The role of ethics in teaching sustainability

Article based on research findings by Cristina Gimenez

Business schools, as organisations educating future professionals and business leaders, can have a significant impact in the advancement of sustainable development.

 

Incorporating sustainability in a core business course requires educators to examine and transform what they teach and how they teach it. The answer, says Esade’s Cristina Gimenez, lies in the concept of Ignatian pedagogy: the belief that education should transform the student at cognitive, emotional, and spiritual levels.

“There are two main reasons why considering sustainability in an operations and supply chain management (SCM) course is a must,” says Gimenez. “This is an area of the firm with a major contribution to its footprint, and it is one of the areas employing the most personnel. Taking care of their health, safety, and wellbeing is key.”

The four competences

In his 1982 book The competent manager: a model for effective performance competence, Richard Boyatzis defined competence as “an underlying characteristic of an employee (i.e., a motive, trait, skill, aspect of one’s self-image, social role, or a body of knowledge) which results in superior performance.” This implies that competence requires not only knowledge, but also emotional and relational skills, motives, and drivers.

More recently, in the case of supply chain professionals, Schulze, Bals & Johnsen studied the skills and competences required for implementing sustainability in supply networks. In their International Journal of Physical Distribution and Logistics Management article, they identified competences in four domains: cognition-oriented (general knowledge and understanding), social-oriented (communication skills and stakeholder management), function-oriented (skills and knowledge related with purchasing), and meta-oriented (commitment to change and self-reflection).

Competence requires not only knowledge, but also emotional and relational skills, motives and drivers

These descriptions bear a close resemblance to the four competences of Jesuit business education, as described in 1993 by Father Peter Hans Kolvenbach: “our goal as educators,” he said, is to “form men and women of competence, conscience, and compassionate commitment.”

“This Jesuit pedagogical tradition of educating the whole person under the vision of human excellence is fully in line with the competences needed to incorporate sustainability in business practice,” says Gimenez.

Incorporating sustainability in decision making

In September 2015, all United Nations member states agreed to 17 specific goals for reducing poverty and creating sustainable development for people, the planet, prosperity, peace, and partnerships.

In the context of an operations and SCM course, some of the critical issues that should be discussed include:

  • People: fair employment practices, health and safety, employee wellbeing, etc.
  • Planet: the environmental impact of operations and issues such as energy consumption, CO2 emissions, water consumption, preservation of resources, recycling, etc.
  • Prosperity: ensuring that all humans can enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives and that progress occurs in harmony with nature. In operational terms, this relates to decent work practices, clean tech, the reduction of inequalities through the implementation of responsible procurement, and the incorporation of business operation suppliers who offer fair conditions.
  • Peace: the sourcing of conflict-free minerals, etc.
  • Partnerships: an analysis of problems that cross geographies and sectors and require the collaboration of a variety of players (such as non-governmental and industry organisations), etc.

“Few textbooks incorporate ethical dilemmas in the operations and SCM decisions that are examined,” Gimenez points out. “This is key to introducing sustainability as a competitive priority. Students should be encouraged to examine how these decisions are approached and what the impact is on others.”

Prioritising shareholders and profits should be abandoned, she adds. “Customers, employees, suppliers and the communities in which organisations work are all key stakeholders to be considered. Decisions are not value-free and the moral and ethical consequences of our choices should be examined.”

climate warriors
Related content: Educating a new generation of climate warriors

Ethical dilemmas

Looking beyond shareholder primacy will require a shift in how managers operate, says Gimenez. Instead of a simple cost-benefit analysis, managers should adopt an unstructured ethical deliberation. “Incorporating ethical dilemmas in our class discussions may not seem easy,” she acknowledges. “However, there are some very useful guidelines that can be applied in any business education domain.”

In Stephen J. Porth’s 2011 book, Strategic management: a cross-functional approach, he suggests a three-stage process for assessing the moral and ethical consequences of strategic choices:

  1. Assess the potential consequences (intended and unintended) of each alternative for each stakeholder involved.
  2. Evaluate the alternatives based on three criteria: a utilitarian estimation of the aggregate welfare for all stakeholders; if all stakeholder rights and duties are respected; and the principles of fairness and justice.
  3. Determine if the proposed alternative or solution is ethical – based on the information obtained in stages 1 and 2.

“How we approach this analysis and discussion is key to developing the cognitive and emotional skills needed to deal with sustainability management,” says Gimenez.

Transformative learning

Active learning, critical thinking and reflection are the most effective ways of introducing the concept of sustainability to the learning process, Gimenez continues.

“Transformative learning requires a questioning attitude in the classroom and the ability of students to make their own interpretations rather than acting on the beliefs and judgments of others,” she explains. “To achieve this, business educators need to design a learning environment that fosters comfort with ambiguity and a lack of comfort with certainty.”

Esade classroom
Transformative learning requires a questioning attitude in the classroom and the ability of students to make their own interpretations (Photo: Esade)

The Ignatian pedagogical approach encourages students towards a path of maturity and personal growth, based on experiential learning and reflection. This method can be applied to an operations and SCM course, says Gimenez, by introducing sustainability topics and ethical dilemmas in decision making and adopting experiential learning methodologies – such as real problems and challenges, community service learning, and case studies that imply both moral and rational judgment in decision-making.

Business educators need to design a learning environment that fosters comfort with ambiguity and a lack of comfort with certainty

“Transformative learning implies reflecting on personal beliefs and moving towards a position of greater awareness, aspects related with our spiritual dimension,” she says. “Spirituality evokes interiority, self-knowledge and a de-centring with respect to the egocentric self. This enables one to open up and feel esteem for others. In turn, this leads to a commitment to others, especially the weakest and excluded. Spirituality also evokes integration of the different dimensions of human experience and the ability to address problems of meaning and value.”

The result, she concludes, is a change in beliefs and action. 

“An increased awareness by students of bias and assumptions, accompanied by a reassessment of one’s beliefs, leads to a commitment to sustainability in decision making.”

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