Starting with this entry, I will be posting some of my memorable learning experiences while studying in the University of Manchester. The opening salvo of this chronicle-type series will cover sustainability as the new paradigm of corporate social responsibility…
Is sustainability just a buzzword? Or is it a reinvention of the environmentalism fad that caught the imagination of people in the 90’s only to evaporate in the post-9/11 era? People of my generation often wonder how we could ever fit in today’s weary world – have we become passive recipients of the burgeoning capitalist phenomenon or have we had enough of this post-modern apathy that has been plaguing our so-called couch potato existence?
It was against this backdrop that I found myself going to the United Kingdom to pursue a masters studies. With the naïveté of a freshly minted international student in Manchester, I left that mooring on sustainability tucked in my pocket because I had to face the demands of postgraduate studies in the business school. A few months later, I found myself dipping back into that pocket to take out sustainability and ponder upon it again when I took an elective module called Skills in Sustainability and Social Responsibility (SSSR). By enrolling in the module, I expected to discover better, and perhaps original, ways of looking at sustainability challenges and most importantly, provide creative solutions to the sustainability problems. The appeal of the class is its problem-based learning (PBL) approach, which was totally new to me.
Sustainability and Social Responsibility
At the beginning of the module, we were re-introduced to the concept of sustainable development. When I saw those three circles overlapping to create a common centre, memories from high school and college days came flooding back. The concept of sustainability as a universal goal is the result of a conference spearheaded by the United Nations in Stockholm, Sweden in 1972. It was from that conference that the Brundtland report titled Our Common Future was commissioned. In gist, sustainability is a macro-level framework used in addressing the so-called trilemma of our world – how to reconcile the conflicting natures of economics, environmentalism and equitable development. When I joined the corporate world, this was viewed in the triple bottomline paradigm – financial, ecological and social sustainability. It challenged firms to consider the ecological and social equity dimensions of doing business.
Most people confuse sustainability with the narrow concerns for ecological/environmental preservation. However, for those who had been working in responsible corporations, sustainability is viewed as a balance between financial gains and social/environmental impact. Progressive businesses are now viewing financial sustainability as something that is rooted in the firm’s long-term viability vis-à-vis sustainability of supply chains. It is not enough that firms pay taxes and follow laws. Codes of conduct and business ethics pervade the entire business system and while ensuring that responsible business is also practiced by its suppliers and partners. A stable economy and a healthy environment are not conflicting ideals, rather they should be treated as complementary goals that could actually be achieved in the 21st century sustainability paradigm. Most importantly, this paradigm does not exclude the community and the people that live in it. This is the third circle that completes the new paradigm, and yet most people do not immediately see this circle in the sustainability equation. This third circle is used to address the problem of social inequity. The other two circles, which strive for economic stability and environmental preservation converge with the third to meet the basic needs of man as well as create opportunities to satisfy each person’s aspiration for a better life.
In the business sector, the idea of running a sustainable operation is mostly rooted in the practice of corporate social responsibility (CSR). A company practices CSR because satisfied customers and happy stakeholders are desirable ends. Other firms practice CSR because it is a moral duty asked of them in a society of wants. A firm’s sustainability character can often be defined by its adherence to CSR and how it is being implemented as part of the overall corporate strategy. In the 21st century sustainability paradigm, the third circle has elevated stakeholders to a higher level of influence in that dimension. R. Edward Freeman sparked the stakeholder theory discussion in his book Stakeholder Approach to Strategic Management (1984) and this definition is most often quoted in CSR discussions: “[Stakeholder] is any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the organization’s objectives.” This stakeholder definition had always been at the centrepiece of the problem-solving strategy in our class. We have experienced the complexity of addressing stakeholder demands in the cases about water footprinting and food tracking. There were numerous stakeholders that were identified in those cases and recommending a solution was not easy knowing that trade-offs will definitely happen. In situations like these, a good track record in delivering CSR programs could be the best justification that a company could use, either lessening the reputational damage or shielding the organisation from unwieldy crisis situations.
As far as enabling change is concerned, I am of the belief that there is much work to be done. Since the Brundtlandt report, sustainability has made inroads but the journey is nowhere near its destination. Multilateral agreements and intergovernmental cooperation on sustainable projects are some of the results of that idea. I am mostly appreciative of the impact that sustainability had on the academe. One of the positive effects of Brundtland is that it launched the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development from 2005-2014. The University of Manchester goes one step in the right direction by integrating sustainability in the higher education curriculum. One can see the sustainability effort being devoted by the university through its policy on sustainability and through its course offerings that focus on the applied sciences of sustainability studies. Even if MBS has not offered a solely sustainability-based program yet, I believe that creating this particular module is also in congruence with this recent development. We are nearing towards the end of that decade and our mere participation in the SSSR class demonstrates the influence it has had in our academic and professional pursuits.
Here at the Manchester Business School, we are constantly reminded to apply original thinking. For a foreign student like me, there is a two-level process of learning in MBS: discovering new ways of thinking and doing things and relating them into our own individual contexts i.e. country of origin, racial background, undergraduate study, professional orientation, etc. For students who already have work experience prior to studying here, there is yet another process that needs to be undertaken, that of the process of un-learning old habits. As a PR practitioner back in my country, there is a wealth of practical knowledge that I had acquired from being involved in actual projects. To be able to understand and appreciate new knowledge, one has to learn how to check biases and to keep an open mind. Later on as critical thinking is required, one would have to revert to the shoes of a professional practitioner and examine whether or not the new learning is closely related to reality: is the theory and model responsive to real-life problems? Can we actually use it to frame the problem? Does it offer an appropriate solution to the dilemma at hand? Most importantly, do we have access to the right information? How could we use these to provide solutions to the case problems given to us?
The interplay of societal institutions combined with the historical role of business and its relationship with society produces quite different articulations of sustainability for each project given to us. I realised that the questions posed in those projects highlight the need to explore how economic institutions either enable or constrain the business’ articulation of social responsibility/sustainability.
The Learning So Far…
By breaking away from the usual elective courses that my other classmates chose, I realized that I pursued both my needs to experience a different learning environment and to interact with students outside the ambit of corporate communications and marketing. SSSR polished my knowledge on sustainability, expanded my understanding of the different facets of the sustainability paradigm and to a certain degree, provided me with extra professional skills that I will definitely use when I resume work in the Philippines. Armed with all these wonderful experiences, I am now more confident that I can go back to my country and complete the sustainability project I temporarily left. Sustainability is a destination that we aspire to reach with the selection of the sustainable pathways that we choose as we proceed along the journey. I will return richer with ideas, wiser with experience.