How to (sustainably) succeed in business
With student interest in sustainable business practices on the rise, Raymond Paquin started to imagine fresh new ways to bring more of that ethos into the program at the John Molson School of Business.
“We wanted to approach sustainability from a different angle — from outside the classroom — where it might be more useful and practical,” says Paquin, an associate professor who teaches an elective called Sustainable Business Strategy. “The idea is for students to see what it’s like in the real world for local businesses wrestle with the challenges of running a sustainable enterprise every day.”
In search of a proof of concept and validation of student interest, Paquin and co-leader Paul Shrivastava, former director of the David O’Brien Centre for Sustainable Enterprise and current executive director of Future Earth, applied to the Curriculum Innovation Fund (CIF), a Concordia initiative that supports faculty members as they explore ways to improve classes and teaching methods.
A joint effort of the Office of the Provost and the School of Graduate Studies, the CIF facilitates a key objective of the university’s Academic Plan, to provide students with dynamic programs and engaging learning experiences.
Paquin and Shrivastava’s proposal led to the creation of a day-long, non-credit outing, called the MBA Sustainability Orientation. Students and participating faculty travelled on foot, bicycle and metro to visit local businesses with a commitment to sustainability and social justice.
“This kind of novel approach — bringing students to see alternative business models in action — is a meaningful way to build on the existing sustainability awareness in the JMSB curriculum,” says Catherine Bolton, Concordia’s vice-provost of Teaching and Learning. “It’s also a very useful barometer of student interest, and the event was well attended.”
Indeed, the MBA Sustainability Orientation day in September had 25 students participating.
“It was the perfect number for meaningful conversations at each location,” says Tejaswinee Jhunjhunwala, program coordinator at the David O’Brien Centre for Sustainable Enterprise and key organizer of the orientation.
Business students were exposed to sharing economies, collectives and non-hierarchical business structures — visiting places like ECTO, a cooperatively-owned co-working space; Robin des Bois, a not-for-profit restaurant; and Santropol Roulant, a non-profit that runs its own urban agriculture and meals-on-wheels program, where young people deliver meals to the homes of individuals living with a loss of autonomy, who are for the most part seniors. At these decidedly non-corporate organizations the definition of success extends beyond the bottom line, taking into account the organization’s impact on society and the environment.
“I believe that co-owning and co-operatives are the future of doing business,” says Jhunjhunwala. “We wanted to showcase that model for the students and give them alternatives to the conventional way of doing business.”
Another stop on the tour was the Saint-Michel Environmental Complex — situated on a former quarry and landfill, the non-profit site is now home to performance and exhibition space, a school for circus arts and an indoor skate park.
The TOHU Pavilion, the centre piece of the Cité des arts du cirque, was built to LEED Gold standards and even has its own vegetable garden and beehives, which supply produce and honey to the bistro. A 192-hectare area of the huge former dumpsite, purchased by the City of Montreal, is being converted into a public park.
“These kinds of places raise important questions about landfill, recycling and social justice,” Paquin says. “How do you reconcile the fact that people living next to landfill have historically higher instances of disease? Or the fact that their land values are lower? It brings up larger questions of who should pay for environmental destruction.”
Moving forward, Paquin would like to reach students who aren’t already concerned about sustainability.
“It’s easy to preach to the choir,” he says. “The next stage is talking to the larger student body. We have to gather a body of evidence that there’s value in integrating the topic into more traditional courses in the program.”