Painted by its staff on several of the walls of the Global Sustainability Institute at ARU is "Change the World", and there’s no apology for such ambition.
“Yes, it’s bold,” says Dr Alison Greig, Director of Education for Sustainability, “But that’s exactly how we need to think to make our planet a place which is fit for the future.”
An important element of the Institute’s work are the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) Programmes. Set up in 2016, they are tailored to an individual client’s requirements, and designed to encourage leaders in a range of industries and workplaces to fundamentally reconsider how they do business.
“The key message is that sustainability isn’t something you can simply ‘bolt onto’ an existing unsustainable business,” Alison says. “You have to think bigger than that. We ask our clients to think about how their whole business can be more sustainable, and the consequences of not doing so."
The Institute is currently running a series of short courses with business leaders from India. The country is unique in levying a two per cent charge on the net profits of larger companies, which has to be spent on projects to promote sustainability.
“They can be in a broad range of areas, and also directly link to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals,” Alison says, “For example, eradicating hunger and poverty, promoting healthcare, access to education, gender equality, the availability of water, and environmental improvements.
“The idea of our CPD courses is to get senior people from the companies to do some big picture thinking, to really reimagine how their business might work in a much more sustainable manner.”
Many of the companies ARU is currently working with are from the oil and gas, and automotive sectors.
“We encourage them to look at what futures their companies might have without investment in sustainability, however bleak,” Alison says. “But also help show them what’s possible – including visiting companies who have taken sustainability to their heart.
“For example, a car company will be in real trouble if it just keeps making petrol driven vehicles, or an oil company will go bust if they just stick to pumping oil out of the ground. We are not trying to prescribe what they should do, but encouraging them to think about how to change.
“So in the courses we aim to get them to vision a company future which is not dependent on such unsustainable ways of working.”
She points to the example of the multinational oil giant BP, which has recently announced a transformation of its long-standing business model, away from oil and gas and into renewable energy.
“Too much sustainability education is about telling people how to do less damage. But we actually need to fundamentally reconsider what we do, to live more in harmony with the planet, its people, plants and animals.”
Around 12 to 15 executives and managers join each cohort of the programme, which is held twice a year. The courses typically run for two weeks, with one week in the host nation – India in this case – and one at ARU.
“One of the weeks is more classroom based and theoretical,” Alison says. “The other is much more practical, with a particular focus on new ideas and developing technologies. For example, we’ve run visits to the Building Research Establishment, and Allia’s Future Business Centre.
With dozens of business leaders now having completed the course, what do they make of the scheme?
“They tell us they thoroughly enjoy it,” says Alison. “It’s not conventional ‘training’ and often not what they expect. With a focus on them thinking about what sort of future they want and how to achieve this. But that’s how we need it to be, and we get a strong sense it really does challenge their thinking.
“I’m optimistic we’re planting seeds which, over the next five or ten years, will germinate into real change in the way businesses work, to make them much more sustainable.”
Plans are now being made for the programme to expand to new audiences, in new countries, and new sectors of business and industry.
Alison says, “We particularly want to reach more women in smaller companies, which often drive innovation and change. Evidence tells us it’s commonly women who can make the real difference.
“As long as we’re spreading the message to more and more people, I know we’re doing our bit for the future. After all, as Nelson Mandela put it, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”