Teaching cases award: a world of eco-dilemmas
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Case studies about sustainability are now playing a key role in shifting business school teaching away from the concept of shareholder primacy. As the Responsible Business Education Awards demonstrate, they cover an increasingly complex range of topics. Even so, some experts are calling for greater diversity in a teaching tool that, even when focused on sustainability, tends to explore the strategies of white men leading large companies in wealthy economies.
“Colleagues teaching in Latin America, Africa and Asia say it’s hard for students to engage when most cases are still about North American or European companies, particularly since business challenges depend on local and regional contexts,” says Mette Morsing, an award judge and head of the UN’s Principles for Responsible Management Education initiative.
Her view is shared by fellow judge Diane-Laure Arjaliès, associate professor at Canada’s Ivey Business School. “We tend to write case studies through a North American lens,” she says. “We need to get more diverse viewpoints into cases.”
Nevertheless, this category of the awards — which recognises the best teaching cases published in the past three years with sustainability and climate change as key learning objectives — reflects a wide geographical diversity, drawing on examples from Europe, North America, Asia, South America and Africa.
The entries also feature non-traditional organisations, such as social enterprises, community-driven initiatives and app designers. “That’s great, because in the past, we only used to have one type of case, which was mostly big NGOs [non-governmental organisations] or corporations,” says Arjaliès.
Topics in the shortlist range from how a social enterprise has worked to install solar-powered lighting in India to how a “green bank” created financing vehicles to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency in the US. Also covered are sustainable fashion, clean water and sanitation, electric vehicles, mobile apps and sustainable cities.
No easy answers
In one unusual approach that was highly commended by the judges, writers at Rotterdam School of Management produced a collection of case studies focusing on corporate engagement with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. They were based on a framework developed by Rob van Tulder, professor of international business-society management at RSM, and made available free online.
For van Tulder, the idea was to highlight that, when it comes to sustainability, there is often no single solution and even the best solution may come with complex trade-offs. “What we’re trying to achieve is an effort in critical thinking,” he says.
Morsing believes this philosophy should shape case studies. “I would like to have seen fewer cases that target a specific pre-defined ‘solution’,” she says. This, she explains, is because, in the real world, business challenges such as the circular economy and the greening of supply chains have no pre-set solutions. “We need to teach students to identify the real challenges and possible solutions through their own research and discussions with industry leaders.”
Carbon emissions reduction and waste management emerge as strong themes in the competition, with a smaller number of case studies featuring business approaches to human rights. Even so, while many of the shortlisted and winning cases lead with an environmental challenge, they also explore social issues, whether that is the impact of climate change on vulnerable communities or the role of consumers in advancing climate action.
Style and substance
This is true of one of the four winners, a case study on efforts by Patagonia, a US outdoor clothing company, to become carbon neutral by 2025. “Patagonia has made a significant effort not only in terms of sourcing renewable energy but also . . . in terms of livelihoods and minimum wages,” says Daniel Kammen, one of the authors.
What attracted the writers to Patagonia was the combination of its environmental goals and its concern for its impact on people, both employees and the enterprises in its supply chain.
“We started with energy because we knew they’d made progress there,” says Kammen, professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley. “But, as soon as you say that energy is not just about green or brown kilowatts, it’s also about the impact on water and land, you get this broader perspective.”
Waste not, want not
Similarly, another of the four winners — a case study on US cleaning products multinational SC Johnson — looks at a large company’s efforts to solve a complex environmental problem while examining its impact on communities.
The case study, which focuses on SC Johnson’s efforts to tackle the global crisis of plastic waste in oceans, features a partnership with Plastic Bank, a social enterprise, to increase recycling while addressing poverty. Their programme gives local waste collectors in countries such as Indonesia and Brazil digital tokens for the plastic they bring in, which they can use to buy goods and services.
For one of the authors, Syeda Maseeha, an adjunct research faculty member at India’s Icfai Business School, these kinds of cases also inspire students to think about their own role in tackling big global problems.
“Teaching responsible business through cases helps in understanding the concept of responsible business from various perspectives,” she says. But, she adds, it also allows students to “pick apart what they can do to help tackle issues such as climate change and global poverty”.
Natural wealth — for all
In fact, the natural world and community livelihoods are often inextricably linked, as demonstrated in another winning case study featuring South Africa’s Abelana Game Reserve and its efforts to promote ecotourism while benefiting local communities. The case examines a partnership that the Abelana management team developed with the game reserve and the Mashishimale community, which owns the land, to train workers, create jobs in the community and support local businesses.
It allows a variety of sustainability issues to be explored: from constructing roads and other infrastructure while minimising environmental impact to training employees to work in two luxury lodges (most had never stayed in a hotel before) and shifting how the community viewed animals — from short-term benefit as food to long-term value as part of sustainable tourism.
“We tried to bring out what sustainability means in an ecotourism destination,” says Amy Moore, an executive coach and facilitator for the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science. “What we thought was particularly interesting was the complexity of community engagement strategies and how important collaborative relationships are in cross-sector partnerships.”
The low-carbon lifestyle
For the fourth winner, environment and society come together in Ant Forest, a lifestyle app on the Chinese payment platform Alipay. The app grants “energy points” to users adopting low-carbon habits, such as cutting plastic waste or walking instead of driving to work. When they have enough energy points, Ant Forest, through its partners, plants a tree on their behalf in Inner Mongolia and other arid regions of China.
While the app, which was launched in 2016 as a corporate social responsibility initiative, has social impact (it promotes the health of users), the tree planting has environmental benefits in areas where forestation is being used to arrest desertification.
Initially, bringing together discussions of responsible business and climate change seemed challenging, says Hannah Chang, one of the authors and associate professor of marketing and director of PhD programmes at Singapore Management University’s Lee Kong Chian School of Business. “But the topic allowed us to merge different disciplinary angles together to form a more interdisciplinary case,” she says.
“Teaching it has been fun. People from different classes might have a different focus, but this allows for a flexibility in the discussions that students really enjoy.”
Ivey Business School
Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business
Hillcrest Asset Management/The Journal of Impact & ESG Investing
European Foundation for Management Development
Megan Kashner/Devin Rapson
Kellogg School of Management/ Impact & Sustainable Finance Faculty Consortium
Richard McCracken/Hazel Walker
The Case Centre
UN Principles for Responsible Management Education
Harvard Business School