What is a 'sustainable' MBA?
NEW YORK - APRIL 22: An unidentified woman holds a sign that reads "Engineers for a Sustainable World" during the March For Science on April 22, 2017 in New York. Source: Shutterstock

Warwick University tops this year’s Corporate Knights Better World MBA ranking. The University of Exeter Business School and Schulich School of Business at York University follow as the second and third best business schools offering sustainable MBAs respectively.

Before we dive deeper into the results, a closer look into what makes an MBA sustainable is necessary. We are accustomed to this highly popular postgraduate degree that covers critical areas of business like accounting, applied statistics, business communication, business ethics, business law, finance, managerial economics, management, entrepreneurship, marketing and operations in a manner most relevant to management analysis and strategy.

A sustainable MBA, on the other hand, is one that, in essence, puts environmental and social impacts first, before profits. For this particular ranking, business schools are measured on how they encourage future business leaders to contribute to building a better, more sustainable world through the following five indicators:

1. Institutes and centres (10 percent):
The number of research institutes and centres up to a maximum of five that are fully or substantially dedicated to areas of sustainable development.

2. Curriculum (30 percent):
Proportion of a school’s mandatory courses in its full-time MBA program that integrate relevant sustainable development themes.

3. Faculty research (50 percent):
The number of peer-reviewed publications in academic journals with sustainable development topics between 2015 and 2017 that were authored or co-authored by a faculty member of the business school, and the number of citations per faculty member.

4. Gender diversity (5 percent):
Percentage of female faculty within each business school.

5. Racial diversity (5 percent):
Percentage of faculty who can be identified by photo, name or biography as clearly not part of a country’s majority race or ethnic group.

Sustainability pervades this ranking methodology. It’s a marked difference from other MBA ranking indicators, which usually focus on graduate earnings, salary increase compared with pre-MBA salary, employability and career progression.

Traditional MBAs, taught by schools that rank highly on these profit-driven indicators have been criticised for producing business leaders who fail to provide adequate care for the environment, break labour laws and only promote white, well-off male executives.

Yet, Corporate Knights argue that business schools should be producing executives who do the opposite. Diversity and inclusion are critical social issues in sustainable business, but reports show a world that’s far from ideal. In 2017, the number of women on the boards of companies listed on the Financial Post 500 index increased by just one percent. Only 33 percent of the FP500 index identified as female.

For people of colour, indigenous peoples, people with disabilities and those who identify as LGBTQ+, businesses similarly underpay and under-represent.

This inequality persists, despite reports showing positive links between female leadership and company performance.

“There isn’t a business on the planet that doesn’t require an executive to be mindful of environmental and social impacts,” it said.

Canada, the progressive front-runner

Eleven Canadian business schools made the Top 40 of the Better World MBA rankings. Applications are up by almost eight percent while US business schools are experiencing declines.

The availability of sustainable MBAs in Canadian business schools may have something to do with that.

Julia Christensen Hughes, University of Guelph, argues in The Conversation that this is because:

“Canada offers an attractive destination for international students looking for a progressive environment in which to study, alongside the prospect of gaining Canadian work experience and residency following the completion of their degrees.”


Champions of the United Nations’ Principles of Responsible Management Education initiative, producing curricula and research in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the University of Guelph aims to improve life through business.

Programs include collaborative initiatives between business schools, thought leaders and associations, such as the dean’s and director’s cohort of the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative and the Canadian Federation of Business School Deans’ meetings on disruption and sustainability in education.

“MBA programs — the most dominant graduate degree in the world — must endeavour to develop the leaders so desperately needed. And this is where Canada can truly lead,” said Hughes.

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