The Green M.B.A.

What if Dilbert’s ruthless corporate bean-counter boss were
transformed into a socially responsible exec who cared as much
about the environment as he did about the year-end P&L
statement? The comic strip might be a lot less funny, but it would
reflect an innovative new model in the business world — the
‘green’ M.B.A.

According to a recent study by the international nonprofit Aspen
Institute, most M.B.A. students care even less about the
environmental and social impact of commerce after they
graduate from business school than they do before they enter.
‘Traditional business schools have been teaching that it is immoral
to be moral,’ explains Gifford Pinchot, a longtime socially
responsible business consultant. ‘They teach that protecting the
environment or caring for communities — unless it directly
benefits stockholders — is stealing from stockholders to pursue
your personal agenda.’

After years of training executives (many with an M.B.A. from
places like Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton) in the basics of
socially responsible business, Pinchot and his wife and business
partner, Elizabeth, decided to set their sights higher: In 2002
they founded the Bainbridge Graduate Institute (BGI), a school
dedicated to teaching business in the context of environmental and
social responsibility.

Located a short ferry ride from Seattle on Bainbridge Island,
BGI offers an M.B.A. program in sustainable business practice. (The
New College of California in Santa Rosa and the San Francisco-based
Presidio World College are the only other schools that offer
similar degrees.) BGI’s curriculum, Pinchot notes, takes a ‘triple
bottom line’ approach to business, teaching students to create
organizations that grow social and natural (or ecological) capital
as well as financial capital.

‘Our grand project is to give people all of the M.B.A. skills
that Dilbert makes fun of, while emphasizing the sustainability and
entrepreneurship they need to help make a positive impact on people
and the planet,’ says Rick Bunch, BGI’s executive director.

Courses include the core financial and management fundamentals
taught at traditional business schools, complemented by offerings
such as ‘Economics, Sustainability, and Human Welfare,’ ‘Operations
and Industrial Ecology,’ and ‘Vision, Ethics, and Leadership.’

Even though the socially responsible business world — think Ben
& Jerry’s, Patagonia, Seventh Generation — is nothing new (it
brings in about $226.8 billion annually), ‘green’ thinking in the
world of business education is, Bunch notes.

Business ethics are generally presented as ‘things society will
do to get in the way of your ability to make a profit,’ Bunch says.
‘About ten years ago things began to change when people like
[energy efficiency pioneer] Amory Lovins started preaching that
sustainable practice makes economic sense, that ‘If you use less
electricity, you save money. If you use fewer chemicals, you
pollute less, you save money.’ ‘

Student Kevin Hagen, a 41-year-old Seattle-area energy
efficiency consultant, came to BGI after years as an engineer and
manager in the aerospace and energy industries. A self-styled
‘closet Republican’ — most of BGI’s 50 students are politically
liberal, though Hagen insists he’s not alone — he turned down
Harvard Business School a decade ago, a decision he does not
regret. ‘If I had gone that route then, I’d be a very different
person today,’ he says.

Hagen argues that sustainability is neither a left- nor a
right-wing issue and says that BGI’s curriculum has armed him with
the numbers to make a convincing case to a business community wary
of environmental claims. ‘The bridge between activists and
businesspeople has to be built,’ he says, ‘and it’s happening right
here in the classroom.’

The need for this bridge is clear. In its 2003 survey, Beyond
Grey Pinstripes, the World Resources Institute found that fewer
than half of the top U.S. business schools offered any courses
linking social and environmental concerns to business, and the
courses that are available are virtually all electives. One of
BGI’s primary goals, Pinchot and Bunch say, is to influence other
business schools to incorporate sustainability and social justice
into their curricula.

One method they’re using to spread the gospel is bringing in
adjunct faculty from other institutions to develop and teach BGI
courses. And there is no shortage of takers. The list of adjunct
professors the school has assembled reads like a who’s who of green
business luminaries, including Lovins, evolutionary biologist
Elizabet Sahtouris, and industrial ecologist and longtime MIT
researcher John Ehrenfeld.

‘There are many faculty members in traditional business schools
who care about environmental and social responsibility but find
themselves restrained,’ Pinchot says. ‘BGI offers them a chance to
teach with their values fully expressed.’ And, he adds, their hard
work is already paying off. ‘Our adjunct faculty say they’re going
back to their schools and teaching very differently based on their
experience with us.’

So keep checking the funny papers — Dilbert’s dog-eat-dog
cubicle world could soon become a lot more sustainable.

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