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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

Tutor Q&A: The value of a sustainability education

CISL supervisors and contributors have extensive experience working to implement sustainability responses and are drawn from leading practices in industry, academia and civil society. We asked our sustainable business supervisors about the importance and impact of sustainability education for business leaders, and the sustainability trends and developments they are most excited about.

Why is sustainability education more important now than ever?

Dr Victoria Hurth, Fellow: We are in the most exciting paradigm shift in business that has perhaps ever been seen, and it couldn't come a moment too soon! Daily, leaders are stepping up to reconnect their organisations with society and the natural systems on which business flourishes. This means a move away from business-as-usual, which narrows the scope of business to profits as the pinnacle value it creates, to purpose-driven organisations which deliver on clear and long-term wellbeing goals, with profits powering this. This requires solid principles, insights and brave, vulnerable leadership at all levels of an organisation. 

Senior Associate: Business leadership in sustainability and human rights is more important than ever. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed how fragile and unsustainable business models are. Coupled with poor regulation and governance, millions of people have been vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination in precarious jobs that are poorly paid with no safety nets. Values-driven businesses that demonstrate their responsibilities for people and the planet, and not solely profit, are ultimately more successful and more sustainable. When people are treated with dignity and respect, they are happier, healthier and more productive. When environmental degradation and climate change are mitigated, we all benefit and future generations have hope for the planet.

Fellow: Sustainability issues are in the news daily; people are really feeling the scale and urgency of the issues now so our educational focus can move to what needs to be done and how. These are the final years where action can be taken to arrest the irreversible decline of the natural world, we need people and businesses to engage with the issues and act urgently, at scale.

Fellow: We are done with the arguments about whether we should worry about sustainability. Now we have to figure out how to communicate, execute, prioritise and deliver sustainability for our organisations and that requires new skills, new networks and new knowledge - all available with CISL programmes.

Dr Jenny Pope, Fellow: In my 10 years of working with students on the Master’s in Sustainability Leadership programme, the importance of formal education for sustainability has been reinforced for me over and over again. The professionals who enrol in this programme are often already well informed and passionate about sustainability but sometimes lack either the knowledge or the confidence to take the action they can see is needed. Sometimes they feel overwhelmed and paralysed by the complexities of the sustainability challenges the world faces. The programme brings together practical knowledge and academic rigour in a way that empowers students. It offers tools to enable them to navigate complexity, identify where impactful change can be made within their sphere of influence, make a convincing case for change and then bring about that change within the context of an organisation. This kind of education for sustainability is essential to ensure we have the competent, confident and inspired sustainability leaders that society needs now more than ever.

What are the sustainability trends or developments you're excited about?

Professor Angus Morrison-Saunders, Fellow: Real transition to a circular economy is starting to happen. I am especially interested in the possibilities of a universal basic income, trialled in part through government responses to the impacts of Covid-19 on employment. I see it as a potential means for simultaneously addressing issues of economic participation, equity and employment in the face of increasing automation, all delivered with dignity enabling citizens to participate meaningfully in cultural and environmental pursuits.

Richard Burrett, Fellow: I am excited about the stronger engagement of the finance sector around sustainability in general and climate change in particular. Net zero alignment and reporting commitments and strategies are being unveiled and there is also growing appreciation of the need to address biodiversity loss and natural capital with the same urgency as climate change. I expect UK institutions in particular to demonstrate leadership approaches in the run up to the Glasgow COP26. This can be a legacy benefit in the UK in the same way that Paris accelerated the performance of many French financial institutions around this agenda.

Justin DeKoszmovszky: The trend I'm most excited about, and in which I'm deeply involved, is the transition to an inclusive economy because it opens up opportunities for innovation, value creation and positive impact that can truly bend the arc of history towards a just and equitable future.

What benefits do students gain from participating in CISL’s postgraduate programmes?

Dr Victoria Hurth, Fellow: CISL is known for bridging the best of academic thinking and the fast-moving and practical challenges businesses face in moving to align themselves with a sustainable future. The way courses are designed means that whether you are just beginning to explore the greatest challenges of our time or have been building sustainability into your business role for many years, the content is just as relevant. The calibre of candidates and the level of interaction built into the programmes means that students usually leave with new friends and collaborators, as well as with a deepened sense of purpose combined with the skills to turn that energy into action.

Ian Ellison: Many people arrive expecting to learn new things, just as many leave with a whole new perspective on life. That’s very motivating.

Professor Angus Morrison-Saunders: Participants in CISL’s graduate programmes become part of a global network of sustainability advocates and leaders. They are empowered to be part of the change and solutions to sustainability issues, in often life-changing ways.

Richard Burrett: From my perspective, the multi-disciplinary approach that CISL takes delivers participants with a holistic understanding of the multi-facetted and interconnected system issues which need to be addressed if we are to deliver truly sustainable socio-economic wellbeing. This enables participants to see the bigger picture more clearly and allow them to focus in on their areas of personal or organisational interest more effectively.

Find out more about our part-time postgraduate programmes here. Download our brochure to receive further information.