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MBAs compete for £5,000 sustainable business prize

Category : Business

Students think green as Marks & Spencer and Cranfield University unite to reward the best sustainable business idea

I’ve never been a dragon before, never mind a “green” dragon, so as I took my seat at the top table with the other judges of the M&S Sustainable Retailing Challenge, I wondered which of the terrifying females on the popular BBC TV programme I had been chosen to represent.

At a time when business schools are churning out thousands of MBA graduates, there appears to be a mismatch between what companies want and what the educators are providing. The courses themselves are increasingly under fire because they are perceived as focusing more on profit than issues such as sustainability and corporate and social responsibility (CSR).

This Dragons’ Den-style competition was the first major collaboration of its kind between Marks & Spencer and Cranfield University School of Management, to test whether today’s postgraduate students could be those with the best ideas for sustainable services and products for tomorrow’s businesses.

Teams – whittled down over months to just five MBA students from Europe’s 50 main business schools – were asked to design a product or service that could be adopted by the retailer as part of its sustainability drive.

It transpired at the end of judging that all five finalist teams were from UK business schools – Universities of Lancaster, Strathclyde and Warwick as well as two from Cranfield – although the participating students represented many far-flung countries and included those doing “distance learning” as well as older students taking a career break.

Of the other business schools, Exeter University’s One Planet MBA, now in its first full year with 26 full-time and 19 part-time students, is already receiving worldwide attention. Its main partner is the environmental charity WWF, but it has also linked up with Coca-Cola, Sony, Nokia, the Co-op and Lloyds Banking Group. Course director, Malcolm Kirkup, said that although sustainability has moved on from its old-fashioned “tree-hugging” image, there is still a long way to go in terms of devising postgraduate business courses that are relevant and useful.

He said: “The main MBA qualification is fundamentally flawed. Most focus on short-term profit and where sustainability is tackled, it tends to be in a rather tokenistic way, in just a couple of modules, for example. But we need to be better in preparing the business leaders of the future, the stewards of companies where resources will be even more limited than they are now.” Interestingly, 68% of the current student intake are women, which Kirkup believes could indicate their strong interest in leadership.

Elsewhere, Nottingham University’s Executive MBA has a specialist option in CSR, though it is only open to applicants with five years’ management experience.

The competition winners, from Warwick Business School, received a cheque for £5,000 for an idea which Mike Barry, head of M&S’s Plan A environmental programme, said he could happily present to the M&S board – a blueprint for a scheme to reward shoppers’ green behaviour.

Barry added: “We face a big challenge in creating a truly sustainable business – one that is a closed loop, only uses sustainable raw materials and improves human life wherever we touch it. We will only overcome this challenge by attracting and developing a new type of innovative business leader – smart at business but equally smart at addressing and understanding sustainability.”

It is hoped that – funding permitting – the challenge will become a regular, annual event.

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