The traditional MBA degree (Masters in Business Administration) requires coursework and other study of business from a primarily financial standpoint, with some attention to management of people, to conventional economic theory, and to business ethics. A sustainable MBA program includes these subjects, and also study of managing for environmental and social sustainability. These programs are sometimes called "green MBAs".
Sustainability in these programs is generally defined to include economic, environmental, and social sustainability, collectively known as the Triple Bottom Line. For each of these domains, sustainability means that it will be possible to continue through the foreseeable future, at least, without major breakdowns, such as
One of the themes of sustainable MBA education is the extent to which environmental and social sustainability can be achieved at a profit, a question by no means answered fully.
Sustainability MBA programs can vary significantly from one school to another, some may stress management, some may stress entrepreneurship, others simply add a few "green" classes to their existing MBA program. Many advise to look at a program's curriculum, history, vision, mission, and most of all, to go and attend a class before fully enrolling in a program, as transparency is espoused as core to a sustainable MBA.
The longest running fully integrated sustainability graduate school (founded 2003) is Presidio Graduate School with MBA programs in San Francisco and Seattle.
The following are some of the current business programs explicitly offering MBA degrees in sustainability. Although many traditional MBA programs have incorporated sustainability-related topics into their curriculum, this list only includes schools offering a specific degree or concentration in sustainability areas:
As interest in sustainability within MBA programs has increased, so has an interest on assessing their quality and different approaches. Beyond Grey Pinstripes, a biennial ranking and program survey, published by the Aspen Institute is based on the integration of social, environmental, and ethical stewardship into university curriculum and faculty research. The ranking also weights significantly the extent to which students are exposed to these topics throughout their studies. Participation in the survey requires US-based schools possess accreditation; international schools must also be accredited or be recognized as leading institutions. The 2009-2010 cycle consisted of 149 participating universities. The top-ranked school with a specialization in sustainability, Schulich, is Canadian. 63% of these schools were based in the US, while the remaining 37% were located throughout 24 countries. Although survey information from all participating schools is made available online, the top participating schools were ranked in the Aspen's Global 100 list. The 2011-2012 survey and ranking again include data from 149 universities.
Although not a ranking of business programs, Net Impact annually produces and publishes a graduate program guide titled Business as UNusual. The guide seeks to provide information about what graduate programs offer their students within the realm of corporate responsibility and sustainability. Data for the guide come from surveys completed by graduate student Net Impact chapter leaders and from chapter member surveys. The most recent report contains profiles of 95 business schools.
Many MBA programs which offer sustainability degrees or concentrations also appear in general business school rankings. US News & World Report, Business Week, Financial Times, The Economist, and the Wall Street Journal all publish rankings of selected MBA programs. While the methodologies of each differ, most weight ranks heavily by employment and salary statistics, standardized test scores, and surveys of corporate recruiters.
Followers of Milton Friedman and the Chicago school of economics often claim that business has no other duty than profits to shareholders, and that business therefore has a duty not to pursue environmental and social sustainability except where it increases profits. The extent to which such actions are profitable is much disputed. On the other hand, Friedman actually did not say that the duty to shareholders was absolute: corporations also had a duty to obey the law and compete fairly. Friedman's criticism has been debunked by legal scholars (e.g., Stout 2002), who have shown that Friedman had no legal basis for his conclusion. Corporate executives do not legally need to run the corporation for shareholders and could, in fact, operate the corporation to benefit society and environment. The fact that Friedman misunderstood corporate governance is no surprise as it was not his area of expertise, and the fact that the NYT Magazine allowed the mistake is not a surprise as it is not a double blind peer reviewed academic journal.
The debate must then turn to the question of what laws may properly be placed on corporate behavior to prevent fraud and other forms of malfeasance, and to ensure open and free competition, with what enforcement mechanisms. Also, whether corporate lobbying for subsidies and other legally-mandated advantages is fair, given that it is economically inefficient and indeed harmful. This question turns in part on the honesty and effectiveness of governments, where results are decidedly mixed. It also turns in part on the honesty and effectiveness of public pressure groups. Results there are also decidedly mixed.
Criticism of sustainable or "green MBAs" has also been heard from environmentalists and social activists. Some complain of corporate greenwashing, that is, of companies pretending to be sustainable or green by hiring graduates of these programs when the companies really are not. Some complain that the programs themselves are not sustainable enough, pointing to weaknesses in their curriculum and core proposition.
Another criticism relates to the sustainability skills gap. A recent study shows that business schools are too slow to adjust and the skills gap is broadening, regardless the recent surge of sustainable MBA programs. The report states that "environment and sustainability skills will be essential to plan the adaptations needed to survive and stay competitive", businesses unfortunately are ill prepared for these growing challenges and business schools are failing to offer enough environmental and ecological education, despite the increasing demand from businesses. In line with the IEMA report, several academics also criticize business schools emphasizing that the gap will be finally closed by those programs with sustainability at the core, which in most cases are emerging outside the business school world.