Chapter 7 Teaching Sustainability in Business

Teaching Sustainability in Business

Brooke Klassen

My Why

From my very first experience teaching business, I have tried to incorporate current, real-world issues into my teaching by making connections between those issues and business theory. I saw the Sustainability Faculty Fellows (SFF) program as a call to formalize my long-standing interest in embedding sustainability into my teaching. I want to keep pace with change and stay relevant—I can see sustainability becoming increasingly important in our college and university. Sustainability issues are literally everywhere, and universities can play a leadership role in addressing these issues. I want to be part of that positive wave of change at both a college and an institutional level.

What I Did in My Courses

I have taught five undergraduate and two graduate business courses in the past year as a tenure-track faculty member. I teach across two disciplines—management and marketing. Topics have included introductory and advanced marketing, venture development (business planning), and business and society.

Having learned about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and how to embed sustainability into my courses over the previous summer, I found it relatively easy to make connections between the SDGs and the content I was already covering. For anyone interested in a shortcut to this process, there is a free online tool called LinkedSDG that will analyze uploaded Word documents and make connections with SDGs, targets, and indicators.

Embedding sustainability into teaching is not that hard (and might even be fun?!) once you understand the many ways we can seek to be more sustainable. As is the case for many people, my understanding of sustainability started with the environment. Once I became acquainted with the SDGs, I understood more clearly how broad the concept actually is.

Learning Outcomes

I embedded sustainability learning outcomes across several of my business examples. One example from my introductory marketing course was to add the following learning outcome: “to engage in constructive classroom conversations about sustainability and reflect on your role as a responsible citizen in business and in life.” In future, I plan to include an outcome related to student actions on sustainability, but I wanted to start at a manageable pace by enhancing content and helping students develop their ability to share ideas around sustainability with others. In my graduate course on business and society, I included two sustainability-related learning outcomes:

  1. Describe the multiple responsibilities of business using stakeholder theory (stakeholder relations: consumers, community, and environment).
  2. Demonstrate the ability to integrate social responsibility and sustainability into managerial decision-making.

It worked well to focus on sustainability in courses that I had previously taught multiple times, because I had an intimate knowledge of the course content. If I had attempted to embed sustainability learning outcomes in a course that I had not previously taught, I’m quite certain I would have felt overwhelmed.

Teaching Practices

I use several teaching practices to help students develop sustainability competencies.

Case studies: We commonly use case studies and group work in business classes. I created several mini case studies based on recent articles in the media around sustainability-related marketing issues—including both companies seen as contributing to sustainability in a positive way and companies who missed the mark in terms of inauthentic or tone-deaf attempts at addressing sustainability issues. One case study involved a decision made by a consumer goods company to market a set of pink and purple pens only to women and the backlash that followed when they stood by their decision and refused to acknowledge their mistake. Students easily made connections to SDG 5 (Gender Equality).

Reflective practices: I incorporated some guided reflective discussions using the What? So What? Now What?model of reflection (Rolfe et al., 2001). In the past, I have included a written learning journal assignment in my online marketing classes, but the assignment has never achieved the outcomes I hoped for. Through the SFF program, I was exposed to several models of reflection and I realized I may not have been asking the right questions or giving students enough guidance about how to approach a reflection. Having an excellent set of questions to guide reflections on what they learned from a group project made the experience more meaningful for students. It also helped to make time for classroom conversations, as it created a sense of accountability—students needed to be able to communicate their thoughts with other students in class and not just with their professor in a written document.

Open Educational Practices: I have utilized Open Educational Practices (OEP) for many years. My first experience with OEP happened when I developed a textbook for a first-year academic skills seminar. We couldn’t find a suitable Canadian textbook, so with encouragement and funding from our university’s teaching and learning centre, my co-teacher and I adapted an openly licensed American academic success textbook.

When I use an Open Educational Resource in one of my classes (which I try to do as often as possible), I talk about the value I place on OEP as compared to the traditional student-pay model. In hallway conversations with students, I have been told how much they appreciate my efforts to keep the cost of course materials as low as possible, and how my passion for OEP affirms my commitment to sustainable teaching.

I also worked with senior marketing students to develop a code of conduct for their marketing consulting projects. For these projects, students work with a client organization over the term to develop a marketing plan and formal presentation summarizing their marketing recommendations. I abide by a code of conduct as a Certified Management Consultant and thought that my students should develop their own code to help guide their behaviour in their consulting projects. The code of conduct will be published as an open resource that will be accessible to faculty at other universities who engage in similar consulting project classes.

Community engaged learning: I recently designed an advanced marketing strategy course that includes community engaged learning. Some of our senior students have already completed co-op work terms or have part-time or summer work experience, but often they haven’t yet developed a complete marketing plan for a real organization when they get to my class.

We focus on a client operating in the nonprofit, social enterprise, or sustainability space. I make the arrangements with the client, and early in the term, the client makes a presentation to the class about their organization and their marketing challenges. Prior to the presentation, I take students through the basics of how to be a marketing consultant.

The students get invested in developing an effective marketing plan because they understand that it has real implications for the organization. The client attends the final presentations and has an opportunity to ask questions and make comments. Because they are presenting to a real client and not just to their professor in a simulated context, students display an increased level of preparation and professionalism compared to other class presentations.

Alignment of my values and behaviour: I noticed one theme that kept coming up in classroom conversations about marketing was around authenticity. As consumers and (for some) as future marketers, students in my class liked to talk about the intention behind the decisions companies make. Their comments showed that authenticity was important to them, and I recognized that they were also evaluating my conduct and comparing it to the values that I communicated to them.

At the start of each term, I talk about how my communication style is open and direct. If I am not modelling that behaviour throughout the term, I am not going to be seen as authentic. I have also been reading about reciprocity in teaching—the idea that the same rules you provide to students should also apply to you as an instructor. If you are not flexible about changing the deadline for an assignment (for example), you also have to meet the deadlines you provide to students about when they will receive feedback from you on assignments. Student evaluations of my teaching confirm that this practice is working.

Learning Activities

There are many ways to develop sustainability-focused learning activities.

Introducing sustainability and the SDGs: As an introduction to sustainability and the SDGs, I use a learning activity that references the Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World, an online resource created by the United Nations for people interested in finding ways to contribute to the SDGs. The activity is intended to deepen students’ understanding of sustainability and to help them make their own personal connections to the SDGs.

I start by asking, “Who can tell me what sustainability is?” Most of the answers focus on the environment and include specific sustainable actions, such as biking to work or recycling. Then I ask how they might measure sustainability; often the answers include buzzwords like “net zero” and “eco-friendly.” I ask if anyone has heard of the SDGs; most have not.

I then provide an overview of the SDGs, share some of the measures and targets, and include samples of the Canadian targets to ensure a local perspective. I engage the students in a think, pair, share exercise where they read about the SDGs on the UN website and identify three SDGs they have a personal connection to. Then students share their findings—including their reasons (their why) for each of their choices—with a partner.

Afterwards, as a large group, I get them to submit their top three SDGs in ranked order. I comment on the most popular choices (often not related directly to the environment), and I refer back to our earlier discussion around what sustainability is and how we now have a much broader definition of what it includes. Finally, I tie the SDGs back to our discipline and ask students which of the SDGs they think are most relevant in marketing.

Adapting activities you are already using: One of the best ways to start developing sustainability-focused learning activities is to assess the activities you are already using and determine where and how you can make connections to the sustainability framework you are aligning with (such as the SDGs). Once I had developed a good working knowledge of the SDGs, I could very quickly connect many of my activities to one or more of the goals.

For example, when I talk about product strategy, I show a video featuring Intermarché, a French grocery store chain, and their “inglorious fruits and vegetables” campaign that is trying to change consumer perceptions around “ugly” fruits and vegetables that are typically unsellable to consumers. I have added a new question about how this campaign might contribute to the SDGs. Students can make connections to SDG 2 (Zero Hunger), SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-being), and SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production). They are also interested in doing more research to understand how selling “ugly” produce in grocery stores might impact carbon footprints in relation to SDG 13 (Climate Action).

One of my most eye-opening experiences was adapting a learning activity related to the fast-fashion company Zara. In the past, I had students read an article that described Zara’s level of efficiency and their ability to pump out thousands of designs and get clothing items on the shelves more quickly than competitors because they own their entire supply chain. I then posed several discussion questions related to supply chains and marketing.

After reading Aja Barber’s (2021) book Consumed, I learned how fast fashion contributes to greenhouse gas emissions because the clothes are not meant to last and are quickly discarded. Many fast-fashion items that are donated to thrift stores do not sell, so they are shipped to the Global South and are now accumulating in mountainous landfills. The first time I shared this result of Zara’s innovative supply chain in class, I was almost brought to tears because I felt so ignorant, so unaware of the problems I was contributing to.

Now I provide a few examples from other parts of the world, including Sweden, where only 1% of trash goes to landfills because the Swedes are so diligent at recycling, composting, and converting remaining waste into energy. I ask students to discuss in small groups some of the ways they might help with this problem. They come up with lots of great ideas. Some students have noted that, as consumers and as marketers, we don’t need to follow the latest trends—which is challenging in the era of influencers hawking things nonstop on social media.

Instead of dropping the Zara learning activity, I found a way to adapt it based on all that I had learned about sustainability. I now take a critical eye to every example I provide to ensure I am sharing a balanced point of view.

Trying new activities: After participating in a metaphor exercise with the other Sustainability Faculty Fellows, where we were asked to choose an animal fact card that related to our understanding of sustainability (credit to Aditi Garg for this exercise), I decided to try it in my own classes. To complete the exercise, you need a set of animal fact cards (I got some from National Geographic) and space to spread them out so students can mingle and look at a few before making a choice. Students are asked to take a few minutes to think about how the facts on their chosen animal card relate to their ideas around sustainability. I provide the example of polar bears—one fact is that they can swim for very long periods of time (days, even). In my opinion, sustainability requires endurance and sustained effort—so the polar bear metaphor works as a good example to explain how I feel about sustainability.

I tried the exercise a few times with undergraduate classes. I gave them a few minutes to develop a couple of talking points to reduce any performance-related anxiety, and the students appeared to enjoy developing and sharing their metaphors. I have also tried it in a graduate-level business class in the MBA program with less success. Students in the graduate class came across as more cynical—they chose animals like chameleons and foxes—with reasoning that sustainability was always changing, hard to pin down, and sometimes seemed to be surrounded with “smoke and mirrors.”

Assessment Strategies

When talking about assessment strategies, authenticity comes up again. Authentic assessments allow students to apply what they have learned in ways they are likely to use after graduation. To create authentic assessments, you need to understand the skills and competencies students are likely to need after graduation and how they might apply them.

I developed an active learning assignment in my advanced marketing strategy class where students became experts on a current marketing topic and then taught that topic to the class in 20-minute presentations that had to involve some form of active learning. Many of the students incorporated sustainability concepts into their presentations, which was not required but showed that my inclusion of learning activities related to sustainability in the classroom was having an impact. Going forward, I plan to make sustainability a required component.

In my introductory marketing class, I created an in-class assignment where students designed a sustainable product that would contribute to a circular economy and a marketing strategy to support its launch. This was a good platform to discuss product strategies and new product development, but it didn’t focus enough attention on how to effectively market that product to potential consumers. The next time I teach the class I might bring an example of a sustainable product and have students focus on developing a product launch strategy for the existing product—making it more authentic in terms of something they might have to do in their future career as a marketer.

The Implications

This was the first time I purposefully embedded sustainability into my business classes, and I have already noticed a lot of positive outcomes. Inevitably, after sharing a topic or concept related to sustainability and the SDGs in a class, one or two students would come up to me afterwards and share their passion for a particular sustainability issue. My class was often the first time they had heard the topic brought up in a business class, and they often shared their appreciation for seeing sustainability-related topics included in the curriculum. Overall, aggregate student feedback indicated that students felt more confident having thoughtful discussions around sustainability and the SDGs after taking my class.

Through the fellowship, I am tasked with supporting my colleagues in business and encouraging them to embed sustainability learning outcomes in their classes. It is important to me to show others that it is not an insurmountable task. In fact, several examples of how this can be done are featured in this book. Colleagues are starting to reach out to discuss how they might embed more sustainability content into their classes, and I have been asked to serve on a subcommittee to develop sustainability-related goals in our college strategy. One of those goals will involve embedding sustainability into core classes across all four years of the undergraduate business degree curriculum.

My Reflections

As I reflect on the experience of embedding sustainability into my business classes, I recognize that there are always areas for improvement. For example, I plan to incorporate additional formative assessments of sustainability knowledge during the term to ensure students can get feedback before the final exam. I’m also looking for ways to give students more real-world applications of the concepts we’re talking about in class.

I plan to increase my own focus on sustainability-related research projects to be seen as a credible sustainability scholar. I believe students will be more receptive if they can see that my interest in the subject is authentic and demonstrated in various aspects of my personal and professional life.

The biggest challenge I have faced in this journey is having enough time. I have been striving to implement many changes in my classes and in my college, but I have a seven-course teaching load in addition to other job requirements. I did not feel that I had enough time to achieve everything I set out to do. However, I know I need to be kind to myself and be at peace with the place I am at right now. You can only change what is in front of you, going forward with the experiences and lessons that you have learned along the way.

Lessons Learned

Change Takes Longer Than You Expect

I have learned many lessons throughout this process. As someone who is self-motivated and likes to get things done, I have had to accept that change (particularly large, department- and college-wide change) takes longer than you might expect. It takes time to develop new content, new activities, and new ways of thinking about teaching.

I had a very long list of things that I wanted to change in the classes I teach, and midway through the term I had to accept that I wasn’t going to achieve everything I wanted to achieve in the first year.

Students Bring Their Own Perspectives

Before this experience, I naively assumed most students would be interested in doing their part to “save the world.” I now see that students come to my class with a variety of perspectives, and not all of them will buy in right away. This can be an opportunity for healthy discussion and debate.

In discussions around accountability for sustainability, I have seen students put sole responsibility on corporations because of their resources and the larger impacts of their activities. I try to anticipate these perspectives and come prepared to discuss them when they come up in class. I talk about how corporations are still led by people, and leaders can have impact as individuals.

Whenever an instructor modifies pedagogy, you need to anticipate that those changes won’t show up the same way in every class you teach. As I gained experience using sustainability learning activities, examples, and assessments in multiple sections of a class, I was reminded of how differently they can land depending on the culture and composition of students in a particular class. Some that were hits in one section were misses in another. And that’s okay—it’s better to keep learning and take another shot than to get discouraged or to throw something away because it didn’t work well the first or second time.

You can’t get everything perfect the first time around. Teaching about sustainability is ever evolving, and I am shifting my focus to the journey instead of trying to reach a certain destination.

No One Can Do This Work Alone

No one can do this work alone. Having a supportive peer network at my university was invaluable in keeping me motivated and accountable.

My department and college have been extremely supportive—I think the timing was right to invest in these types of initiatives. There was also formal recognition of my work, which increased my profile within my college and gave me a platform to work with others in my college toward embedding sustainability in our business programs. It would be much more challenging to make change happen if I didn’t have that support.

With funding from the SFF program, I was able to host an SDG multiplier training session in my college, and I was happy to see representation from all of our departments. It affirmed that we have a committed group of people who support our increasing focus on sustainability.

I didn’t feel that I could commit the time to train a teaching assistant to support my sustainability work during the year, so I didn’t seek one out. In hindsight, it would have been wonderful to have access to a teaching assistant who was already educated in sustainability. Perhaps investing in someone to take the same training that the fellows do would be an interesting way to approach this.

Overall, the SFF program was a great way to bring together faculty from different disciplines to learn from and share with each other. The fellowship might not have been successful without facilitators who were well versed in sustainability to lead us through the development of our courses.


Barber, A. (2021). Consumed: The need for collective change: Colonialism, climate change, and consumerism. Balance.

Rolfe, G., Freshwater, D., & Jasper, M. (2001). Critical reflection for nursing and the helping professions: A user’s guide. Palgrave Macmillan.


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Cultivating Change: A Prairie Guide to Sustainability Teaching and Learning Practices Copyright © by Aditi Garg; Brooke Klassen; Eric Micheels; Heather M. Ross; Kate Congreves; Shannon Forrester; Tate Cao; and Ulrich Teucher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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