20 years of MBA Sustainability Management

Pioneer of sustainable corporate management

2023-05-17 Twenty years ago, Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Stefan Schaltegger launched the world's first MBA programme in sustainability management as an "academic entrepreneur". To this day, the part-time programme is regarded as the largest and leading of its kind. It empowers individuals to effectively implement sustainability in and with companies and provides support after graduation through a strong alumni network.

"Our programme was the first of its kind in the world", says Prof. Dr. Stefan Schaltegger. ©Fotograf MIKE KOENIG
"Our programme was the first of its kind in the world", says Prof. Dr. Stefan Schaltegger.

Today, there is an unmistakable shift towards sustainability in all areas of business and society. But even at the time of the founding of the MBA Sustainability Management, there were clear signs that companies needed to be managed more sustainably. In the 70s, 80s and 90s, news of chemical accidents became increasingly common: A warehouse belonging to the pharmaceutical company Sandoz burned down in Basel. The firewater turned the Rhine blood-red as far as Cologne. The Seveso accident in northern Italy released highly toxic dioxin. The Bhopal disaster, in which a chemical plant in India released a cloud of toxic gas, also occurred around this time. Thousands of people died. In addition, issues such as deforestation and the hole in the ozone layer dominated the headlines. Yet sustainability issues were not seriously considered in management practice or teaching. This was the starting point for Stefan Schaltegger and his team to fundamentally rethink modern management education.

The MBA Sustainability Management was born out of the idea of developing a study programme that would enable graduates to contribute effectively to the sustainable development of organisations and society. Stefan Schaltegger remembers the challenge: "It was clear to my team and me that graduates of environmental sciences rarely get into management positions due to a lack of sufficiently broad management knowledge, and that economics graduates could not build up sufficient sustainability know-how in the context of an elective subject. We had to rethink and integrate everything." There were only a few MBA programmes in Germany and none on sustainability worldwide. "Based on our analysis of what is needed for sustainable development through entrepreneurship, we understood this starting point as both a necessity and an opportunity."

The beginning was marked by adversity and resistance: Twenty years ago, the issue was nowhere near as present as it is today. The development of the study programme was funded by the EU, but for reasons of public procurement law, no state funds were made available in the short term: "We then continued to work with half the team." The group spent two years developing an innovative study concept: "We asked ourselves: What kind of education does it take to put people in decision-making positions and give them enough know-how about sustainability management? We want to change companies from within," stresses Stefan Schaltegger.

The answer was an MBA like those offered by the top business schools, but with more meaningful content for sustainable business management: "Our programme was the first of its kind in the world". A blended learning approach was adopted from the outset to appeal to working professionals: The first students received a CD with teaching materials. Today, many courses are online, with live meetings, networking events and digital teaching materials. The final workshop, for example, takes place in a company such as Lufthansa, Mercedes, IKEA, Budni or Vaillant, but also in pioneering companies such as Werkhaus, Edding, Memo or Neudorf. The students have to solve a real problem in the company. They have just under four days to do this. On the fifth day, the students present their concepts to a jury of experts and the company's management. They have 14 minutes - no more, no less.

The MBA Sustainability Management was designed to be international from the start: students come from Germany, Austria and Switzerland: "But we also have Germans working in Chile, Norway or Australia who complete our programme," says Stefan Schaltegger. The number of applicants for the 50 study places is high every year: "We often see impressive CVs and very successful careers. People don't study with us to get a higher salary or to take the next step on the career ladder. People who study with us want to give more meaning to their professional lives." Evaluations of the programme show that 80 per cent pursue a job in their own or another company one year after completing the MBA, which they consider more meaningful than the previous one. This is often associated with a higher salary or status, even if this was not the intention.

Stefan Schaltegger and the MBA support team are still in touch with many graduates from previous years. The MBA Sustainability Management network now numbers around 1000 people. Claudia Kalisch, for example, is a fourth-year alumna and now the mayor of the city of Lüneburg. Florian Meyer-Delpho founded the company "Installion", which provides technology companies and craft enterprises with a platform to realise solar installations more quickly. Tobias Peylo, second year graduate, is now a professor at Kempten University of Applied Sciences and is himself a lecturer on the MBA Sustainability Management course. The number of alumni and sustainability managers is growing, as is public awareness of the issue.

"A lot has changed in terms of applications. More and more companies are sending their employees to us and paying the tuition fees. In the past, companies often said that sustainability only costs money and time. These reservations are disappearing. On the contrary: sustainability is becoming increasingly complex for companies as it becomes clearer that all areas are affected, from purchasing to production, marketing and logistics. If a company is subject to emissions trading, there is often one person involved in carbon accounting. There has been a marked increase in interest in recruiting people with a sound knowledge of sustainability," says Stefan Schaltegger. The programme shows that these people can come from a wide range of professional backgrounds: "Some of our students have a first degree in economics, but we also get a lot of science and humanities graduates, environmental scientists or engineers." Several start-ups have been created by students on the part-time MBA Sustainability Management who want to be sustainable right from the start.

The MBA Sustainability Management has now been running for 20 years - a number that Stefan Schaltegger and his team are proud of. What is particularly important to him is that the continuous work has created a large network of alumni and students who support each other and effectively promote sustainability.


  • Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Stefan Schaltegger