How to Teach Sustainability?

Ethical blog - Wed, 12/09/2015 - 12:52

Teaching sustainability requires taking a truly holistic and deeply personal approach. To address issues of sustainability in business I suggest to use the four-dimensional framework developed by Ian Mitroff at USC in Los Angeles. It says that every important problem has four irreducible aspects: scientific/technical, interpersonal/social, systemic, and existential.

The technical/scientific perspective is the dominant perspective in today’s Western culture and favors technical solutions to most problems, even when other solutions  are more appropriate. We use this perspective in most of our teaching at business schools.  

The interpersonal/social perspective concerns the way the problem is perceived from a social, group, and family point of view.

The systemic perspective takes into consideration the long-term consequences of how the problem is solved. It assumes that all things are interconnected. This perspective involves the future generations and nature as stakeholders – even if they are not heard or seen. This perspective goes beyond geographic borders and narrowly defined time limits.

The existential perspective emphasizes the lives and fates of individual human beings and their life-worlds. Human feelings, dignity and meaning are important aspects in this perspective. The important existential questions asked are as follows: Who am I? Whom do I want to be? How do my actions influence my life project, which gives meaning and purpose to my life? Ultimately all important decisions and acts influence the self of the decision maker, and reasonable beings should care about themselves. 

It is important to emphasize the existential perspective because it is usually ignored or even denied in management literature and thinking. However, when we take this perspective seriously, we get a new and different view of many business sustainability problems.

Taking an existential, person-based approach involves showing the human drama behind business decisions and policies. To present extraordinary business persons and their life-stories like the late Ray Anderson of Interface or Paul Polman of Unilever may capture our students’ imagination. To work on case-studies of progressive, sustainability oriented companies also can liberate our students from the tyranny of mainstream business thinking.

We should be frank and honest when we teach sustainability. Sustainability challenges the mainstream business models what other colleagues teach at our business schools. We should not deny the inherent conflict between sustainability models and mainstream models. This conflict is real and our life is all about this. We should help our students to cope with this conflict by catalyzing personal, organizational and societal transformation of business for sustainability.