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Science and Sustainability: 3 Steps for Business and Business Schools

(Photo by Joel Sartore

Sustainability has a bad wrap as being too soft. If you think it is soft, you don't really know what it is. It's like calling Star Wars an interesting science fiction movie....uh, hello??!! it's a little more than that. 

People whine that it "can't be defined" and that "everyone has their own definition" not realizing how paradoxical these statements are. If it can't be defined, how are there too many definitions for it...?

And some business people go so far as to say sustainability is quick to pick up, but it's the hard business skills that are difficult. This is important because we treat sustainability like it's just something to "familiarize yourself with" like you would with Snap Chat. Just take a few minutes with it and you'll get it.

Well, first, I still don't understand Snap Chat...but my larger point is that sustainability issues, concepts, technologies, frameworks, and terminology are NOT easy or straightforward. It is not a three step process or a matter of reading the Wikipedia page. It's more like chess than checkers: complex, strategic and perilous. 

One of the problems, at least in business, is the hidden hubris that we created and own sustainability. We didn't and we don't. Sustainable development has an origin story and it is based in good science, peace, economic development and international policy. 

We could say that sustainability came from science in the same way that entrepreneurship came from business or design came from art. So we need to involve science and scientists in our work in sustainability in the same way that artists would need to involve business people as they talk about entrepreneurship in the arts. 

Obvious? Maybe. But look at most business school sustainability programs and you may not see science anywhere. "That's because it's a business school NOT the sciences," you might say.  That's like saying business students shouldn't use computers or math because, after all, this isn't a school of computer science or mathematics!  But of course modern business relies heavily on these other disciplines. In fact, many of today's tech companies are almost entirely software and math: Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, etc. 

Similarly, modern business relies ENTIRELY on nature. And science is the great interpreter and voice of the natural world. 

In a word, sustainability has been adopted by business; it didn't originate with business. Business can apply it. Business can use it. Business can even help to make it a reality. But business doesn't own it. If anyone could make that claim, it would be the applied sciences. 

Businesses can and should:

Create the appropriate science advisory board

Invite input from NGO's who often have scientists on staff

Partner with research institutions to ensure good science is baked into operations

Business schools can and should:

Partner more effectively with schools of natural science, agriculture and the social sciences

Expose students to guest speakers and panels and seminars where they interact with scientists

Assign readings that provide an appropriate amount and depth of science around an issue like gender inequality, environmental justice or loss of wetlands

Business students are BUSINESS students. They need to have a strong and working comprehension of fundamentals of accounting, supply chain, finance, marketing, etc.

But as we teach them about environmental and social dimensions of business, we must make this a partnered activity.  We must find ways to work with and include science and scientific literacy. If we do not, I fear we paint over the complexity and depth. We infect a generation of students with the hubris of sustainable business:  that we need not understand the science to develop business solutions. 

The science may tell us we need to do more than we are comfortable with or able to do. 

But we should find out all we must do, even if we cannot do all we find out.  

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