LUMS at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development

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Image courtesy of Sharlene Gandhi

People are increasingly losing faith in big business. Following the economic crisis a decade ago – which, as we all now know, was a by-product of poor regulation -, a series of stories on tax evasions, unethical sourcing, money laundering, and various other corporate scandals, the question on society’s mind is ‘Which company next?’ Being at a business school amidst the outbreak of these news stories forces reflection as to the kind of economy we want to enter as graduates. Is it too much to ask that the companies we work at have basic moral and ethical values? The search for profit maximisation and efficiency seems to think so.

Milton Friedman, controversial figure that he is, may have theorised that profit maximisation is the primary goal of any business, but most theorists, academics and businessmen themselves would probably argue that the purpose of business is to research, innovate and push its respective industry further in the quest for large scale improvements for society.  How, then, did we get from this naturally sustainable model of business to where we are today?

Dr Alison Stowell of the Organisation, Work and Technology department at LUMS runs a unique module that explores exactly this question. Every six months, LUMS hopefuls apply for the OWT232 module with a video interview and a CV. Ten winners are chosen to attend a five-day intensive preparation week, leading up to further five-day intensive week at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). Since this module began in 2015, Alison has taken groups of students to Paris, Chennai, Mexico City, and to three Liaison-Delegate meetings in Montreux, Switzerland.

This year’s Montreux cohort were a unique bunch; for the first time, the module was open to students studying for more niche degrees, and the team found itself full of Accounting, Finance, Marketing and Design students. The intensive preparation part of the module was a fascinating interplay of subject-specific knowledge and seeing where people’s individual interests lie. We had riveting discussions around the existing scientific state of our planet, corporate social responsibility, ethics, and how the sustainability movement comes in direct contrast to how we measure growth and development in the modern economy. Five days later, we were in awe, teeming with questions and ready to meet some sustainability professionals in Montreux two weeks later.

The Liaison-Delegate meeting takes place annually, with the picturesque backdrop of Lake Geneva, and sees sustainability professionals from a wide variety of sectors come together to discuss critical issues under the WBCSD’s five programme streams: Food, Land & Water, Energy & Circular Economies, Cities & Mobility, People, and Redefining Value. We soon came to realise that sustainability is a much more complex feat than we had imagined in the classrooms of Charles Carter just two weeks prior; not only was it a question of changing the economic system in which businesses are locked, but overhauling a culture of consumption that we, as citizens, find ourselves caught in.

The four-day conference featured yet more riveting discussion, my personal favourite being around the issues of food security, nutrition, food marketing and the global food supply chain. The complexity of sustainability often comes from the fact that solving one issue inevitably leads to another; the challenge that sustainability professionals face, therefore, is a constant weighing up of options that will both fulfil their businesses’ goals, and advance the economy towards a new, more socially and environmentally conscious model.

Thanks to Dr Rodney Irwin, Managing Director of the Redefining Value stream, and Dr Gail Whiteman, Professor-in-Residence at the WBCSD – and Director of the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business at Lancaster – LUMS students are the only students in the world with access to this prestigious meeting and the forward-thinking conversations that take place. This year, however, a group of Oxford MBA students gave a presentation about how to bridge the gap between finance and sustainability. Since our economic system seems to be at the very core of the issue, this was undoubtedly a much-needed piece of research to advance us towards a sustainable, circular economy.

It has historically been difficult to make the environment a salient issue; recently, however, with an influx of freak weather patterns and news of plastic polluting almost everything we eat and drink, we are having to dedicate more of our attention to how our activities as consumers are having adverse impacts on the very planet we rely so heavily on. Our final day on this fascinating journey was spent in the French Alps, snowshoeing in the Morzine-Avoriaz ski resort area just after the ski season had ended. Darren Axe, coordinator at Green Lancaster, led us through the region, which was eerily quiet with its lack of tourists. Between snowshoeing through a thick bed of snow – and under blistering heat – Darren and the team reflected on how tourism, mining, forestry and other human activities can have devastating impacts on the Alps, and knock-on impacts for regions surrounding them.  After weeks of evaluating the market and economy external to ourselves, this sustainability-in-action activity compelled us to take an introspective view on sustainability.

Practical experience underpins LUMS degrees; whether through a study abroad scheme, a placement year, or completion of a live consultancy brief, exposure to real business is fundamental for learning what business is about. The ten students have returned to LUMS with new approaches to their studies and graduate careers. Nam Le (Marketing Management, 4th year) says that OWT232 has been the ‘most unique experience’ that he has had at university. ‘The module elegantly combines the theoretical concepts learnt in class to larger discussions with real life companies on how complex ‘wicked problems’ can be in different contexts and the steps we need to take in order to collectively lessen our impact on earth’, says Tara Murphy (Marketing & Design, 2nd year). Francis Barton (Accounting & Finance, 3rd year) noted that ‘Investment/asset management companies seem to be taking a larger interest in sustainable companies through positive investing/ screening.’

We’d like to thank Alison Stowell and Marta Ferri for putting this wonderful experience together, Darren Axe for the Sustainability-in-Action excursion, and Dr Rodney Irwin and Dr Gail Whiteman for their hospitality. To the next OWT232 cohort, work hard, network hard, and get your applications ready for Singapore 2018!