Wal-Mart's goal is zero waste by 2025. General Electric is increasing its investment in cleaner-technology research. Coca-Cola Enterprises is reducing the raw materials it uses in packaging. Gone are the days when sustainability was a concern only of ecofriendly start-ups: Now, companies of all types are starting to realize that operating in a way that doesn't compromise future generations can be good for the bottom line.
"Sustainability is going to be the new paradigm for business," says John Joseph, 33, who will graduate from Stanford University in 2009 with a joint M.B.A./M.S. degree in environment and resources and plans to work or consult in the same field. "A lot of the business students are realizing they're going to have to deal with this whether or not they're interested in it."
Business schools are reflecting the changes in the marketplace by integrating studies of corporate citizenship into their programs. "Just as an M.B.A. is expected to know how to do financial modeling or how to read a balance sheet or develop a marketing strategy, increasingly there will be an expectation they can address the core society, educational, and environmental challenges," says Kevin Thompson, senior program manager for corporate citizenship and corporate affairs at IBM.
Schools take different approaches. The Stanford Graduate School of Business offers several electives, including Environmental Entrepreneurship and Ethical Issues in the Biotech Industry, and students can earn a certificate in corporate social responsibility. Stanford has also incorporated social innovation into several required courses, including its new fall seminar, Critical Analytical Thinking. One session focused on Internet restrictions faced by Google in China. Likewise, the UCLA Anderson School of Management offers electives centered on topics like social entrepreneurship, business and the environment, and ethical considerations in business, but sustainability themes pop up in required classes like economics and strategy, too.
Maximum impact. "When a school is committed to having all students in all core courses touching on social and environmental themes, that's a sign the school is seriously committed to relevant issues," says Liz Maw, executive director of Net Impact, an organization with more than 100 B-school chapters that promotes using business for social good.
Both Stanford and Anderson complement classroom instruction with experiential learning, and so does the Johnson School at Cornell University, the alma mater of IBM's Thompson. There, for credit, M.B.A.'s can team up with a faculty mentor and students of other Cornell grad schools to work on company-sponsored projects throughout a semester.
"The issues we're trying to get students to wrestle with in the immersion are much more ambiguous, long term in nature," says Mark Milstein, director of Cornell's Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise. "You have to be very creative in problem-solving for those." Last spring, a team studied the potential global market for clean-coal technologies for silicon producer Dow Corning.
Milstein says a program that allows an M.B.A. student to get some experience "gives you something to talk about with potential employers." Indeed, recruiters have asked Jessica Meyer, 30, about her ventures at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina: For credit, she and a team consulted with natural-products manufacturer Burt's Bees about additional sustainability strategies.
Calling all alums. Meyer, who will graduate in 2008 with a concentration in sustainable enterprise, will begin a two-year program this summer working for Johnson & Johnson, where she hopes to be involved in procurement-focused sustainability initiatives. She says her school has a strong alumni network. "Kenan-Flagler was one of the first to build up its sustainable enterprise concentration," she says, "so we have a lot of alumni all over the country who are doing interesting things and are interested in talking to current M.B.A. students."
A helpful career center is important, too. Check if anyone is specifically assigned to help people find jobs in sustainability-related fields, suggests Net Impact's Maw, and ask about the strength of student clubs like hers on campus. Net Impact and the Aspen Institute Center for Business Education both produce guides on how programs are addressing social and environmental issues.