It’s often big business that gets the blame when global issues such as climate change, gender equality, sanitation and poverty are examined. But in recent years, forward-focused business educators and the leaders they teach have been working to become part of the solution, not the problem. How are business schools helping to redefine the role of business in the fight for a better future?

The United Nations’ definition of sustainable development is “development that promotes prosperity and economic opportunity, greater social wellbeing, and protection of the environment”.

For sustainability to be truly global in nature, it must offer the best path forward for improving the lives of people everywhere.

From a business perspective, it means “doing business in a way that manages and attempts to minimise any negative impacts on society and the environment,” according to Michaela Rankin, Professor of Accounting and Deputy Dean (International) at Monash Business School in Melbourne, Australia.

“A sustainable business seeks opportunities to contribute to healthy economic, social and environmental systems,” Professor Rankin says. “It should also address important issues such as economic efficiency; social equity and environmental accountability.”

Monash_Michaela Rankin

Putting sustainability at the heart of business

Today, many businesses are aligning themselves and their practice with the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda. Announced in 2015, each goal has specific targets to be achieved over the next 15 years, from Zero Hunger, Quality Education and Gender Equality to Decent Work and Economic Growth, Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, and Responsible Consumption and Production.

“The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals go beyond environmental indicators and climate change, to include some of the biggest challenges in the world today. On the face of it, many of the goals seem to be far from what businesses can influence. There are many, however, where business leaders can make significant inroads – ‘gender equality’, ‘good jobs and economic growth’, ‘reduced inequalities’ and ‘responsible consumption’ are just some examples,” argues Prof Rankin, going on to outline some of the mistakes businesses make and barriers they encounter when considering their approach to sustainability.

“Seeing sustainability as peripheral will reduce a business’ ability to make substantive change. A focus on short-term performance indicators and budgets diminishes the opportunity to focus on sustainability objectives, with the benefits often not becoming apparent for some years.

“Having sufficient metrics available with which to assess performance on sustainable initiatives is also a significant problem. It’s often difficult to determine what to measure, and how to go about doing this.

“A final barrier is sufficient care being taken of customer needs and demands. Consumers are increasingly asking how products are made and under what conditions; they are asking questions about things like fast fashion and its impacts. Some of the more forward-thinking companies are acting on this by providing transparency on their supply chains.”

The role of educators as thought and action leaders

Observing, researching and critiquing business behaviour around the world, with a particular focus on corporate governance, financial reporting, executive compensation and sustainability, and integrated reporting, is just part of Prof Rankin’s focus in her role at one of the world’s top-ranking business schools.

Her other major focus is education.

“Business leaders and organisations can no longer ignore the challenges set down by the UN, and need to find ways to integrate them into their strategy and operations,” she says. “It is imperative, therefore, that business educators take the lead through educating future leaders, and through their own activities.”

Prof Rankin’s teaching style aligns with that of her academic institution, Monash Business School, where applied theory – putting theory into practice and moving learnings out of the classroom and into the real world – is key.

The School and its faculty are well placed to educate and advise on best-practice sustainability in business as, since 2010, the school has been a signatory to the UN-supported Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME), and in 2016 it joined the UN PRME Champions initiative. A platform for raising the profile of sustainability in educational institutions around the world, the PRME aims to equip today's business students with the understanding and ability to deliver change.

Sustainability is a core focus in all of the 90 single and double-degree options Monash offers undergraduate and postgraduate students, as is empowering students to put their learnings and ideas into practice.

A graduate using business as a force for good

One example of a graduate with an idea that positively impacts sustainability in the world is Jonathan Byrt, who co-founded a reusable water bottle, Memobottle, in 2014. The clever bottle, made from BPA-free plastic, rethinks the traditional shape of most other bottles (think slim and square, and available in A5, A6 and A7 sizes, like a notebook).


A graduate of the School’s Bachelor of Commerce degree, Jonathan and his co-founder Jesse Leeworthy were inspired to create change by seeing the devastating effect of single-use plastic on the beaches and oceans around their hometown, on the south coast of Melbourne. Memobottles were included in the gift bags given out at the Oscars in 2016, and the sale of each bottle provides one person in need with clean drinking water for two months through its association with So far, Memobottle has provided 5,938,000 days of clean drinking water to people in need.

Its activities contribute to meeting several of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, among them Goal 3: Good Health and Well-being, Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation, and Goal 12: Responsible Production and Consumption.

Prof Rankin anticipates that in the coming years, sustainability will be incorporated into every area of business education – from finance and accounting to marketing and business strategy.

“We are already seeing evidence of this, though often in an ad hoc way,” she says. “I think what we will see is an integrated approach to this, with a shift in key business models and strategy driving hands-on problem solving, supported by cases exhibiting best practice used as exemplars.”

Exemplars such as Memobottle, which became a certified B-corporation in 2017. This means it’s one of more than 2,000 businesses around the world that are recognised as business leaders in a global movement of using business as a force for good. Like other certified B-corporations, Memobottle meets the highest standards of overall social and environmental performance, transparency and accountability, and aspires to use the power of business to solve social and environmental problems. Now that’s a good educational outcome.

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