Use the Arts to Advance Business Sustainability

Art and music can spark imagination, drive emotion, and create meaning. Businesses can use this power to advance sustainability.   

Maybe you love literature, music, or the visual arts.  

Those passions might seem far from work on business sustainability. Progress on social and environmental issues is often associated with engineering and science.    

But the arts – everything from architecture to poetry – can actually be powerful tools in advancing sustainable development. They open up space for imagination, bring people together, and have an emotional impact that facts alone do not. 

In museums, business schools, and corporate offices, people are finding ways to use the arts to advance business sustainability. This article highlights: 

  • Why the arts are so impactful in sustainability 
  • How the arts can be used to advance business sustainability 
  • Advice for companies interested in building sustainability through art 

Why the Arts Can Impact Sustainability 

Building a sustainable future starts with imagining it. But it can be difficult to imagine a different reality. Usually, we’re focused on being practical and supporting our ideas with evidence. But radical shifts require freer thinking.   

That’s where the arts come in. They encourage creativity and offer visions. “The arts make [different futures] visible,” says Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, former director of Vienna’s Museum of Applied Arts (MAK).  

An example is the “Invocation for Hope” exhibit at the MAK. The installation showed 700 trees from a wildfire in Austria, arranging them so that burnt trees surround a pond and green trees (see picture) 

The “Invocation for Hope” presents 70 trees from a fire site in Austria
The “Invocation for Hope” presents 70 trees from a fire site in Austria.

Visitors to the exhibit see both the potential impacts of climate change and the opportunity for regrowth. They experience “what can be both in terms of a negative future and the utopia of a greener future,” says Thun-Hohenstein.  

Music and the arts also provoke emotion and empathy, additional motivations for action. The arts “captivate us in our hearts,” says Huhn-Thohenstein. “They shine and inspire where science [and] facts are unable to.”  

Museums and other cultural institutions also bridge the past and future. They try to interpret history in relevant ways. For example, those interested in the circular economy, for example, might learn from the MAK’s archive of an early 20th century design collective. The design collective produced quality, durable products that could be repaired – “the opposite of mass consumption,” says Huhn-Thohenstein. 

How Businesses Can Use the Arts for Sustainability

So: the arts can spark imagination, drive emotion, and inspire solutions. All these effects can be valuable to organizations seeking to advance sustainable development.   

Businesses may see a special benefit. Traditionally, businesses emphasize facts and evidence, says Tima Bansal, professor of Strategy at Ivey Business School and founder of NBS. That analytical approach has benefits and limits. “In analysis, we compartmentalize ideas,” says Bansal. Engaging with art helps people integrate ideas, making connections and imaginative leaps.   

Art is already a presence in business: an estimated half of Fortune 500 companies have art collections. Companies can use visual and other arts to educate and inspire, bring together different stakeholders, or strategize and innovate. 

For example: 

Microsoft displays its huge art collection throughout its buildings. Pieces are chosen because they reflect the local community or employees’ global diversity. The art is intended to encourage reflection. “We are not trying to just decorate the walls,” Michael Klein, the collection’s curator, told ArtNexus. “We really are trying to find things that have some meaning, and provoke the mind. Why is this art? Why is this here? What is the artist saying or experiencing that I can learn about?” 

Social enterprise Too Good To Go partners with artists to create posters on themes related to the company’s purpose of reducing food waste. The posters are displayed publicly, raising awareness and showcasing artists. 

TooGoodToGo Poster Exhibit
Too Good To Go sponsors posters against food waste

 

Business Schools Show How to Experiment with the Arts

Business schools provide more innovative examples of how to use the arts to advance sustainability. Here’s what business schools around the globe are doing:  

Using music for powerful communication. Music is an effective teaching tool, says Divya Singhal of the Goa Institute of Management (GIM), where she teaches a course on Music and Social Change. “No matter how beautifully written an article is,” says Singhal, “it won’t stick with you it like a song.”   

Using theater to build empathy. In a conflict management course at GIM, students wrote plays about workplace issues they felt were important. Topics included support for LGBTQ+ co-workers and other social issues. Writing and performing these plays built empathy among actors and audiences.     

Bridging worlds through arts workshops. At Turkey’s Özyeğin University, students worked with professional artists to create work related to the Sustainable Development Goals. The workshops emphasized “the experience of thinking and producing together with an artist rather than acquiring technical knowledge,” said organizer Okan Pala. 

Allowing students (or employees) to express a fuller identity. Art lets people reveal themselves, several educators said. “We discovered that many of our students were already artists,” notes Katell LeGoulven of INSEAD. As students created artwork and described it to peers, they built self-knowledge and group bonds, said Fernanda Carreira of FGV-EAESP in Brazil.  

Tips for Using the Arts for Business Sustainability 

Here are some recommendations for business action.  

Business professor Tima Bansal says: 

Be an activist. Many businesses have art collections posted in their corporate lobbies or their CEO’s offices. This work is often beautiful and sometimes of high value. But few corporations use art to help inspire change. Businesses can use art to activate emotion, creativity and imagination in a direction that are consistent with their goals, ambitions, and values.  

Be provocative. For art to have an impact on the people viewing it, there must be room for interpretation. If an art piece is too literal, with no mystery, it loses impact. So, push the boundaries and get people talking. Microsoft art curator Michael Klein says: “I think one of the things that is very appreciated about the [Microsoft] collection is that it is not necessarily pleasant, but it does evoke multiple reactions and sensations.” 

Be public. Don’t hide the works in hallways and offices. Post artwork in corporate lobbies and corporate websites. Show stakeholders that your company is part of a wider community.  

Take art into the community as well. Professor Divya Singhal points to Hero MotoCorp in India. The company started the Serendipity Arts Trust, which encourages sustainability and education across their region. 

Ways to Partner for Arts and Sustainability 

Like everything else in sustainability, engagement with the arts may be a multi-sector effort. Companies, artists, and museums can all work together. And everyone may need to leave their comfort zone.  

Here’s how different actors might engage. 

Museums and cultural institutions: Museums are often isolated from the community, says Huhn-Thohenstein of Vienna’s Museum of Applied Arts. To enter the mainstream, museums need to get outside their buildings. He advocates immersive installations in public spaces or interim-use buildings. “Museums have to really become part of society,” he said. 

Artists: Artists may need to grapple – just a bit – with science. Artists in different fields are engaging with sustainability at different rates, says Huhn-Thohenstein. “Designers are less shy to engage. I sense some reluctance uh in other fields because I often get the reply, ‘I’m not firm enough on the science when it comes to climate change etc.’ I tell them, ‘It’s not so complicated. There are fantastic books out there or we can easily in a workshop bring you up to date.”  

Companies: Companies will need to be comfortable with the experimental nature of the arts. Collaboration can make this easier. Huhn-Thohenstein tells companies: “Whatever you hesitate to do alone as a company, cooperating with artists, designers, architects, poets, and musicians [can support you in the adventure]” 

The arts can provide a platform for different sectors to come together. “Museums are egalitarian in some ways,” says Huhn-Thohenstein. “They should not discriminate. So they can bring in people from business, from civil society, from govern. They can be a center point of conversation.” 

Share Your Arts Inspiration

Do the arts inspire your sustainability work? Share what the arts mean to you, in the comments or through our online form. We may feature your ideas in a future article.

Find Out More 

Our article draws on several sources:  

The discussion “Art and Purpose: Enabling Radical Change,” held as part of the 2021 Multi-sector Dialogue for a Sustainable Transformation. Christoph Thun-Hohenstein (Director of the Museum of Applied Arts) was interviewed by Tima Bansal (NBS Founder). Watch the video. 

The Working Group on the Arts and Business Sustainability, organized by members of the NBS Sustainability Centres Community. This group includes faculty and staff from many universities: Divya Singhal (Goa Institute of Management), Fernanda Carreira (FGV EAESP), Ekaterina Ivanova (HSE University Graduate School of Business), Katell Le Goulven (INSEAD), Abby Litchfield (Network for Business Sustainability), Jean-Baptise Litrico (Queens University), Okan Pala (Özyeğin University), Elena Senatorova (National Research University), and Zehra Waheed (Lahore University of Management Sciences). 

The discussion “Art for Social Change” at the 2021 Global Business School Network “Going Beyond” Conference, organized by the Sustainability Centres Community Working Group. Watch the video.  

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  • Maya Fischhoff is the Knowledge Manager for the Network for Business Sustainability. Maya develops and oversees NBS’s knowledge products, and is obsessed with communicating complex things in clear terms (when possible).

  • Theo Moers is an undergraduate student at WU Vienna University of Economics and Business. He strongly believes that a crucial part of managing a company is to gain expertise in the field of sustainability to be able to make decisions that are not just a product of greenwashing. During his studies, Theo worked at PwC in their ESG & Climate Change Consulting Team and is now focusing his thesis research on carbon offset programs in the US.

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