While much attention has been paid to visionary CEOs who’ve gone green, change is also bubbling up from a less visible source: MBA students. Increasingly, they’re clamoring for a more holistic approach to studying business, one that takes into account human rights, community impact, and the depletion of natural resources (the trendy shorthand is the so-called triple bottom line, for people, planet, and profit). Traditional business schools are responding with new courses, and a few schools have even sprouted up with the express purpose of teaching responsible behavior. Case in point: San Francisco’s Presidio School of Management, which incorporates sustainability into every aspect of its MBA curriculum. As professor Maggie Winslow puts it: “Climate change is discussed in every course.”
There are signs of growing demand for a greener approach: The number of business schools requiring students to take at least one course dedicated to corporate social responsibility (CSR), ethics, or sustainability increased from 34 percent in 2001 to 54 percent in 2005, according to the Aspen Institute. And more business school students are joining Net Impact, a nonprofit that promotes CSR; a chapter just launched at the University of Alabama.
Tellingly, surveys have found that MBA students want CSR to be included not just in ethics classes but also in such core curricula as finance, marketing, and accounting. That philosophy informs Presidio. The bottom line is not just compatible with sustainability but requires it, asserts Hunter Lovins, who teaches “Principles of Sustainable Management” and coauthored the book Natural Capitalism. “The question businesspeople are wrestling with is how do they meet their fiduciary responsibility to owners of the company and do business honorably? We’re teaching how you balance those.” The sensibilities haven’t always mixed well. “There’s this problem with environmentalists thinking of business as evil. On the other hand, people on the right think environmentalism is a communist plot,” says recent Presidio graduate Nick Aster, who helps run the popular site Treehugger.com and heads Presidio’s TriplePundit.com blog. Aster says business can be “the most powerful change agent on the planet” and says he came to Presidio thinking, “Wow, let’s help business be more green and make environmentalism more businesslike.”
In accounting courses, Presidio students hear about the concept of an integrated bottom line, which takes into account costs to society such as factory emissions (and benefits companies receive from, say, state-subsidized health care). “Traditional business books talk about what to do if you have to deal with regulators. We talk about reducing negative externalities like pollution,” professor Winslow says. “We critique the interest rate instead of taking it for granted.” In her managerial marketing course, Presidio professor Nicola Acutt oversees hot debates on what constitutes green-washing as opposed to real innovation; case studies focus on companies such as Clif Bar and American Apparel. Graduate Holly Coleman, who now works for the mayor’s Office of Sustainability in Oakland, remembers one class involving a reenactment of a logging dispute in British Columbia’s Clayoquot Sound. “It was amazing—you think, ‘Nothing is black and white. Everybody’s needs are valid.'”
Like sustainability itself (an amorphous concept that can mean something different to each person who uses it), Presidio’s culture is still evolving. Only three years old, the school was more touchy-feely in the beginning. “It started with a retreat. We were in Santa Cruz, playing on bongo drums. I was like, ‘This is sort of fun, but what have I fallen into here?'” recalls Aster. “There have been a lot of changes since then.” (Including the school’s name, from the granola-sounding Presidio World College.) This year’s class is double the size of its first in 2003, with some 50 students who meet for classes once a month and do much of the rest of their work online. “This little pup of ours is a big barking dog now,” says Lovins, who adds that “it’s definitely evolving in the right direction, which is how do you implement this in real business, producing real profits?”
Another real-life question: Just how welcome is the Presidio approach inside corporate America? “Right now it’s a very hot job market,” says Coleman. Graduates have taken jobs at companies ranging from Kashi to Wells Fargo; others have started their own companies or joined nonprofits or NGOs. But while going green is currently in vogue—witness the deluge of press for Wal-Mart’s supposed transformation—how sincere such efforts are remains unproven. That doesn’t much worry people like Lovins, who says optimistically, “Hypocrisy is the first step to real change. In almost all places, going green is good for the bottom line. This is, I think, the only realistic vision of a future where humans get to hang around on earth.”