Special report: Sustainability as the future key to success

International Careers

Leuphana Universität Lüneburg

The Swiss professor Stefan Schaltegger once founded the world’s first MBA in Sustainability Management. 15 years have passed and Schaltegger still laments that sustainability hasn’t evolved enough in most companies, sometimes seriously harming a business' success. In his view, the future will demand new technologies, skilled workers and the understanding that ultimate success is only possible if companies adhere to sustainable practices. 

You’re teaching sustainability to MBA students – isn’t this contradictory, given that MBA students’ main ambition is normally to further their own career and remuneration?

Our students have usually had quite a bit of success in their life already, so increasing their income and higher positions in the hierarchy are not their main motivation. Instead, the overarching motivation is to do something that makes more sense than just earning money, something that is good for society and the environment. They want to contribute to a greater purpose and to bring change into their companies. Let’s say the Head of Development at a carmaker who would like to convince others to bring in fuel cell and electric cars for example or the owner of a medium-sized clothing company who wants to promote change towards more sustainable textiles.

What are the most important aspects that you want to instill in your students?

Companies are key institutions and actors in society. They shape our consumption patterns and lifestyle, provide working space and many people spend a lot of time in these organisations. Therefore, I focus on encouraging people to achieve sustainable practices against all structural constraints, outdated thinking and perceived pressures.

Do business schools in general do enough in regards to sustainability?

There is enormous room for improvement. Many business schools take up sustainability like ethics as a two-hour course as a kind of add-on while not changing the core curriculum. But sustainability is rarely integrated into every single course and lesson as it is in our MBA sustainability management programme. We integrate sustainability into all subjects, including accounting, marketing, strategic management, human resources as sustainable development is not something that can be successfully achieved while not changing and further developing the core business.

Why is it so important to pay attention to sustainability in every aspect of a company?

Ignorance or weak consideration of sustainability increases business risks and you miss a lot of opportunities. Take the Volkswagen ‘Dieselgate’ example. Some managers thought they could play tricks in the diesel emissions affair, but it came at a huge cost of currently already more than 30 billion euros and they now need to catch up with more advanced technology. We will see whether they can still do that or whether it will cost many jobs if they fail. We saw similar stories when large electricity providers ignored renewable energy and then startup companies came in and took that market share away from them. Companies like the German RWE had to lay off several ten thousand employees because they ignored sustainability for too long.

How do you view the development of the MBA in Europe in the past years?

There have been many critical voices and often it has to do with the Harvard approach of rushing through pre-prepared case studies in classrooms. In our MBA program we prefer a combination of theories to conduct in-depth analyses, learning the strengths and limitations of different methods and discussions of possible solutions. We practice all this with illustrative and real case studies to learn in real contexts with real life problems how to apply the acquired knowledge.

Why are European schools, including your own, still lagging behind the US schools in rankings, though?

We haven’t responded to any rankings yet as we believe they are asking the wrong questions. For example, the issue is not if students earn a higher salary after graduation. They should be motivated by sustainability goals and that is a key criterion for us to choose who is admitted to the programme. If I look at myself: I could increase my salary substantially by working for a company and I have received such offers, but I have decided against maximizing my income and chose the freedom to deal with exciting topics. I have a role with societal value and that has a greater purpose than just increasing income to buy material products I do not really need.

How do you see the future of work and also of the MBA, particularly in the light of how politics are currently leading many countries away from globalisation back to protectionism?

A master of business administration knows how to organise and run a business successfully in turbulent times. We address approaches how to contribute to sustainable development, how to change markets and to drive the business agenda. The knowledge you gain should be adaptable anywhere and prepare you for change. The business world is clearly changing and characterised by a mix of globalisation and regional developments. Adidas for example decided to bring part of the production back to Germany as there are currently too many social and ecological problems in the textile and shoe production in many Asian countries. Technology like robots or 3-D-printing are bringing change to production – away from low skilled workers and pressure to cut salaries – back to skilled workers with a specialised knowledge and to reduce waste and transportation costs. Sustainability issues are currently changing markets substantially, not only in the car and textile industry. To be prepared for these changes and to be a driver for sustainable development is an exciting management challenge for change agents for sustainability who aim to create a positive future.


About Stefan Schaltegger

Stefan Schaltegger is a professor of Sustainability Management and head of the Centre for Sustainability Management (CSM) and the MBA Sustainability Management at Leuphana University Lueneburg, Germany. He founded the worldwide first MBA in Sustainability Management in 2003, with more than 450 alumni in corporate environmental, social and sustainability management.


How to be sustainable

To be 100 per cent sustainable, a company shouldn’t burden the environment in any way. For example, no emissions should be generated during production, and all waste generated would have to be composted. Every product, every service would need to have positive effects on humans and nature, for example, and the products of the company should encourage the customers to further sustainable consumption and disposal behavior.


MBA in Sustainability Management, Leuphana University, Lueneburg, Germany

The MBA Sustainability Management – Sustainament – was established in 2003 and is the worldwide first university distance learning MBA in corporate sustainability management.

At a glance

Degree: Master of Business Administration (MBA)

Lenght of Study: 2 terms full time or 4 terms extra-occupational

Language: German (80%), some courses in English language (about 20%)

Study Places: 40

Start Date: in March

Application Deadline: September 30

Costs: 14.990 Euro (60 CP-variant) or 18.890 Euro (90 CP-variant)



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