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What Sustainability Centres Learned in a Year of Virtual Connection

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NBS Sustainability Centres Community members share insights related to handling COVID-19, running a centre, and advancing the sustainability transformation.

The NBS Sustainability Centres Community (SCC) includes more than 160 business school sustainability centres from around the world. All are committed to finding ways for higher education to advance sustainability. But the group is wonderfully diverse in terms of specific issues and strategies. With these innovative approaches to sustainability research, teaching, and outreach, there’s a lot to learn from each other. 

For nearly 10 years, SCC members have been exchanging best practices and supporting each other through our global network. Since Spring 2020, centres been virtually sharing through informal centre introductions, with more than 75 centres already providing their missions, accomplishments, concerns and lessons learned. 

The idea-exchange marathon isn’t finished, but it seemed like a good time to summarize some of the broad insights. 

For centre leaders, we hope this article will advance our conversation on shared challenges and opportunities, to be continued at the 2021 NBS Sustainability Centres Community Workshop. For readers outside the SCC circle, we hope you will also find ideas that enrich your sustainability leadership.  

3 sustainability centre areas of focus

Based on the 75 centre introductions, many centres shared three broad concerns in 2020-2021. These were dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, running a centre and advancing broader sustainability transformation.

Centres responded in innovative ways to these priorities, addressing them through research, (online) teaching, engagement with businesses and local governments, and other initiatives. Below we detail the priorities, the initiatives, and some of the reflections centre leaders shared. 

Focus #1: Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic

Especially in the first half of 2020, centre leaders had many questions about how to deal with COVID-19. How could they engage in research, teaching, and outreach given the changed environment? Here are some of the creative solutions they shared:

  • Exploring what the pandemic can teach us about the Anthropocene, in collaboration with companies (Centre for Sustainability Studies, Business Administration School of Fundação Getulio Vargas, Brazil) 

  • Creating the “Crisis Response Corps” to offer pro bono consulting to nonprofits, social enterprises, startups and small businesses. The program matched teams of MBA students with an organization seeking a particular skillset for a summer-long consulting engagement (The Center for Impact@Anderson, Anderson School of Management, University of California Los Angeles, USA) 

  • Creating the Kingston Region Business Support Network, a collaborative outreach project to provide support to local small businesses, not-for-profits and social enterprises as they cope with the impacts of COVID-19 (Centre for Social Impact, Stephen J.R. Smith School of Business, Queens University, Canada) 

  • Launching a new podcast series, “Sustaining Sustainability,” to explore sustainability lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic. Weekly interviews with industry managers, academic experts, government officials, and civil society leaders (Center for Sustainable Business, Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business & College of Business Administration, University of Pittsburgh, USA) 

Comments from centre leaders: 

  • “The good thing about the COVID-19 pandemic is that the online working environment has actually increased attendance to our events and engagement with our centre across the world!” (Ioanna Boulouta, Responsible Business Centre, Birkbeck College, University of London, UK) 

  • “We need more resilient business models for sustainability. It helps to understand how pandemics are caused and we need to link this learning with the sustainability transformations of businesses.” (Stefan Schaltegger, Centre for Sustainability Management, Faculty of Sustainability, Leuphana University, Germany) 

  • “Because of the COVID-19 global pandemic, companies are facing unprecedented circumstances such as disruption of supply chains, decreasing sales, employees working from home, among many others. With this, companies are understanding the importance of sustainability and stakeholder partnership in order to better navigate the post-pandemic environment. Sustainability research centres are in the best position to help companies adapt to the new normal by, for instance, assessing the risks and opportunities in their business operations, improving their ESG performance and providing benchmarking initiatives to help companies in their long-term strategic decisions.” (Colin Legarde Hubo, Center for Social Responsibility, University of Asia and the Pacific, Philippines)

Focus #2: Running a sustainability centre

Some centres in the SCC have years of experience; others are just starting. Some have big teams and stable budgets; others are a one-person army. Some receive support from their universities or external stakeholders, and some are fueled entirely by their founders’ passion and voluntary efforts.  

Yet centres around the world seem to have shared organizational concerns, like, How to support students? How to engage faculty, alumni, and partner schoolsHow to get sustainability and the SDGs into research/curriculum/campus life?  

Here are some innovative practices from 2020-2021: 

  • Helping to create the UN PRME Blueprint for SDG Integration – a step-by-step guide for business schools on how to implement the SDGs across their curriculum, research, and partnerships (Centre for Sustainable and Responsible Organisations, Deakin Business School, Australia) 

  • Building a university-wide Intellectual Community that brings together early and mid-career faculty with research focus on sustainability, to network and share ideas across disciplinary boundaries (Competence Center STaR, Vienna University of Economics and Business, Austria) 

  • Offering a Sustainability Literacy test for students. The test is taken at the beginning and, repeatedly, at the end of their enrollment, to gauge the increase in their sustainability knowledge. Students can learn more about the SDGs from open access downloadable lessons (Centre for Social and Sustainable Innovation, Gustavson School of Business, University of Victoria, Canada) 

  • Holding the Carbon Offset Pitch Competition, where students work in teams to pitch carbon offset portfolios to the school community, which then votes on which projects get implemented (Centre for Social and Sustainable Innovation, Gustavson School of Business, University of Victoria, Canada) 

  • Holding a regional workshop on “Teaching Business Ethics and Integrity” for academic faculty across four universities in the Indian state of Odisha (Centre for Business & Society, Xavier Institute of Management, Xavier University, India) 

  • Creating a Community Impact Challenge in collaboration with the school’s Alumni Association, intended to reduce or eliminate single-use plastic items for 28 days (Hoffmann Global Institute for Business and Society, INSEAD, France, Singapore, and United Arab Emirates) 

  • Collaborating to support the development of Integrated Thinking and Reporting in five universities across Europe (Sustainable Business Research Institute, Leeds Business School, Leeds Beckett University, UK) 

  • Launching the international “by students and for students” Positive Impact Rating for Business Schools (Institute for Business Sustainability, Switzerland) 

Focus #3: Pushing the sustainability transformation forward

People didn’t lose nerve in 2020. The centre introductions clearly show that the pandemic has only reinforced centres’ desire for bold action. Many centres have dared to ask how to transform the world, and how to engage/motivate business and communities to tackle the Grand Challenges of our times.  

Here are some of the initiatives in this direction:  

  • A CSR Learning Series for high school students from low-income areas to explore entrepreneurship and CSR. Companies sponsor the series as part of their CSR portfolio (ALBA Center for Business Ethics, Social Responsibility and Sustainability, Alba Graduate Business School, The American College of Greece, Greece) 

  • An online platform for companies to evaluate, analyze, and report their business sustainability performance (Centre for Business Sustainability, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong) 

  • A program with independent small farmers to facilitate ethical and responsible sourcing of oil palm while improving their livelihoods (Center for Sustainable Value Networks (CSVN), Malaysia Institute for Supply Chain Innovation, Malaysia) 

  • A student-led group that provides weekly global sustainability-related news for a leading Chinese magazine dedicated to spreading sustainability practices in the business community. The student organization is the “Carbon Peaking and Neutral Research Interest Group.” (Centre for Responsible and Sustainable Business Education, International Business School Suzhou, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, China) 

  • A four-week Circular Economy online program on Sustainable Flex-Plastic Waste Management. The initiative targets young innovators in the plastic waste management industry and aims to build the capacity of plastic waste SMEs and social enterprises in Nigeria. It’s funded by Dow Impact Fund. (LBS Sustainability Centre, Lagos Business School, Pan-Atlantic University, Nigeria) 

  • An “Ambassadors for Change” program which facilitated the admission of fifty underprivileged students to the university, in collaboration with a local NGO. (Centre for Business and Society, Lahore University of Management Sciences, Pakistan) 

  • A collaboration with the Heathrow Airport Sustainability Centre to slow down the passenger experience (Centre for Research in Sustainability, Royal Holloway University of London, UK) 

  • The Resilience Cohort program to help the state government measure, manage and reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Center for Urban and Regional Excellence, Indiana University Northwest, USA) 

At the SCC Workshop, centres will continue to learn and share

These three big themes do not encompass all the questions and accomplishments shared over this past year and a half. But we believe they lay a foundation for a fruitful discussion. As such, they will also be reflected in the 2021 NBS SCC Workshop

About this article: SCC members Maya Fischhoff (Network for Business Sustainability), and Maria Diaz Macias and Milda Zilinskaite (Vienna University of Economics and Business STaR Competence Centre) qualitatively analyzed the 75 centre introductions. Introductions covered these areas: Mission, Recent accomplishment, Question for SCC, and Insight for SCC.

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  • Maya Fischhoff
    Knowledge Manager
    Network for Business Sustainability
    PhD in Corporate Sustainability and Environmental Psychology, University of Michigan

    Maya Fischhoff is the Knowledge Manager for the Network for Business Sustainability. She has worked at NBS since 2012. She has a PhD in environmental psychology from the University of Michigan and has worked for government, business, and non-profits. She also covered the celebrity beat on her college newspaper. Working for NBS allows her to combine her passions for sustainability, research, and journalism.

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  • Maria Diaz-Macias
    PWM Operations Senior Analyst
    Goldman Sachs
    Master in International Management, WU Vienna

    Maria Diaz Macias is an Asset & Wealth Management Operations Analyst at Goldman Sachs. She was previously a student assistant at Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU Vienna's) competence center for Sustainability Transformation and Responsibility (STaR). She received a Masters of Science from WU Vienna in International Management.

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  • Milda Žilinskaitė

    Milda Žilinskaitė is a senior scientist and manager at the Competence Center for Sustainability Transformation and Responsibility, Vienna University of Economics and Business, and a visiting faculty at the International Anti-Corruption Academy. Her current research and teaching foci include labor migration, SDGs, ethics and value-based compliance.

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