China’s business leaders have an increasingly important challenge: they have to drive their companies to achieve sustainability, not just profits.
Already, the top business schools in China have mandatory courses teaching sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) to all MBA and EMBA students. The challenge, though, is to get those students – and others – to put theory into practice.
At the main campus of the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB) in Beijing, there is even a requirement that all students, whether chairmen of state-owned enterprises or senior managers of private organisations, must complete a volunteering requirement. They have to mobilise their colleagues and build a community investment project as a team.
“In this way, there is a larger influence on the company,” says Anson Wong, assistant director of the CKGSB’s research centre on sustainable and inclusive development. “We believe that when there is one leading business person doing things the right way, others will follow.”
When established in 2002, CKGSB was one of the first business schools in the world to make an ethics course mandatory for all MBA students. At that time, ethics was a less debated topic in the world of banking and finance than it is now. As a result, the school’s 5,000 alumni and about 2,500 current students have taken the course, which today incorporates key aspects of sustainability and CSR.
By Wong’s definition, several Chinese business leaders are already implementing CSR principles in “the right way”.
One of them is Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba Group, whose company provided a 60 per cent discount on services for subscribers with a “gold” credit standing and free training for small- to medium-sized enterprises, when the financial tsunami hit in 2008. The company also partnered with Grameen Trust of Bangladesh in 2009 to form Grameen China, a micro-lending institution supporting small businesses in rural communities.
Another example is Wang Shi, founder of real estate company China Vanke Group, who has pioneered green buildings, biodiversity and impact investing and who, like, Ma, is a CKGSB alumnus.
Wong conducts field research into the CSR initiatives of domestic enterprises and government entities in China and uses them as case studies at CKGSB and for general audiences.
“All Chinese companies which try to implement CSR initiatives always encounter some challenges and have to work towards resolving them,” says Wong, who sees value in informing both mainland and international observers about efforts and successes in China.
In theory, very few people oppose sustainability. But in practice, the Chinese government still has some way to go in changing the attitudes and behaviour of mainland companies. In March 2013, the Ministry of Commerce issued official guidelines for Chinese businesses investing overseas. All state-owned enterprises are in the process of putting these into practice, though the guidelines are not compulsory in a legal sense.
It has also been difficult for business schools to teach the next generation of leaders to be socially and environmentally responsible.
Richard Brubaker, adjunct professor at the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), has taught more than 1,000 MBA students since 2009 about sustainability and CSR. He emphasises the practical application of CSR concepts, using case studies of both foreign and domestic brands.
“We begin with risk analysis,” he says. “But we also try to show students how entrepreneurs are identifying opportunities which are redefining industries.”
Previously, Brubaker had to convince students about the importance of CSR. Now, they generally accept the concepts and are keener to learn the tools related to implementation.
Brubaker’s CEIBS course on “business, society and environment” includes a practical project, which has inspired former students, for example, to set up a food bank in Shanghai and a waste recycling programme at the Shanghai World Expo.
Overseas companies investing in China have regularly hired CEIBS graduates to manage their CSR projects.
“Several firms are now expanding their internships and corporate consulting programmes into the school as well,” Brubaker says.
Demand for sustainability and CSR courses at Chinese business schools can only grow as the country will have to tackle an enormous environmental challenge in the years ahead.
“Water and air quality are deteriorating at a very fast pace,” says Brubaker, who has lived in China since 2002 and advised many international companies on sustainability issues. “If the goal is to urbanise another 300 million people and double the size of the economy in real terms, we will only see the size, scale and scope of challenges for China’s environment continue to grow.”
CEIBS is planning to start executive development programmes focusing on CSR and sustainability in 12 to 18 months’ time.
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