College of Business and Economics News: University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo

People, Prosperity, or Environment? Location predicts business students’ attitudes toward U.N. Sustainable Development Goals


Sustainable Development Goals and Management Education

In September 2015, the United Nations adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with an agenda calling for a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity. Recognizing how important sustainability was to business education, the U.N. created the Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) initiative in order to “realize the Sustainable Development Goals through responsible management education.”

What do business and management students think?

Sustainability scholar Jim Westerman of Appalachian State University realized that while people are generally in favor of “sustainability,” different aspects of sustainability might resonate with individual students.  Westerman, working with colleagues at Appalachian State and the University of Hawaii at Hilo, conducted a survey to determine how business students’ traits predicted their attitudes and preferences around sustainability. The researchers examined individualism-collectivism, authoritarianism, religiosity, and location: Hilo, Hawaii and Boone, North Carolina. During the course of his research, Westerman traveled to Hawaii Island. While he was in Hilo, he gave a guest lecture at CoBE and used the opportunity to connect wtih students and discuss students’ perspectives on sustainability.

What did the researchers find?

The researchers noted that while both Boone, North Carolina and Hilo, Hawaii, are small, rural communities, Boone experiences more social disadvantage. The residents of Appalachia suffer higher levels of disease and mortality as well as higher rates of being  uninsured. Hawaii is the most geographically isolated land mass on the planet and Hawaii Island possesses extreme environmental diversity, with 10 of the world’s 14 climactic zones. Hawaii’s land species are over 90% endemic (found only in Hawaii). With its isolation, rising oceans, and the threats to its ecosystems and biological diversity, the environmental threats to the island are significant.

The researchers hypothesized that in a high-poverty area (Appalachia), business students will have a preference for sustainable development goals related to people and prosperity.  In a location with more observable environmental threat (Hawaii), business students will have a preference for planet-oriented goals. People and prosperity goals include no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being, quality education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, decent work and economic growth, industry innovation and infrastructure, and reduced inequality. Planet-oriented goals include support for climate action, life below water, life on land, sustainable cities and communities, and responsible consumption and production.

While individualism-collectivism, authoritarianism, and religiosity had some predictive value, whether a participant was located in Hilo, Hawaii or Boone, North Carolina was the most significant predictor by far. As the researchers had hypothesized, North Carolina participants found people and prosperity goals more important while Hawaii participants placed more importance on planet-related goals. Location explained 83% of the variance in importance given to people and prosperity goals and 74% of the variance in importance given to planet-oriented goals. Location also explained 97% of the variance in peace and partnership-related goals, with Hawaii participants valuing them more highly.

SDG Preferences – Comparison of the Locations (SDG = “Sustainable Development Goals”)

Appalachia Mean Hawaii Mean t p – value
SDG People 6.57 (1.18) 7.83 (1.71) 4.96 <.001
SDG Planet 11.76 (1.92) 9.86 (2.50) 5.04 <.001
SDG Peace 14.29 (2.93) 12.70 (3.99) 2.65 .01

Note. Lower SDG values represent higher importance. Values in parentheses are standard deviations.

Introducing sustainability into business education

What does this mean for how we teach our classes? These results indicate that students in different locations place different values on various aspects of sustainability. However, the researchers caution that while location and other factors can have predictive value, it is best to conduct a pre-class survey to determine the priorities and of the students in one’s own classroom.  Unfortunately there seems to be no comprehensive ‘library’ linking business pedagogical content and tools to specific Sustainability Development Goals.  The creation of such a teaching tool would be extremely helpful.

About the Authors

Jim Westerman is the James E. Holshouser Distinguished Professor in Ethics in the Department of Management at Appalachian Stat’s Walker College of Business. His research, teaching, and consulting focus on sustainability, ethics, organizational behavior, and human resource management. His research has appeared in numerous high-impact scholarly and general outlets including Journal of Organizational Behavior,  Academy of Management Learning and Education, Harvard Business Review, and ABC News. 

Yalçın Açıkgöz is Assistant Professor of Psychology at Appalachian State University.  His research interests include employee recruitment and job search, applicant reactions in recruitment and selection, applicant decision-making, applications of social media in human resources, and impression management in the workplace. His Applicant Decision-Making Lab is here.

Lubna Nafees is Assistant Professor of Marketing & Supply Chain Management at Appalachian State University. Her research interests include sustainable and conscious consumption, social networks, and social media. In addition to publishing in scholarly journals, she has authored books on management education and branding. Her case studies appear in WDI Publishing, Ivey Publishing and the Case Centre.

Emmeline de Pillis is Interim Dean of the College of Business and Economics at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Her research interests include higher education management, cognitive biases, and careers.

Jennifer Westerman is Associate Professor of Sustainable Development at Appalachian State University and Associate Editor of ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment.  Her research and teaching interests include global and US environmental literary and cultural studies; environmental humanities; social & environmental justice; intersectionality of class, precarity, and labor environmentalism; and creative nonfiction environmental writing.

Westerman, J.W. Açıkgöz, Y, Nafees, L. de Pillis, E. Westerman, J.; The Sustainable Development Goals and Business Students’ Preferences: An Exploratory Study. Journal of Business Ethics Education 17:99-114