What Sustainability Centers Have
Learned in a Year of Virtual Connection
NBS Sustainability Centers Community members have shared our experiences over the last year. Here are core insights related to handling COVID-19, running a center, and advancing the sustainability transformation.
The NBS Sustainability Centers Community (SCC) includes more than 150 business sustainability centers 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, centers been virtually sharing through informal center introductions, with more than 75 centers already providing their mission, 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 center leaders, we hope this article will advance our conversation on shared challenges and opportunities, to be continued at July’s 2021 NBS Sustainability Centers Community Workshop (register now!) For readers outside the SCC circle, we hope you will also find ideas that enrich your sustainability leadership.
Center concerns, accomplishments, and insights
Based on the 75 center introductions*, many centers shared three broad concerns in 2020-2021. These were dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, running a center and advancing broader sustainability transformation.
Centers 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 center leaders shared.
Especially in the first half of 2020, center 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:
Working with companies to explore what the pandemic can teach us about the Anthropocene (Center 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)
Quotes/ food for thought:
RUNNING A SUSTAINABILITY CENTER
Some centers 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 centers around the world seem to have shared organizational concerns, like, How to support students? How to engage faculty, alumni, and partner schools? How to get sustainability and the SDGs into research/curriculum/campus life?
Here are some innovative practices from 2020-2021:
Involvement in 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)
Continuing 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)
Hosting a student-led group that provides weekly global sustainability-related news for a leading professional 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)
Holding a regional workshop on “Teaching Business Ethics and Integrity” for academic faculty across 4 universities in the Indian state of Odisha (Centre for Business & Society, Xavier Institute of Management, Xavier University, India)
Launching the international “by students and for students” Positive Impact Rating for Business Schools (Institute for Business Sustainability, Switzerland)
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)
PUSHING FORWARD WITH THE SUSTAINABILITY TRANSFORMATION
People didn’t lose nerve in 2020. The centre introductions clearly show that the pandemic has only reinforced centers’ desire for bold action. Many centers 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)
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 4-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 Center to slow down the passenger experience (Center 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)
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 program.
Authors: Maya Fischhoff, Maria Diaz Macias, Milda Zilinskaite
Cite as: Fischhoff, M., Diaz-Macias, M., & Zilinskaite, M. (May 2021). What Sustainability Centers Have Learned in a Year of Virtual Connection. Permanently available at: https://www.nbs.net/articles/what-sustainability-centres-learned-in-a-year-of-virtual-connection
*SCC members Maya Fischhoff (Network for Business Sustainability), and Maria Diaz Macias and Milda Zilinskaite (Vienna University of Economics and Business STaR Competence Center) qualitatively analyzed the 75 center introductions. Introductions covered these areas: Mission, Recent accomplishment, Question for SCC, and Insight for SCC.
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 centers 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
If you run an academic sustainability center Register HERE for a full, four-day program (July 12-15).
If you are a business practitioner, policy maker, or work for an NGO, we invite you to join our multi-sector dialogue day on July 12. Register HERE.
Whether you’re managing a sustainability center (and are planning to participate in the Workshop) or not, we would love to hear from you!