMAKlein

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