Earth Day 2024: How B-Schools & Students Are Embracing The Goal Of A Better Tomorrow

Earth Day 2024: How B-Schools & Students Are Embracing The Goal Of A Better Tomorrow

“Every day should be Earth Day,” says Phillip Bruner at the University of Washington Foster’s School of Business. 

Driven by a dual passion for environmental advocacy and technological innovation, Bruner teaches Climate Finance and the Race to Net Zero at the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington, where he is a professor of sustainable finance. The course covers green bonds, project finance, ESG investing, carbon markets, natural capital, and biodiversity finance.

In contrast to students’ levels of commitment to sustainability even a year ago, Bruner now sees “almost an order of magnitude change” in the number of students who want to work on climate — and, as a result, a massive oversubscription to his classes.


The tipping point for the sustainability argument in graduate business education was when finance majors started to come around, Bruner says. Now, he tells Poets&Quants, “There is a movement in the Foster School where finance majors want to work on climate. I see that the future will be one where more and more asset managers realize that climate-related risks are material to asset valuations in the near-term.”

Foster is not the only business school seeing this shift. According to a 2023 Corporate Knights poll of more than 200 global B-schools, while fewer than 20% of schools had mission statements that showed a weak alignment with social purpose, more than 21% stood out for having clear and unequivocal mission statements dedicated to social purpose. Across the U.S., B-schools have increasingly incorporated sustainability into curricula and practice: MBA sustainability courses and initiatives have exploded at B-schools in recognition that the next generation of business leaders must possess a deep understanding of sustainable practices to navigate increasingly complex challenges and opportunities ahead.

Business schools are responding not only to what the market demands but what their customers — students — want. According to the 2024 Prospective Student Survey from the Graduate Management Admission Council, more than two-thirds (68%) of prospective students say sustainability is important or very important to their academic experience.  


Earth Day 2024: How B-Schools & Students Are Embracing The Goal Of A Better Tomorrow

Washington Foster’s Phillip Bruner: “I see that the future will be one where more and more asset managers realize that climate-related risks are material to asset valuations in the near-term”

In many ways, when it comes to sustainability, U.S. B-schools are only now catching up to their counterparts in Europe. For Earth Day 2024, Poets&Quants asked European thought leaders in the space to discuss the landscape and the findings from the GMAC poll.

“Sustainability is a guiding principle in everything we should do, and as such it is not a new principle,” says Björn Schmeisser, associate professor of strategy and organization at NHH Norwegian School of Economics in Bergen, Norway. “We just tend to have forgotten about its importance and ranked it lower priority in our private and professional life — which brought us to exactly where we are right now.” 

The GMAC poll results did not surprise Jochem Kroezen, MBA academic director at Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands.

“I would say that 2/3 is in line with my experience with our MBA cohorts,” Kroezen says. “When we have classroom debates on, for instance, the purpose of the corporation, at least two thirds of our students would disagree with shareholder value maximization.” 

Laura Skedgell, careers consultant for sustainability, energy and social impact at Imperial College’s Business School in the UK, says the GMAC poll shows that sustainability is going mainstream in graduate business education.

“This statistic (68%) is no surprise given that we’re starting to see the mainstreaming of sustainability into business practices,” Skedgell says, “owing to factors such as new government regulation, the increasing demands for sustainable products and services by consumers, and engagement from investors and shareholders on ESG matters.” 


Skedgell adds that Imperial College has already integrated sustainability into all of their programs in order to prepare students for the changes in workplaces. In January, Imperial joined France’s EDHEC and ESMT Berlin in launching a new triple credential that introduces students to the newest technologies and most pressing environmental challenges while teaching them relevant strategy and managerial skills; graduates will earn a Master’s in Management from EDHEC, a certificate from ESMT Berlin, and an MSc in Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Management from Imperial. 

Of course, while climate change affects everyone globally, some regions are impacted more than others — and residents of the hardest-hit places are more inclined to feel the urgency of the issue. Another key data point emerging from the GMAC report was that graduate business candidates from Africa and Central and South Asia are especially likely to say sustainability is important to their academic experience.

“It is clear that students from Africa and Central and South Asia come from environments where sustainability challenges are sometimes extreme. Indeed they are at the front edge of climate change in many cases,” says Julie Guillot, head of careers at Emlyon Business School in France.  

“These factors could help drive such perspectives. We also find the students from these backgrounds are slightly more likely to have engineering profiles where there is a stronger possibility to find jobs with clear sustainability impacts.”


GMAC’s report found slightly different tendencies among female and male prospective students, showing that 35% of prospective students were socially conscious when looking at the importance of sustainability in the curriculum, compared to 25% of their male counterparts.

“I am not surprised at all!” says Anne-Claire Pache, associate dean of strategy and sustainability at France’s ESSEC Business School. “I’ve been teaching and am now chairing the ‘Social Innovation’ specialization track in ESSEC’s MiM at ESSEC, and we always have many more female candidates than male.”

“This is the trend that is also true in our ‘Ecological transition’ track in the MiM, in our Bachelor in Sustainability as well as in our Master of Science in Sustainability Transformation, with candidates from all over the world, who are mainly female,” Pache adds. 

As European B-schools integrate sustainability into their programs, they are not only preparing students for the future but also empowering them to shape it — making every day Earth Day in graduate business education. Now U.S. B-schools are beginning to catch up.


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