Making A Difference: MBA Programs in Sustainability -
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MBA Programs to Master Sustainability

While MBA programs are expanding their offerings to include degrees in sustainability, companies are also reported to be in greater need of experts trained in the field, according to The New York Times.

An executive employment recruiter quoted in the Times said that the number of search requests for sustainability experts had risen about 40 percent in the past year. With this rising interest in qualified employees comes a number of advanced sustainability degrees to provide that training. MBA programs such as the Lipscomb University program available in Tennessee already offers an MBA concentration in sustainability as well as a dual degree in business and sustainability. Bard College in New York is one of the most recent schools to broaden offerings to include an MBA program in sustainability, which should be available starting the fall of 2012.

"Many people think sustainability is this weird 'green' thing, but it's really smart for business," said Scott McIntosh, who's pursuing a dual master's degree in business administration and sustainability at Lipscomb, while advising companies as part of his job at a Nashville public relations agency. "Sustainability can increase profits. I'm sure many companies will soon be hiring VPs in sustainability or maybe even a CSO or Chief sustainability Officer."

But what exactly is sustainability? And why has it become the rage within MBA programs? The missions of organizations such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, The Aspen Institute, Net Impact, Lipscomb, and Bard shed light on this new business school offering.

Learning how to make a difference in business school

Sustainability is integral to the continued supply of water, materials, and resources necessary to protect human health and the environment, according to the EPA. MBA programs in sustainability combine traditional business with courses that help students expand their knowledge in this field. The following sustainability courses are already available in many MBA programs.

  • Introduction to Green Building Design, Construction and Operation
  • Sustainable Energy, Water, and Land Management
  • Sustainable Enterprise
  • Sustainable Food Practice
  • Survey of Conflict Management

Besides studying sustainability, business school students are often encouraged to engage in professional experiences related to the practice. They may shadow sustainability professionals as part of the research process for their final theses or pursue internships to make a difference. For instance, in 2011, the Environmental Defense Fund, or EDF, placed interns in 78 companies, cities, and universities. These so-called Climate Corps fellows identified savings of $650 million and 440,000 metric tons of CO2, the equivalent of taking 87,000 vehicles off the road each year, according to the EDF.

Nonprofits can also a play a role in MBA programs and helping choose the one that might be beneficial to a career. The Aspen Institute, a nonprofit emphasizing values-based leadership, has popularized the sustainability concept for business schools by creating a ranking system called Beyond Grey Pinstripes, which recognizes MBA programs devoting class time and research resources to the practice. Net Impact, a business-and-sustainability based nonprofit, also has an impact on a wide range of MBA campuses. With a goal of educating students and professionals to have an effect that benefits not just the bottom line, but individuals and the environment, Net Impact also publishes the Business as UNusual guide that evaluates each program's commitment to corporate responsibility, sustainability, and social entrepreneurship.

Embarking in sustainability careers after MBA programs

Students pursuing MBA degrees in sustainability could find numerous career options in companies and startups, according to Bard College's Communications Director Mark Primoff.

"Our graduates will take corporate sustainability officer positions, overseeing an organization's sustainability and [Corporate Social Responsibility] initiatives," Primoff said. "Others will enter conventional management, financial, marketing, and HR roles, but will bring a fresh perspective to the position, enabling their company to account for the three bottom lines -- financial, environmental, and social -- associated with sustainable business."

MBA in sustainability graduates could find themselves prime candidates for positions in companies on the leading edge of corporate sustainability and responsibility; just think of Clif Bar, Patagonia and even General Electric, Primoff said. By supporting organic agriculture and ingredients in the production of its energy bars, Clif Bar seeks to create healthier and more sustainable communities. Patagonia promotes fair labor practices through its supply chain, the use of organic cotton in its clothing, and the protection of the environment. Among GE's diverse sustainability projects is the production of aircraft engines producing fewer emissions and making less noise.

MBA in sustainability graduates could also use their entrepreneurial spirit and MBA prowess to start companies that transform the way business is conducted and improve quality of life for their employees, customers, and communities, Primoff said.

Making your MBA degree sustainable

Combining your MBA with the study of sustainability during school or throughout internships may be a smart choice. After graduating from business school, you could have access to new jobs in exciting companies. You could also start a business focused on making not only a financial, but also an environmental and social difference, and truly have an important impact in the world.