Marina A. Schmitz, Coca-Cola Chair of Sustainable Development at IEDC-Bled School of Management in Bled, Slovenia
Miguel Cordova, Associate Professor at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (PUCP), Internationalization Leader for the Management Department and Management School at PUCP
Soo Min Toh, Associate Professor of organizational behavior and human resource management at the University of Toronto, Professorial Fellow at the University of Edinburgh Business School.
Shashi Kant, Professor, Institute for Management & Innovation, Faculty of Forestry, University of Toronto


The teaching social sustainability has not had as much attention as the environmental and economic aspects of sustainability. The utilization of the circular economy (CE) concept, which comprises all aspects of sustainability, might be able to fill this gap. To address the social aspects of sustainability in CE, the following issues were discussed during the panel session “Teaching about the social aspects of sustainability: Key issues and methods on circularity, equity, diversity and inclusion in business education”(AIB 2022, Miami):

Philosophical aspects of humanity, life, and businesses

All human beings have been associated with attributes including passion, love, self-interest, altruism, reciprocity, creativity, and curiosity. However, the dominant theories of our economic and management systems are based on only one attribute of humans – self-interest and axiomatically conceptualized rationality. Given the challenges imposed, management experts are calling for the death of the dominant management paradigm and a revolution in management and management education. Among these concepts and topics, you would usually find social and environmental impacts, Triple Bottom Line (TBL), principles of responsible management, positive externalities and conceptualization of social-ecological organizations, higher purpose, citizenship and community, and others. However, we also need to admit that this didn’t lead to any significant change in management and management education. The revolution requires a new lens – a lens of (regenerative) sustainability that incorporates social, economic, and ecological perspectives or a lens of living in harmony and equilibrium with nature and other human beings.

Bridging the ecological and social concepts

The foundations of the concepts of Circular Economy (CE) are rooted in the concept of biomimicry proposed by Benyus (1997), which means learning from nature to solve human problems (Hutchins, 2013). Among these are the three aspects of biomimicry – nature as model, measure, and mentor, and the nine laws of nature, including nature uses only the energy it needs; Nature recycles everything; Nature rewards cooperation; Nature banks on diversity; Nature curbs excesses from within; and nature taps the power of limits. The concept of CE and the field of Industrial Ecology are also based on biomimicry, and it is the precursor of the Circular Economy. Hence, in the teaching of the social aspects of CE in management education, the use of a sustainability lens, and not the lens of the rational agent, is essential.

In order to not harm the environment as well as social structures, we need to work on knowledge about the entire system, proper mechanisms to deliver visibility of it, and people’s attitudes to ensure empathy with others and the planet. Hence, it seems that social issues and environmental concerns are naturally bridged, but we first need to acknowledge their connectedness and learn how to respond to them. Tackling the social issues of CE can undoubtedly be identified as wicked problems that can only be understood if we approach these multiple issues from a systems theory logic, which considers the complexity and interdependence of problems. The SDGs (as a solution framework to the wicked problems mentioned above) can be used as an interconnected clustering approach, separating specific goals into the economy, society, and biosphere-related aspects. Moreover, as a more sustainable future is only one possible future, students need to understand that the future is still open and can actively shape it. Thus, it would be attractive to foster futures literacy and future studies in a CE context, in which respective “CE futures” could be developed.

However, we need to make sure that also CE education needs to be approached from a critical standpoint, being aware of the ethnocentric origins of this concept. We need to combine our knowledge better, which is still largely biased by American (and European) “best-practices.” Decolonizing this knowledge and asking ourselves about social representation, e.g., in the teaching material we use or whether paradigms we teach apply to a larger diversity of contexts, is crucial.

Additionally, below are some questions we could ask ourselves when teaching CE in the classroom:

  • Philosophical aspects of humanity, life, and businesses: this will cover some basic questions such as, what is humanity? What is the purpose of human life? What is the purpose of businesses? Are businesses part of our society?
  • Are the system’s participants capable of delivering products and services by their own means (in the sustainable way we are planning to)? Do they really need our help or intervention in some way?
  • Are we mapping all the levels of the system’s participants? How could we elaborate on that map, and what information do we need from them (social and environmental information)?
  • How do our decisions and initiatives generate different effects all through the previously designed map? What are the impacts delivered by the system’s sections (thinking local and global)? Which social issues would have to be addressed before going after environmental goals (vice versa)?
  • Are we assuming that the same methods and strategies for sustainability would work under different situations and contexts?
  • Are we including an evaluation of impacts? Are we designing proper measures and indicators that would consider direct as well as indirect relationships within the system?
  • How could we plan to monitor the system over time? How could we provide visibility and traceability of our activities to all stakeholders related?

Most important global challenges would not be overcome by isolated actions. Therefore, connectedness and far-sighting skills would be instrumental for the future of sustainable development. Thus, students have to learn how to bridge the disciplines they study and the stakeholders they identify with humankind social issues. Through these bridges, students would be able to develop a proper traceability of what is going on inside systems’ complexity and to design and implement integrated measures. Finally, by integrated actions students could contextually and comprehensively solve current social issues. Instructors play a key role by facilitating the resources they need to go through each of these stages. The panel provided three specific examples of industries to explain how to teach students to bridge, trace, and solve social issues: electronics, steel, and fishmeal.






Submit your insights on teaching social sustainability by August 30 – call for book chapters