The Rise Of Sustainability Master’s Programs

Antonella Moretto, associate dean of open programs at Italy’s MIP Politecnico di Milano: “Given the central role of sustainability in creating value, there are also some areas that deserve a more specific approach.”

While the business school rankings of The Financial Times, Forbes, Bloomberg and U.S. News continue to reward those schools whose graduates achieve the highest salaries, quantifying ROI means something entirely different to a new generation of candidates. While securing an enviable salary is still a key priority, today’s applicants are increasingly looking to do more than just help themselves.

Demand is rising for programs that teach the necessary skills to enable the next generation of business leaders to make an impact on the world without damaging it — and nowhere is it rising more swiftly than at the master’s level.


Dr. Joanna Berry of Durham University Business School: “It is important that the students go on to become ‘holistic graduates’ who can think across boundaries.”

When it comes to creating socially conscious management education, Stanford Graduate School of Business seems to have been well ahead of the curve. Twenty years ago, Stanford launched the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER) Joint MSc program, and ever since, the GSB has been steadily turning out business graduates with a firm ethos of not just bettering themselves but also the world around them. Yet despite this impressive history, the overall trend for business school applicants to seek out an education that commits to furthering social purpose is still something of a recent phenomenon.

While Stanford may have a 20-year head start, European business schools are proving to be increasingly agile and responsive to catering for what students – and industries – want. Most schools limit themselves to launching just one program, but Italy’s MIP Politecnico di Milano (MIP) last year made a bold commitment to the greater good by launching five separate sustainability focused MSc programs.

“While all managers should have expertise on the subject, given the central role of sustainability in creating value, there are also some areas that deserve a more specific approach,” says Antonella Moretto, associate dean of open programs at the leading Italian business school. “Thus, we designed our master’s thinking about the business function concerned, in order to maximize the impact our graduates can have on business.”

To accomplish this, the school’s five programs cover Environmental Sustainability and Circular Economy, Sustainable Industrial Management, Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Sustainability Management and Corporate Social Responsibility, and Sustainable Finance.

“A lasting improvement in the economic performances of firms and countries can only be achieved if social welfare is enhanced, natural resources are managed efficiently, the global environment is defended, and business ethics are promoted,” explains Moretto. “Therefore, it is vital that concepts such as responsible business, social innovation, and sustainable business models have an increasing weight in the school’s programs.”

With the UN’s deadline for meeting the Sustainable Development Goals growing closer, and motivated by the opportunity to capitalize on the unexpected ecological benefits that a year of COVID lockdowns has provided the world, a cluster of European schools have built upon their existing sustainability-focused offerings by launching a selection of new programs designed to support global environmental recovery.

The Rotterdam School of Management Erasmus University is set to welcome a second cohort of students to its long-standing MSc Global Business and Sustainability this fall, while BI Norwegian Business School has recently launched a Masters in Sustainable Finance to begin later this year, and ESCP Business School has developed three new electives in energy, geopolitics, and climate and business for its main Masters in Management to stand alongside its existing MSc International Sustainability program, running across all five of its European campuses.


ESADE Academic Director Mónica Casabayó: “We need leaders with visions and commitment, capable of integrating sustainability into their organizations while remaining competitive.”

On the specialization front, emlyon business school in France has gone one step further, launching its Masters in Energy Transition Management in partnership with French engineering school ECAM Lyon. The result is a program that will teach the managerial and technical skills to enable organizations to keep their carbon footprints low once the world opens up again.

“In an increasingly climate and energy-constrained environment, making organizations evolve towards sustainable activities becomes crucial,” says Program Director Xavier Blot. “Lockdown has shown us all how quickly decontamination can be done, but what new energies and new behaviours need to be taught in order to make this last?“

Blot believes collaborative programs like this, which mix different disciplines, are especially important for tackling the ecological challenges we all face. “It is the duty of a major business school like emlyon to work closely with engineering schools like ECAM Lyon to develop specific skills and transform organizations to cope with these new challenges. Future generations will find concrete solutions to answer every issue, whether it is economic, industrial, or social and environmental.”


For Leila Guerra, Vice Dean of Education at Imperial College Business School in London, such partnerships provide a vital learning opportunity for students to not just keep pace with industrial change, but to help steer it.

Since 2016, the business school at Imperial has run an MSc in Climate Change, Management and Finance in partnership with the University’s Grantham Institute – a body which conducts climate change and environment-related research and translates it into real-world actions for business leaders and policy makers.

“Having an understanding of climate and climate science is an absolute necessity in todays’ world, and we need leaders who can adapt, learn and respond to the needs of today’s society,” she says. “We identified a need for a program that focuses on the immense scientific and cultural – and therefore business and financial – challenge of climate change. The Imperial MSc in Climate Change, Management & Finance is a unique program that balances business skills with knowledge of climate science and policy.”


Joanna Berry, co-director of the new Masters in Energy Systems Management at Durham University Business School in the UK, agrees with Guerra’s perspective.

“Postgraduate qualifications that link engineering with business and management are not new, but the low carbon energy transition is. With COP26 coming to Glasgow at the end of the year this is a great time to develop management education to reflect and enact policy,” she says.

Set to start in September, Berry says the program has been designed to provide both existing and new industry practitioners with a broad understanding of the technical and economic aspects of the future energy projects needed to deliver the global vision. “It is important that the students go on to become ‘holistic graduates’ who can think across boundaries, understand the engineering language needed to manage those actually running energy systems and also the commercial, economic policies and political strategies underpinning them.”

And it’s not just a focus on policy that’s important, but on people too. Durham will be offering scholarships to applicants from low-income backgrounds to help overcome any barriers to learning for those with the right ethos and aptitude.


For one European powerhouse, when it comes to teaching sustainability, it seems the line of thinking is to start them young. In keeping with its motto of “Do Good. Do Better”, ESADE has made the decision to introduce sustainability-focused education to students at Bachelors level. This autumn the School will welcome its first cohort of Bachelor in Transformational Business and Social Impact (BITBASI). The reason for targeting this program at a younger age of students, according to Academic Director Professor Mónica Casabayó, is to fully prepare tomorrow’s leaders to cope with the pace of ecological and environmental change.

“Today’s world faces different challenges,” she says. “More and more, companies and entrepreneurs are accepting that governments and NGOs cannot resolve these on their own, that we all need to pull in the same direction – in terms of money but especially in terms of talent. We need leaders with visions and commitment, capable of integrating sustainability into their organizations while remaining competitive.

Professor Casabayό believes the program will be instrumental in creating a new generation of such leaders. “The BITBASI offers the optimal educational model to incite students to create innovative business models that respond to economic, sustainable and global challenges. We worked for four months in collaboration with disruptive organizations, we interviewed managers from different sectors, we spoke to head-hunters, we listened to students and alumni, and interviewed members of the teaching staff at ESADE and other academic institutions.”

While the program may cater to a younger generation of would-be business leaders, the content is no less challenging than that faced by Master’s students.

“Transforming the ecosystem requires being humble enough to understand it, a commitment to the team and the perseverance to achieve it,” says Casabayό. “Students will have to learn how to learn. How to think and feel, and become aware of the impact of their decisions.

And the learning curve extends beyond students and industries, coming full circle back to the institutions themselves. ESADE’s Casabayό believes business schools must seriously up their game when it comes to teaching the fundamentals in, and importance of, sustainability. “For this specific profile, reinventing the higher education standards is a must. Not only in terms of knowledge, but also in terms of international experiences and competences.”

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