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Center for
Social Innovation

Center for Social Innovation

Turning out eco-MBAs

Ash Upadhyaya is no tree hugger. The 29-year-old from India has a master's degree in petroleum engineering, has worked as a reservoir engineer at Shell Oil and drives a Porsche Boxster that gets a measly 20 miles per gallon. Yet, he has spent the past two years studying environmentally sustainable business at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. "It just makes good business sense to be sustainable," he says.

Ash and others like him who call themselves "eco-MBAs" talk about the triple bottom line—people, planet and profit. And slowly, business schools are catching up. Stanford B-school professor Erica Plambeck offered the first environmental elective at the business school about seven years ago. Today Stanford ranks No. 1 on the Aspen Institute's 2007 "Beyond Grey Pinstripes" report, which rates how business schools integrate social and environmental responsibility into their curricula.

In 2001, when Aspen began ranking schools, only 34 % of those it surveyed offered any green courses. By 2007, 63 % did. Even the most traditional schools are in the environment. Harvard Business School students study cases such as Nestlé's sustainable cocoa agriculture, and the Wharton School will host a conference on eco MBA this fall.

Mainstream schools weren't changing fast enough for green-business icon Hunter Lovins. The book she coauthored in 1999, "Natural Capitalism," has become the textbook for sustainable management. In it, she argues that companies don't factor the environment into their spreadsheets. "We treat it as if it has a value of zero, and that's bad capitalism," she says. Business leaders needed to start thinking differently. So in 2003 Lovins helped found Presidio School of Management in San Francisco, where climate change permeates every part of the curriculum. Presidio is one of a handful of schools from Washington to Vermont now offering a "Green MBA" These being business schools, the term has actually been trademarked and is owned by the Dominican University of California.

Critics say such boutique business schools themselves are unsustainable. But Green MBAs insist they learn traditional skills while fostering unconventional business values. For the final project in accounting at Presidio, students analyse both a company's finances and its CSR (corporate social responsibility). Green MBAs take macroeconomics, but it includes the emerging field of "ecological economics." The cases they study examine companies like Clif Bar, which makes organic energy snacks.