Climate change and capitalism are two forces impacting the global population. As the climate crisis grows ever urgent, businesses are emerging as drivers toward a more sustainable future.

In a session at Harvard Business School Online's Connext conference titled "Climate Change, Society, and Business in the Digital Age," HBS Professors Rebecca Henderson and Forest Reinhardt shared insights and opinions about the role businesses can play in social and environmental sustainability.

“Humans have—as well as an innate tendency to selfishness—an innate tendency to cooperation and connection with the whole,” Henderson remarked. “We’re good at solving cooperative problems. If we can really take this seriously and mobilize it, maybe business can help.”

If you’re a business professional determined to make a difference in the world, you have the ability to drive sustainable change—although it may be difficult to know where to start. Taking an online sustainability course can provide the foundation you need to lead or contribute to the sustainability revolution through your organization. Here are four lessons you’ll learn in an online sustainability course and why you should take one.

Sustainable Business Strategy

4 Things You’ll Learn in an Online Sustainability Course

1. Profitability and Sustainability Go Hand in Hand

Once believed to be disparate goals, profitability and sustainability can, and do, go hand in hand for many of today’s firms. To make the business case for sustainability to key stakeholders and decision-makers in your organization, you need to learn how sustainability can pay off.

Henderson drives this point home in the online course Sustainable Business Strategy.

“In many situations, it's possible to do the right thing and make money at the same time,” she says. “Indeed, there's good reason to believe that solving the world's problems presents trillions of dollars’ worth of economic opportunity.”

Henderson calls this intersection of “doing good” and “doing well” the process of creating shared value. A few hypothetical examples are:

  • Your organization finds that switching from traditional plastic to biodegradable packaging not only reduces waste created in your product’s lifecycle but also saves money.
  • Your organization cuts ties with a farm that treats its workers inhumanely, which costs money in the short term but pays off when customers learn of your company’s dedication to human rights and choose it over competitors.
  • Your organization switches from using coal to clean, renewable energy to power its manufacturing facilities. When the price of coal skyrockets, your company avoids paying the price while cutting its carbon emissions.

A sustainability course can teach you that sustainability and profitability can coexist and prepare you with talking points to pitch shared value creation opportunities to internal stakeholders.

2. Businesses Have the Power to Drive Systemic Change

While climate change and social issues might seem like daunting problems, taking a sustainability course can open your eyes to how businesses can impact society on a systemic level.

Because consumers “vote with their dollars,” or spend money at organizations they support, being the first business in your industry or market segment to pivot to sustainable practices can not only pay off financially, but set an industry standard and raise the bar for competitors.

According to IBM’s 2020 Consumer Report, 77 percent of respondents consider a company’s commitment to sustainability to be moderately or very important when determining where to buy products. Catering to this customer motivation and shift in values could cause a revolution toward business sustainability.

In the aforementioned Connext session, Henderson commented on how a business shift to sustainability could eventually spur government action.

“Essentially, we need a few of the world’s most powerful nations to move in this direction,” she said. “You could use mechanisms like trade barriers; for example, you can’t bring a car into the US if the carbon that went into making it isn’t included in the price. Even individual countries can make a globally significant difference.”

This shift could make sustainability necessary to participate in capitalism, and taking a sustainability course can give you the tools to put your organization ahead of the curve.

Related: How to Create Social Change: 4 Business Strategies

3. Business Decisions Have Global Impact

When approaching a global issue, the solutions must be global as well. An online course can provide the big-picture mindset needed to get involved in the sustainability movement.

Because humans share a finite amount of natural resources, every decision your business makes—whether hurting the environment or helping it—impacts others worldwide. If your business is international, you may already be aware of the delicate balance of the global business landscape. A business can be considered international in three ways:

  • It produces goods domestically and sells domestically and internationally.
  • It produces goods in a different country but sells domestically.
  • It produces goods in a different country and sells domestically and internationally.

If any of these scenarios apply to your organization, consider how each component of your supply chain impacts the community it occurs in, how your customers’ locations affect your products’ impact on the earth, and how the policies, laws, and cultures in each of those places can help or hinder your sustainability efforts.

Even if your company strictly produces and sells domestically, the sustainability efforts of others around the world can impact your business and market segment. It’s important to understand the dynamics between countries, international companies, and how your firm fits into the global sustainability landscape.

Related: Why Study Global Business? 5 Benefits to Consider

4. Being a Purpose-Driven Leader Is a Competitive Advantage

Taking a sustainability course can instill a sense of confidence that your purpose is advantageous. Leading with a clear sense of purpose toward the common good can bring humanity to your shift to sustainability and convey potential benefits beyond financial success.

According to research in the Harvard Business Review, less than 20 percent of leaders have a clear sense of their purpose, and even fewer have an explicit plan for converting purpose into action.

If you’re passionate about driving change toward a sustainable future, be one of the few leaders who can articulate your purpose, communicate it effectively, and build a strategy for achieving your goals.

Build a profitable, purpose-driven business | Explore Our Certificate Courses

Why Take an Online Sustainability Course?

An online sustainability course may be the right fit for you or your colleagues if you’re committed to leading sustainable organizational efforts but need a flexible schedule and supportive network.

Professional development courses need to fit into your schedule as an employee, parent, partner, caretaker, and friend. An online, asynchronous course enables you to learn material on your own time in any location. Being able to take the course from anywhere can also result in a network of learners with whom you can interact and share ideas and perspectives. Considering the global nature of climate change and social issues, having a supportive community of peers from around the world can prove to be an invaluable facet of your sustainability education.

If cost is a limiting factor, consider asking if your company will sponsor your sustainability course. Because the knowledge you gain from the course will help the organization directly, you can make the case that the money spent will be an investment in its future. Your organization may even decide to expand the offer to others involved in sustainability efforts.

Taking a sustainability course can provide you with the skills, frameworks, and foundational knowledge needed to shift toward sustainable business practices. Paired with a big-picture mindset and sense of purpose, you can drive positive change in the world through your organization.

Are you interested in learning more about corporate sustainability? Explore our three-week online course Sustainable Business Strategy and other Business in Society courses.

Catherine Cote

About the Author

Catherine Cote is a marketing coordinator at Harvard Business School Online. Prior to joining HBS Online, she worked at an early-stage SaaS startup where she found her passion for writing content, and at a digital consulting agency, where she specialized in SEO. Catherine holds a B.A. from Holy Cross, where she studied psychology, education, and Mandarin Chinese. When not at work, you can find her hiking, performing or watching theatre, or hunting for the best burger in Boston.