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Business schools give students head start in sustainability

Published on: 21-Oct-2019

Young people in business schools used to just learn about investment and finance. Now they also have to tackle the conundrum of balancing sustainability and reaping profits. 

Squaring that circle so budding entrepreneurs and businessmen can hit the bottom line while also meeting sustainable goals is becoming an increasing focus at such schools.

The latest initiative comes from DBS Bank, which has linked up with Singapore Management University (SMU) to offer a major in sustainability for business students this year.

There are likely to be at least 30 students in the major in its first cohort this academic year, which started in August and ends next May. The number should progressively grow to 160 to 180 students with subsequent cohorts, SMU said.

Ms Karen Ngui, board member of DBS Foundation and head of group strategic marketing and communications at the bank, told The Straits Times: "We believe that organisations like DBS can play an important role in helping to create a more sustainable and inclusive society, while being cognisant that it takes a village to get there.

"For instance, our partnership with SMU on the DBS-SMU Sustainability Initiative was formed with the aim of cultivating a pool of talent and businesses to help Singapore become a world-class centre of sustainable development excellence."

Students who take up the sustainability major will gain skills that will help their future businesses adopt sound sustainability practices. 

The curriculum includes a business study mission overseas for students to see how sustainability issues are tackled in other cities so they can be inspired by the innovative practices outside Singapore.

They will also get to work with external clients such as local companies to resolve problems under the mentorship of a professor. 

Associate Professor Michelle Lee from the SMU Lee Kong Chian School of Business said: "There is definite value in getting students' hands dirty, so to speak, and giving them an appreciation of the complexities and ambiguities of real-world sustainability problems.

"The larger goal is to imbue in students the sense that they have a part to play in the health of our planet and our communities.

"While they are striving hard towards achieving career goals, we hope they come to see that those goals may become irrelevant if the world as we know it ceases to exist." 

The new major is also a response to the increasing employment opportunities in sustainability, Prof Lee added.

"Some companies support sustainability as a response to consumer demand, while others have come around to the idea that the triple bottom line of planet, people and profit, rather than just profit alone, has to be the way forward.

"More and more companies are also appointing chief sustainability officers, a fact that underscores how seriously companies now take sustainability."

The National University of Singapore (NUS) also has modules that teach both undergraduate and master's students about sustainability in finance. These modules were incorporated into the business programmes in the past five years and look at topics such as impact investing and corporate governance in relation to sustainability.

Associate Professor Lawrence Loh of the NUS Business School said there is more awareness of sustainability now among entrepreneurs and investors, particularly the millennials, who have grown up in a more sustainability-conscious world. 

"The traditional emphasis has been on profit but, increasingly, consumers and investors are looking more holistically into companies for their commitment to sustainability," he added. 

"Increasingly, research... has pointed to a positive relationship between firm performance and sustainability. While the older notion is that there is a trade-off between sustainability and other business imperatives, we are now witnessing a critical alignment.

"This is noteworthy as companies will see that it is in their self-interest to be sustainable." 

All students at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have to read a core module on sustainability. Such modules were also introduced progressively at the Nanyang Business School from 2012 and attract an average of 160 students a year.

The modules include topics such as examining corrupt practices, human rights abuses and environmental issues, the impact of environmental sustainability on industry practices and management policies, and making sustainability a central component of successful business outcomes.

Associate Professor Low Kin Yew of NTU's Nanyang Business School said: "Sustainability issues, where relevant, are also woven into the other business courses. This is important because sustainability plays a key role in business.

"Business entities that incorporate sustainability practices into their business operations can benefit directly or indirectly, including productivity gains, corporate image and human capital. In the long run, expenditures on sustainability in an organisation become an investment, rather than cost."

SMU undergraduate Ernest Lim, 23, interned at CaptionCube, a social enterprise that hires people with disabilities as transcribers for video-captioning services.

He said: "Before I started my internship, I knew very little about social enterprises in Singapore... Here, I have learnt to plan and implement human resource policies that are suitable for persons with disabilities while, at the same time, aligned with the firm's business strategy."

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