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A place for sustainability values in the business world

Series contributor: Justus Wachs, Student Fellow

In the Winter 2023 semester, the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative (MSSI) piloted the Sustainability Education Fellows Program – in this program, instructors from different disciplines applied to (re)design a course through a sustainability lens. They were then paired with students, often from other faculties, to assist in the design process. I am a PhD student in the Faculty of Education, and I collaborated with Prof. Sanjith Gopalakrishnan and Prof. Javad Nasiry on the redesign of the course Sustainability and Operations, taught in the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill. In this post, I reflect on this collaboration.

The Sustainability and Operations course arose out of the acknowledgment that companies and businesses have a huge part to play in tackling sustainability crises. Reducing a business’ impact, such as its greenhouse gas emissions, entails creating an impact across the business itself (e.g., Scope 1 emissions) and vitally, its entire supply chain (e.g., Scope 2 and 3 emissions). Students learn how companies integrate environmental and social sustainability concerns across each stage of the supply chain. They also learn about global regulatory environments, how firms respond to them, and how to critically identify greenwashing behaviors. They also learn sustainability frameworks such as Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) reporting standards and life-cycle analysis methodologies. As an educator and activist in the environmental justice movement, I am familiar with the field of education’s long-standing tradition of advancing social and environmental justice concerns. Through traditions such as critical pedagogy, and seminal thinkers like Paulo Freire (e.g., Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970), many educators are familiar with inquiries into how societal values and norms are transmitted through learning processes and how education can be a vehicle to foster and transform certain values, like social justice and environmental stewardship.

The aspect that I enjoyed most in redesigning this course was informing these high-level considerations of sustainable values and worldviews with the pragmatism that business operations require. Businesses are faced with trade-offs between their profit motives and sustainability concerns, while navigating evolving consumer perceptions and regulatory environments. Learning how companies navigate this tension-filled space through innovations in products, sourcing, and product take-back and recycling initiatives was illuminating. This knowledge is helpful in critically analyzing when businesses genuinely advance original solutions and when they engage in vacuous greenwashing.

Most student-instructor pairs in the Fellows program designed a course to be taught in Fall 2023. A unique element of our collaboration was that the Sustainability and Operations course was already being taught during the Winter 2023 semester. Instead of designing the course from scratch, our collaboration, therefore, became an Action Learning project. During the semester, I helped Prof. Gopalakrishnan and Prof. Nasiry design lecture materials, and we iteratively reflected on the progress of the course. Now, after having taught the course, we are reflecting on what went well and how the course could be improved.

The process envisioned by the Fellows program team proved incredibly helpful in guiding this reflection. For example, courses are often designed primarily with content and assessment in mind. Yet, teaching to equip students to become active agents in sustainability transformations also entails imparting specific values and competencies (see, for example, Redman & Wiek, 2021). To help Fellow pairs reflect on what values they (implicitly or explicitly) impart and what they wanted their students to learn, we co-developed learning outcomes during the first retreat of the program in December 2022. The learning outcomes we developed included more traditional ones pertaining to quantitative tools and content relevant to supply chain management but also affective ones, capturing a sense of agency and clarity that we would like students to come away from this course with. Having these outcomes specified at the beginning of the collaboration proved incredibly useful for structuring the reflection after the course was taught once. Centering values and learning outcomes helps us move towards whole course alignment, where learning outcomes, teaching strategies, content, and assessment are harmonious. The excellent facilitated process envisioned by the program team, therefore, book-ended this Action Learning cycle beautifully, enabling us to reflect on the course effectively.

Considering the broader relevance of the Fellows program beyond this individual course, it is clear that inter- and transdisciplinary collaborations between academics and community stakeholders are vital to advance sustainability solutions. What often comes in the way of such collaborations is that sustainability is quite an elastic concept, and disciplinary backgrounds affect how academics define problems and solutions. The Fellows program brought together students and instructors from a wide variety of disciplines and provided enough of a clear framework to enable cooperation and enough space for dialogue and exchange to not impose a singular understanding or definition. We all had a nourishing space to share trials and errors of our attempts to weave sustainability into our teaching, reflect together, and learn from each other in the process. In my experience, this approach proved highly successful – I can still remember the buzz and excitement after the first program retreat. There’s still much work to be done to figure out how to enable sustainability collaborations across disciplines, but the Fellows program did a remarkable job in leading an open, emergent process to advance cross-disciplinary collaborations. Such programs will be vital in helping us tackle the urgent intersecting crises of the present day.

Learn more about including sustainability in your course content, teaching, or assessment approaches, by exploring the Sustainability Education Resources article in Teaching and Learning Services’ Teaching and Learning Knowledge Base.

Read more blog posts in this SEF series and find information about the McGill University Sustainability Education Fellows Program.

Redman, A., & Wiek, A. (2021). Competencies for advancing transformations towards sustainabilityFrontiers in Education, 6, 1–11. 

Photo credit: Image by Freepik

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