What is social sustainability and approaches to it in business education?

By Aušrinė Šilenskytė, University of Vaasa, Finland

Social sustainability consists of three broad areas of issues (see Figure below):

More than half of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) directly speak to social sustainability:

While the global discourses often focus on environmental issues, environmental sustainability cannot be achieved without addressing social issues, economic sustainability cannot be achieved without addressing social issues, and all three – the environmental, social, and economic sustainability dimensions – cannot be treated separately.

Consider several examples that illustrate the necessity to address the interlinkages among the three dimensions of sustainability. Socially disadvantaged people on the edge of or in poverty “will not interpret additional taxes as a means of countering climate change, but as an impediment to heating their homes adequately” (Vallance et al., 2011, p. 345). Employees discriminated against, unhealthy, or working in poor conditions are unlikely to think about the firm’s strategy, which requires them to focus on a more efficient use of the firm’s resources, or to create innovations that will make the firm’s products more environmentally friendly (Šilenskytė et al. 2024, p. 3). Thus, in business education, we could consider having an integrated discussion on all three sustainability dimensions simultaneously to ensure that business graduates are more equipped to address grand challenges.

However, there is lack of resources and insights on how to integrate this topic. One of the recent global collections that includes educational principles, content, activities, and cases on the topic provides further insights on social sustainability in business and business education:


What are the principles to embed Social Sustainability in the curriculum?

By Wee Chan Au, University of Newcastle, UK

For learners to be sustained social sustainability change agents, educators should sensitize their attention to and adopt the Theory of Planned Behavior social-cognition factors in their course design. Importantly, this sustainability education (SE) approach is suitable for developing social sustainability behaviors (SSBs) in any course (business or standalone courses) to achieve desired SSB outcomes.

Source: Fig. 25.2 Principles for sustainability education design for social sustainability behavior outcomes

Course design principles (CDPs) derived from the social-cognition factors include:
CDP 1: SE focuses on students’ attitudes, influencing self-identity by actively engaging and connecting with external examples.
CDP 2: SE focuses on educators, fellow students, and external partners to actively source and positively share social sustainability norms.
CDP 3: SE focuses on engaging students in internally and externally facing activities to guide them to actively develop, demonstrate, and achieve Perceived Social Sustainability Behavioral Control (PBC).
CDP 4: SE focuses on students creating explicit behavior implementation plans to demonstrate their intentions to engage in SSB
CDP 5: SE focuses on students’ implementation of intended social sustainability plans in real contexts, including the evaluation of achievements demonstrating SSBs.

For further details, refer to:
Bhattacharya, A., Au, W.C., Croy, G (2024), Chapter 25: Using the theory of planned behavior to develop business students into capable change agents for socially sustainable development, in A. Silenskyte, M. Cordova, M. A. Schmitz, & S. M. Toh, The Palgrave Handbook of Social Sustainability in Business Education, Palgrave Macmillan. (Chapter DOI: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-031-50168-5_25)


Select methods to teach social sustainability

By Marina A. Schmitz, IEDC-Bled School of Management, Slovenia

(Selected) teaching approaches (for definitions, see linked pdf):
group discussion
in-class role play
virtual reality simulation
case study
service-learning project
sustainability-related consulting project
sustainability-related research project
self-reflection task/exercise
interdisciplinary team teaching
vision-building exercise
field trip
nature-related experiences
flipped classroom
arts-based teaching and learning method

To foster social sustainability in the classroom, educators can adopt various teaching approaches that encourage community engagement, cultural understanding, empathy, collaboration, and environmental stewardship. From the above list, these methods particularly lend themselves to fostering social sustainability:

Group discussion encourages students to share different perspectives and collaboratively develop understanding. It enhances social interaction and helps build communication skills, vital for social sustainability.

Role-playing helps students understand different social roles and perspectives, fostering empathy and social awareness.

Service-learning or sustainability-related consulting projects connect classroom learning with meaningful community service, helping students make a direct impact on their communities while learning about real-world social issues, whereas consulting projects for real organizations can help students understand the practical applications of sustainability in business and community settings, encouraging them to think about sustainable solutions in social contexts.

Encouraging self-reflection helps students understand their values and the impact of their actions on others and the environment, promoting personal growth towards more socially responsible behaviors.

Vision-building exercises that involve creating visions for a multiple and diverse future can empower students to imagine and strive towards discussing their different viewpoints, assumptions, and worldviews.

Field trip and outdoor/nature-related experiences connect students with their environment and local communities, enhancing their appreciation and responsibility towards nature, each other and society on a deeper level.

Arts-based teaching and learning methods can help express complex social sustainability issues creatively, making them more accessible and emotionally resonant.

Furthermore, revisiting one’s own pedagogical teaching setup and approaches can help to identify new avenues for further innovation in the classroom. The UN Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) initiative has launched the “Impactful Five” project, which provides different resources for educators to identify teaching examples for the classroom, which spark playfulness, providing fertile ground for deeper social connection:

  • https://i5.unprme.org/resources
  • https://www.i5playbook.org/
  • https://www.unprme.org/resources/viewbook-putting-i5-into-practice/


Developing resources for teaching social sustainability from under-represented regions: Lessons from the MENA Region

By Immanuel Azaad Moonesar R.D., Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government, UAE

Strategies for Creating a Teaching Case Repository About the Under-represented region:

  • Advocacy: Gathering support from academic institutions, policymakers, and industry leaders.
  • Motivation: Providing incentives, recognition, and publishing opportunities for case writers.
  • Capacity building: Offering training and workshops on case writing and facilitation.
  • Networking: Leveraging personal and professional networks to access case study organizations.
  • Spillovers: Capitalizing on research opportunities, funding, and collaborations arising from case writing.

By developing teaching cases focused on social sustainability, educators can contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly SDG 4 on quality education.

There is a need for institutional support, incentives, and acknowledgment of teaching contributions to create a robust repository of relevant teaching cases from underrepresented regions.

Based on:

  • Stephens, M., Moonesar, I.A. (2024). Developing Cases for Teaching Social Sustainability in Business: Lessons from the MENA Region. In: Šilenskytė, A., Cordova, M., Schmitz, M.A., Toh, S.M. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Social Sustainability in Business Education. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-50168-5_28