Best Business Schools for Environmentalists (2023-2024)

Exploding Ford Pintos across America throughout the 1970s should have taught auto executives worldwide an unforgettable lesson: how swiftly social disapproval could destroy sales and stock prices. However, that’s a lesson the current generation of executives at Volkswagen never learned.

What triggered the collapses in Volkswagen’s sales and market capitalization in 2015 didn’t resemble all the injuries and lives lost due to fuel tanks mounted behind rear bumpers, as with the Pinto and the similar Mercury Bobcat. Nor was it anything like Ford’s shocking cost-benefit analysis arguing against the automaker’s recalling and repairing hundreds of thousands of fuel tanks. Detailed in the infamous “Pinto memo,” that study ruthlessly concluded the $11 per-car repair cost would far exceed the $49.5 million borne by the automaker to pay for the estimated 360 wrongful death and personal injury verdicts and settlements each year.

Instead, Volkswagen’s scandal blew up primarily because of an environmental sustainability issue. VW had intentionally programmed diesel engines with software that would only activate emission control systems during lab tests, but never during driving. Volkswagen deployed this software in about 11 million cars worldwide. As a result, each car emitted roughly forty times the pollutants detected during lab testing.

The consequences suffered by Volkswagen were indeed staggering. The stock price fell by about a third immediately following news that regulators around the globe had launched investigations. Sales plummeted by 25 percent in the United States. And as of March 2022, VW had already paid over $34 billion in fines, criminal penalties, and costs. One executive received a seven-year prison sentence in the United States.

The devastating effects of climate change on the environment have been well-documented. Besides warmer temperatures, they include melting glaciers, rising coastal sea levels, droughts, and changes in ecosystems that can diminish agricultural supplies. Yet, at a time when many policymakers around the world are so alarmed about these effects, many suggested that Volkswagen got off easy compared to the consequences they argue that the firm and its leadership should have suffered, especially from European regulators and courts.

Fortunately, politicians and automakers in the United States are taking more significant steps to recommit to a greener future. For example, on his first day in office in January 2021, US President Joe Biden brought his campaign promises to life by rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and announcing plans to host a virtual climate summit for world leaders on Earth Day.

And in February 2021, General Motors chief executive Mary Barra stated that by 2035 all new cars and trucks sold will be zero-emission. This is a bold promise by a quintessentially American company with plants and factories scattered through the United States, which is the second-highest producer of CO2 emissions globally.

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The Corporate Knights Better World MBA Ranking

With increased international attention on climate change, it’s no wonder that business schools have started to train their students in environmental sustainability. Probably the most credible and unbiased monitor of this new trend is the self-styled “magazine for clean capitalism,” the Toronto-based Corporate Knights Magazine.

CK claims to reach “435,000 of the world’s most influential business and political decision-makers” as the largest circulating magazine focusing on sustainability and responsible business. Most Washington politicos should be familiar with Corporate Knights because Sunday editions of the Washington Post include the magazine four times annually.

For the past 17 years, the publication has ranked the sustainability performance of business schools. It lists the top results dating back to 2010 on its website. In addition, CK automatically evaluates all of the schools listed by the Financial Times 100 ranking and invites participation from schools accredited by the AACSB and other international accreditation boards. The current 2021 rating lists the 40 top MBA programs that put intentional emphasis on sustainable development.

Corporate Knights Methodology

CK overwhelmingly bases their rankings’ methodology on research and teaching; these two factors account for 80 percent of a school’s score. Using public data, the publication weighs published peer-reviewed faculty research on sustainable development topics using public data. This is 50 percent of a school’s ranking.

Next, based on website course descriptions, CK also assesses the percentage of a school’s required core MBA courses that focus on the integration of sustainability. This is 30 percent of the ranking.

CK also devotes 10 percent of the ranking’s weight to the number of research institutes affiliated with the business school with a sustainable development focus.

CK includes two ratings that more completely account for the “triple bottom line” business sustainability concept: social well-being, environmental protection, and economic performance. Some refer to this triad as the “three P’s,” or “people, planet, and profit.” In addition, CK’s social factors assess diversity among the faculty; these two ratings of faculty gender and racial diversity account for 5 percent each.

One way to improve CK’s future rankings would be to account for a school’s online MBA curricula. After all, the new breed of online programs tends to be inherently more “green” because these programs don’t require energy for relocation or weekday commutes to campus. However, CK currently evaluates only the curricula within full-time on-campus programs without considering the online curricula a given school offers.

For that reason, below, we emphasize online programs by profiling four schools that Corporate Knights ranks highly, which also offer online green MBA programs along with their full-time residential curricula. But first, we spotlight one university’s business school that deserves recognition as a worldwide model because it demonstrates such a superb emphasis on environmental sustainability.

The Premier Green MBA Program

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT Sloan School of Management

MIT’s Sloan School of Management finished #1 in the Corporate Knights rankings of United States schools for two consecutive years, in 2016 and 2017. During the past seven years, the school has consistently ranked in the global list’s top ten during the past seven years, placing #8 in 2015, #2 in 2016, #7 in 2017, #10 in 2018, and #6 in 2019.

In this Poets & Quants article, admission consultant Betsy Massar interviews Professor Jason Jay, the director of Sloan’s Sustainability Initiative, who explains some of the reasons why Corporate Knights and other authorities such as Net Impact have ranked Sloan’s program so highly.

To summarize, the primary curriculum for Sloan students interested in environmental and social impact is MIT’s sustainability certificate. This curriculum is a campus-wide program offered by the business school to all master’s degree candidates at MIT.

The sustainability certificate first requires a course in system dynamics, a foundation subject within the discipline. The program also directs the Sustainable Business Laboratory, a 13-year-old class where students work in teams on problems faced by actual firms attempting to advance sustainability strategies. Coursework includes a sustainability capstone class during students’ final term and a broad selection of sustainability electives.

Currently, one hot research topic within the Sustainability Initiative involves climate gentrification. First identified by Harvard researchers, this effect relates property values to climate change.

Unlike many areas of the nation, in southeastern Florida, low-income residents live in higher elevation areas, while higher-income residents live in luxurious waterfront properties. But before long, rising tides brought about by global warming will compromise many of those beachfront homes. As a result, some forecasts warn that half of Metropolitan Miami-Dade County will be underwater by the year 2100.

Soon, forgotten parts of the area could become hot commodities as developers bid up prices in newly desirable areas. However, that trend will displace longtime inhabitants. As portrayed in this video on the business school’s website, the Sustainability Initiative’s leaders traveled to Miami-Dade County in February 2019 to study climate-driven inequality first-hand.

Leading Green MBA Programs with On-Campus MBAs

University of Vermont, Grossman School of Business

The University of Vermont’s Grossman School of Business has appeared in the top 10 of Corporate Knights ratings since the school was first evaluated in 2016, and has been climbing the rankings ever since. UVM was ranked #10 in 2016, #8 in 2017, #5 in 2018, #4 in 2019, #10 in 2020, #8 in 2021, and #9 for the most recent ranking in 2022. UVM is the highest-ranked US-based institution on the CK Better World MBA: Top 40 list.

The rise in the rankings rests on UVM’s sustainable innovation MBA program. Created in 2014, the sustainable innovation MBA program replaced the school’s traditional MBA program. Although it retained foundational toolkits, the new iteration shifted the central focus of the MBA toward inclusivity, sustainability, and preparing graduates to transform current business and create new companies better equipped for corporate sustainability and improved environmental strategies. Instead of offering a few sustainability electives to supplement a traditional MBA that reinforces the current ways in which business is conducted, UVA’s 100 percent focus on sustainable innovation is set up to disrupt and reinvent the industry.

UVM’s commitment to being a leader in the realm of eco-centered business education extends beyond the classroom. For example, UVM’s Gund Institute for the Environment is engaged in a four-pronged research strategy seeking to address climate solutions, health and well-being, sustainable agriculture, and resilient communities. Among others, considerable resources for sustainability include the Institute for Energy and the Environment and the ENACTUS club, an entrepreneurship club exploring the utilization of business concepts to enable human progress and shape a more sustainable world.

Although small, the UVM program is quite mighty. In addition to being recognized by Corporate Knights, UVM has earned several accolades from other major-ranking organizations. For example, the Princeton Review ranked UVM’s MBA program as the #1 green MBA program in 2018 and 2019, rising from its #4 debut in 2016 and its #2 ranking in 2017. In 2019, UVM’s MBA program was named a top MBA program three years in a row by CEO Magazine.

Georgia Institute of Technology, Scheller College of Business

Appearing on the Corporate Knights rankings every year since 2013, the Scheller College of Business is a green business school steadily doing the right thing for the earth. With the exceptions of 2013 and 2016, Georgia Tech has been in the global top 10 for sustainability, earning a rank of #8 in 2014, #6 in 2015, #10 in 2017, #6 in 2018, #9 in 2019, #15 in 2020, and #19 in 2021.

Although the center of Georgia Tech’s green MBA program curriculum is where technology and business meet, there are two solid options for those who want to add sustainability to the intersection. Students can choose a concentration in strategic sustainability, which is a nine-credit-hour, three-course focus helping students to understand business trends and opportunities related to environmental concerns.

Students can also choose to pursue an immersive MBA track called, “innovating for sustainability.” In this track, students take nine credit hours of sustainability coursework and one practicum course where they have the opportunity to work on real-world sustainability issues with partner companies.

The push for sustainability in business at Georgia Tech is led by efforts of the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business. Currently, many faculty members on the MBA program at Georgia Tech are currently affiliated with the center, conducting research on sustainability in the realms of business value, innovation, and competitive advantage; operations, supply management, and the circular economy; and law, ethics, and transparency.

In regard to Georgia Tech’s commitment to sustainability, the faculty director Beril Toktay, offered the following in a Scheller news report:

One of Scheller’s core strengths that contributes to our consistently high ranking is the breadth of our faculty’s publications in diverse areas of sustainability. Topics of papers submitted for this year’s ranking ranged from extended producer responsibility and geographic clustering of corruption to pharmaceutical marketing and viewing tax policy through a sustainability lens. We are so grateful to our faculty for their dedication to cutting-edge research and for serving as role models for our students.

Fordham University, Gabelli School of Business

Evaluated by the Corporate Knights for the first time in 2018, Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business earned a #11 ranking and dropped to #12 in 2019. Despite the drop, in 2020, Fordham returned to the top ten on the CK list and is currently the #24 business school in the U.S. for sustainability.

Fordham offers a secondary concentration in global sustainability for MBA students enrolled in the Professional MBA program. Over three courses (nine credits), students can choose to cultivate expertise in sustainability by studying topics such as conservation biology, developing the sustainability mindset, innovation in business and energy, and consumer social responsibility.

Fordham also offers sustainability-minded students the opportunity for civic engagement in sustainability through a graduate student organization called Net Impact and through a campus-based civic organization named the Social Innovation Collaboratory. Net Impact is business-specific and seeks to bring together business minds who believe that it’s possible to improve profits and the planet. The Social Innovation Collaboratory attempts to inspire the Fordham campus into social innovation leadership through curricular activities, cross audience collaborations, and community engagement.

In addition to the curricular and civic opportunities, Gabelli partnered with PVH Corporation—a global fashion company—in 2020 to expand offerings and become a leader in sustainable business education. The $1 million in funding from PVH will enable Gabelli to create a yearly sustainability conference, faculty fellowship and visiting scholars programs, a sustainability lecture series, and an expansion of current academic offerings.

The partnership itself is also a step in the direction of collaborative innovation. According to a 2020 press release, the PVH Chairman & CEO and Gabeli alum Manny Chirico, believes this partnership has the power to prove the efficacy of cross-industry collaboration:

This partnership demonstrates PVH and Fordham’s shared commitment to educate the future by harnessing the power of social responsibility for both financial successes and societal impact

University of California at Berkeley, Haas School of Business

The Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley has appeared on the Corporate Knights ranking since 2014. With a ranking of #15 in 2014, #21 in 2015, #32 in 2016, #39 in 2017, #31 in 2018, #23 in 2019, #19 in 2020, and #31 in 2021 UC Berkeley has had a fairly non-linear progression throughout the years. Despite the lower rankings in the pool of the best worldwide, UC Berkeley’s MBA is the #7 overall program according to U.S. News & World Report’s list of Best Business Schools in 2022.

While the MBA program at Haas is fairly traditional, sustainability makes a strong showing in the offerings for the applied innovation elective requirement. Implemented through experiential learning methodology, students enrolled at Haas have the ability to work with major companies like Wells Fargo, Tesla, Autodesk, and more on business strategies like social sector solutions, strategic and sustainable business solutions, cleantech to market, and socially responsible investing.

In addition to experiential coursework, students at UC Berkeley can engage with faculty who are completing research and work in the Institute for Business and Social Impact (IBSI). Through the Center for Responsible Business (CRB)—a core component of the IBSI—students have access to events, research, and curriculum with a focus in creating businesses that contribute to a sustainable future. Recent research includes case studies on Patagonia’s packaging, Carlsberg’s bottles, Patagonia’s carbon-neutral quest, and more.

Sustainable energy-minded entrepreneurs and business leaders will also benefit from access to the Energy Institute at Haas (EI). EI is actively working to create a more economically and environmentally sustainable energy future through research, teaching, and policy engagement. For example, UC Berkeley scholars are currently working to evaluate climate change actions and policies like the phase-out of nuclear power, electric vehicle taxation policy, the impact of air-conditioning and heating, carbon taxes, and more.

Exceptional Green Business Schools with Online MBA Programs

Although none made it into the Corporate Knights top 40 in 2020, the business schools listed below have a history of doing good work in the realm of sustainability. Each offering an online MBA program, the following schools are great options for those who are looking for the flexibility of online programming combined with a social mission of making business good for our earth.

George Washington University, School of Business

Corporate Knights ranked GWU #8 in 2016, #9 in 2017, and #13 in 2018 among U.S. schools. The school offers MBA students a wide range of course options that empower them to align their “personalized curriculum” with their professional objectives. That kind of customization provides a compelling advantage within a university with such rich instructional resources on sustainability.

The university’s emphasis on sustainability is vast and campus-wide, with approximately 470 courses addressing sustainability topics. We counted 20 such courses and three certificate programs in the business school related to sustainability that would be appropriate for MBA students. However, it’s not clear which classes GWU currently delivers online from this list.

Nevertheless, GWU’s MBA program has an excellent track record at awarding credits for electives taken outside the business school. It would seem reasonable to expect that in a university with such a robust online division, enough graduate courses with a sustainability emphasis would be available online to fill up the 28.5 credits of electives—or roughly half of the instructional time—that’s required for graduation.

GW offers another competitive advantage to students comparing MBA programs that can lead to sustainability careers. Located not far from Capitol Hill, the school may have institutional and professional relationships in the Washington, D.C. area that might benefit students seeking sustainability internships and jobs upon graduation.

University of Michigan, Ross School of Business

CK ranked Michigan’s Ross School of Business #5 in 2015, #12 in 2016, and #11 in 2017 among United States schools. And in the fall of 2019, the Ross School made history as the first top-ten ranked business school to introduce an online MBA program. With the exception of three required in-person residencies in Ann Arbor and the possibility of an onsite visit with an organization for the capstone course, this is a fully online program with an average of four live synchronous events on video per course.

Michigan’s unique sustainability offering is the Erb Institute, a research, and education center managed by a collaboration between UM’s School For Environment & Sustainability (SEAS) and Ross. Students at Ross can earn a business sustainability dual degree, which confers both an MBA and an MS degree with only one additional semester of study.

In one of the more hands-on initiatives in graduate management education, Ross requires an immersive seven-week Multidisciplinary Action Project (MAP). Students working in teams tackle complex business problems for a firm or nonprofit in projects that can focus on sustainability challenges. “Students expand their skills and develop their leadership abilities; sponsors get usable recommendations from top minds,” says the school’s website.

It now appears that MAP will be just as much of a signature feature of the online curriculum as any other UM MBA program. Dean Scott DeRue told Poets & Quants:

We have a deep commitment to action-based learning and MAP is one example of that in the online program. Students will work in small teams with faculty in organizations from around the globe just like professionals have to do today virtually. That is the world of work today.

Duke University, Fuqua School of Business

Among United States schools, Duke finished #5 in 2017, #7 in 2016, and #10 in the 2018 CK rankings. And yet one more reason why Duke’s global executive MBA may amount to the finest hybrid EMBA program available involves the school’s emphasis on sustainability.

The Fuqua Client Consulting Practicum (FCCP)—an experiential learning program similar to the University of Michigan’s MAP program—can provide opportunities for teams of students to work on sustainability issues for client companies and nonprofits. Also, the Fuqua School annually sponsors the Sustainable Business and Social Impact Conference (SBSI), the largest conference of its kind in the Southeast.

Moreover, Fuqua’s faculty leadership stems from the school’s award-winning research and education center, the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE). The center prepares leaders and organizations with the most exemplary business skills they need to promote and achieve social change. For example, CASE sponsors i3, a professional online training program for direct impact investing. The center also funds loan assistance programs which allow students to explore social impact careers through internships without suffering financial hardship.

And according to Net Impact, CASE underwrites student loan forgiveness for students who accept jobs upon graduation at nonprofits and has financed almost $2 million of student loan debt.

Pennsylvania State University, Smeal College of Business

CK ranked Penn State #15 in 2018 among American business schools. And much like MIT, Smeal has also devoted an entire website to showcase its sustainability initiative, including its faculty’s current research projects.

Recently Smeal packaged their business sustainability strategy concentration, introduced late in 2013, for delivery within the school’s newly revitalized online MBA program. This specialization includes three courses: sustainability strategy development, strategy implementation, organizational change, and sustainable supply chain management. As of March 2020, Smeal also made these same three courses available for graduate credit outside of the MBA program, branded as the online graduate certificate in business sustainability strategy.

The annual Smeal MBA Sustainability Case Competition, now in its sixth year, comprises a unique teaching event for students at other top business schools along with those at Smeal. During the competition, teams develop and submit analyses that demonstrate their skill at arguing a compelling business case for the integration of sustainability into a firm’s products, operations, or leadership. Semi-finalists then present their analysis to a panel of judges. Past competitors have included teams from Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Purdue, the University of Texas, and the University of Washington.

University of North Carolina, Kenan-Flagler Business School

The Kenan-Flagler Business School made an impressive jump in its sustainability rankings from #40 on the CK top 40 list in 2020 to #16 in 2021. This represents the most significant change in rankings in a consecutive year for a US-based institution, defining UNC’s clear metrics of commitment to promoting environmental sustainability.

Students in this MBA@UNC program can opt for a sustainable enterprise concentration that focuses on the business potential in solutions that benefit profits, people, and the planet. This concentration pairs well with those wanting to work with public entity disciplines such as public policy, international studies, and city and regional planning.

Courses in this program include the business of renewable entry, corporate communication: social advocacy and activism, and strategic innovation. Students in this program can participate in national case competitions sponsored by the Nespresso Sustainability MBA Challenge, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Patagonia. Graduates with this concentration have been hired by companies such as Burt’s Bees with its headquarters in North Carolina, Johnson & Johnson, and Walmart.

Gonzaga University, School of Business Administration

CK ranked Gonzaga University’s MBA program #23 in 2020 and #29 in 2021 on its Better World MBA list of top 40 schools. Approximately 150 students enroll annually in Gonzaga’s MBA programs, 70 percent of whom are working professionals taking online, weekend, and evening classes. In addition, the U.S. News & World Report ranks Gonzaga University #46 on its list of best graduate schools.

Gonzaga University’s emphasis on sustainability goes beyond the triple bottom line. According to Mirjeta Beqiri, director of MBA programs and professor of operations management:

As part of our Jesuit identity, we are called by our mission statement to educate students ‘for lives of leadership and service for the common good’ and ‘with responsible stewardship of our physical, financial, and human resources.’

Core courses in this program include the economic environment of the firm, corporate financial reporting, and strategic management. Elective courses related to environmentalism include sustainable business, conflict resolution, lean thinking operations, and global project management.

MBA students at Gonzaga can choose to pursue study abroad opportunities in Belgium and Italy. Recently at a tour of Coca Cola in Belgium, the supply chain headquarters for the brand in Europe, students got a behind-the-scenes look at new sustainable packaging and recycling initiatives at the production and distribution plant.

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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