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Chad Hamre, founder of ethicalocean.com, an online store where consumers can shop for and discuss ethical products.Tim Fraser

While working as an engineer, Chad Hamre witnessed Third World poverty firsthand in Africa. But he saw charity wasn't the answer. "When I worked with coffee farmers in Malawi, I realized that if they could be paid a fair price they could live substantially better lives," he says. That realization led to ethicalocean.com, an online store where consumers can shop for ethical products and discuss what makes a product ethical.

But two years ago, the company was little other than a good idea.

So he enrolled in the executive master's of business administration (EMBA) program at Queen's University to learn the core business skills he'd need to launch the company. Although there was no specific corporate social responsibility option offered, he quickly realized that there was no need: sustainability and ethical decision-making was a central part of every course he took, from accounting to marketing. "It's been emphasized that environmental performance and social considerations are tied to the bottom line," Mr. Hamre says. "The program has been a call to action to think big."

As corporate executives increasingly embrace the idea of sustainability, EMBA programs are following suit by incorporating new concepts into their curriculum. "It is not only about educating students but also about helping them become global citizens who are helping the world become more sustainable," says Dr. Sanjay Sharma, dean of the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University. "By sustainability, I mean the triple bottom line: how can companies manage their economic, social and environmental outcomes?"

"A lot of people used to think of sustainability as being a cost," says Dr. Ed Bukszar, associate dean at the Segal Graduate School of Business at Simon Fraser University. Dr. Bukszar believes that view of sustainability is changing. "If you can develop sustainable technological advances, it will give you a long-term competitive advantage," he says, explaining that leading sustainable companies are able to build stronger brands, attract better people and charge a premium for their product.

While corporate social responsibility has long been taught in Canada's business schools, sustainability goes beyond minimizing negative impacts by considering how companies change the way they do business to make positive change, according to Dr. Sharma.

With the majority of their students currently working in their companies, EMBA programs are unique venues in which to probe questions surrounding sustainability. "The younger MBA students already buy in to these ideas," says Dr. Bukszar. "But in the EMBA program, they take their ideas back into their organizations. They see the impact almost immediately."

Dr. Sharma agrees: "The EMBA students are applying these concepts right away. They bring their challenges back to the classroom. The average industry experience of students is 15 years. That means there's 450 years of experience in that room."

Like Mr. Hamre's experience at Queen's, most EMBA programs integrate sustainability concepts into their core curriculum rather than create new classes. Dr. Bukszar compares this approach to how business schools adapted to globalization in the 1980s. "There are no specific international business courses. International business is embedded in all courses."

"We allow our experts to interpret sustainability from their perspective," says Dr. Elspeth Murray, associate dean of MBA programs at Queen's. Strategy courses address how to make decisions that take the environment into consideration; marketing classes look at how to build brands around sustainability; entrepreneurship teaches students to look for new opportunities in sustainable industries.

"One of the real dangers at this point in time is coming up with one definition of sustainability," she says, adding that because the concept is so broad, educators must be flexible in how they work it into each subject of study.

For example, in the EMBA in Health Care program at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, sustainability takes on a completely different meaning. UBC's EMBA program prepares graduates for careers as upper-level managers in health care. For program director Dr. Linda Peritz, sustainable leadership is particularly important.

"There is a dearth of younger leaders ready to take on management roles," she says, adding that a huge number of health-care managers are about to retire. Financial sustainability is also top of mind. "There is a responsibility to the public to be as effective as possible with the funds we have. How can we get value for every dollar we spend?"

Regardless of all that has been done to incorporate sustainability into EMBA curriculum, Concordia's Dr. Sharma believes that business schools are still lagging behind. "Businesses have been changing for a while. They aren't doing sustainability as an add-on," he says, noting that universities can be slow-moving beasts, making curriculum change time consuming.

Dr. Murray agrees that adjusting courses takes time. "It's always a challenge to tell when something might just be a flash-in-the-pan or if it has real legs."

However, there is now consensus that sustainability is here to stay, and in Dr. Murray's opinion now is the perfect time to tackle these questions. "With the economic collapse, you really have to think about the long-term," she says.

"The fundamental question now is: How do we recalibrate what success looks like?"