While serving with the Peace Corps in a small village in Cameroon, Justin Park noticed that the students in his English classes were failing to complete their daily homework assignments. “I quickly realized it was because they didn’t have enough electricity to see what they were doing at night,” he remembers. “The power grid was unreliable and most families couldn’t afford kerosene lamps. That was when I first became mindful of sustainability issues—both environmental and social.”
Years later, Justin completed an MBA at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management in order to accumulate the tools he needed to manage effectively within a company that helps renewable energy providers expand their market share. In one of his courses, Justin undertook a research project to compare business growth within two solar companies. The experience piqued his interest in the solar power industry. Today, he spearheads solar and battery business development in North America for Targray, a Montreal-based supplier with a leading global presence in the solar, biofuels, lithium-ion battery and energy storage sectors.
“When we talk about sustainability, we talk about environmental, economic, and social aspects,” Justin recognizes, “but in my industry, the focus is on the environmental side of things. I define a sustainable business as one that’s trying to achieve net negative carbon emissions.” From Justin’s perspective, the goal of achieving net zero emissions doesn’t go far enough.
Justin identifies a wide range of tangible actions that companies and employees can take to move the needle on global carbon reduction. “The first step for businesses is to start tracking what they’re emitting through business activities,” he says. While some companies will choose to invest directly in renewable energies like solar energy projects, change can start with initiatives as simple as composting, installing LED lighting, and promoting virtual instead of in-person meetings. Justin points to sources like a recent Bloomberg report, which predicts that 50 percent of global electricity generation will come from renewable energy sources by 2050, as evidence that the economy is moving in the right direction.
Across town, Natasha Alani serves as Chief Operations Officer at the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, which invests in sustainability-minded companies. “We look for innovative organizations that use capital differently or explore business models that build community capacity and wealth," she says. While earning her MBA at the Desautels Faculty of Management, Natasha ran a local food services company called Kiffin. From sourcing food locally and using zero-waste containers to emphasizing staff retention, Kiffin infuses sustainability into every aspect of its business model. “When you’re an entrepreneur, you design the business model,” says Natasha. “If sustainability is important to you, you make it work.”
In MBA classes like Strategies for Sustainable Development, Natasha gained exposure to business models that positioned sustainability initiatives as a catalyst for growth, not a limiting factor. Through McGill’s Not-for-Profit Consulting program, she worked on a team that helped local organizations implement more sustainable practices. Natasha pursued an MBA degree as a means to improve and scale her own company, but today she applies the knowledge she gleaned to bolster dozens of companies with a sustainable business model.
Promoting a sustainable mindset
From the perspective of John-Paul Ferguson, the Academic Director of the MBA Program at McGill University, students like Justin Park and Natasha Alani embody the mindset that the MBA program aims to cultivate. At the Desautels Faculty of Management, MBA students can declare a specialization in a number of fields, from business analytics to marketing. There is no plan to create a specialization in sustainability, Dr. Ferguson points out. “We want to help students realize sustainability is not a subject to learn—it’s a way of thinking about business processes,” he explains. “We’re on a mission to integrate change into every area of business by thinking seriously about sustainability in every one of our subject fields.”
Environmental sustainability forms a foundation for many sustainability issues, Dr. Ferguson acknowledges, but he prefers to view sustainability as “durable development.” In his view, durable practices are “practices you can continue into the future instead of burning through resources like they’re infinite, whether they’re fossil fuels or employees.” Promoting sustainability requires smarter management in every sphere of business. “Even in fields like finance, where we didn’t previously identify an obvious connection to sustainability, we see more and more students focused on using financial tools to incentivize more sustainable behaviour across industries,” says Dr. Ferguson. In logistics and operations, sustainable management may be developing zero waste production cycles. In accounting, it involves “triple bottom line accounting”—the practice of taking social, financial, and environmental impacts of decisions when projecting costs. In business analytics, it looks like integrating data analysis into decision-making to create more potential for sustainable business practices, from cattle ranches to grocery stores.
Going forward, top MBA programs will only succeed in their mission to produce effective managers if they make sustainability issues front and centre. “The writing is already on the wall,” Natasha believes. “The market is shifting; the oil-based economy is changing. If you’re going to build business leaders for tomorrow, sustainability has to be integrated into your thinking.”
“The earlier MBA students can reflect on sustainability issues, the better we will be prepared to assume leadership roles,” Justin agrees. “The world will look entirely different 30 years down the road. I want to be equipped to make decisions in that new world.”