More and more, companies all over the world are looking for ways to make their company and the world a better place. In the business world, this topic is commonly referred to as sustainability. Business sustainability encompasses the improvements a company or organization can make to positively impact the environment, people, and communities surrounding it.

A free course on sustainability

Nobody realizes the importance of business sustainability more than Kenneth Bettenhausen, PhD and Associate Professor of Management, and John Byrd, Senior Instructor of Finance and Managing for Sustainability. It was a natural fit for them to collaborate and create a free massive online open course (MOOC) to address business sustainability.

 “If we can help even 20% of them to actually introduce a change, we’ll have made a difference where they work, as well as globally when taken as a whole.” – Kenneth Bettenhausen

The “Become a Sustainable Business Change Agent” course aims to help companies be more efficient and teach professionals what creating a better workplace for employees looks like. The course provides tools and strategies to make these sustainability changes in organizations today.

The MOOC has aspirations to make a big impact on the business world by simultaneously improving neighborhoods and communities. It gives people a career boost in an area that is only becoming more relevant.

By completing this course, Bettenhausen and Byrd hope students will:

  • know how to create an effective sustainability proposal for change
  • understand who within an organization they need to convince of the change
  • know how to properly implement a sustainability strategy

Launched two months prior, the MOOC already has over 500 students, 82 of whom are completing the final project. The final project is to write a proposal for an initiative that will make the company where they work or the community where they live more sustainable.

What is on the syllabus?

By alerting people to the political side of introducing change and broadening their understanding of sustainability, the course attempts to empower people to propose and introduce change.

The course is comprised of four classes:

  1. First Steps in Marking the Business Case for Sustainability – identify a useful initial project by writing an effective proposal with a financial analysis and what sustainable thinking looks like
  2. More on Change and Sustainability – learn what it takes to implement this change in an organization, what green design looks like, how to report sustainability changes, and real-world examples from practitioners
  3. Sustainable Business: Big Issues, Big Changes – discuss climate change, carbon foot printing, context-based and science-based targets, water and energy, workplace sustainability issues, and supply chain impacts
  4. Comprehensive Case – capstone class where all work is combined to produce a comprehensive proposal based on a case written by professors or one specific to their current organization

The students also complete an assessment survey to see how the company they work for addresses sustainability.

The challenge facing sustainability professionals today

Many changes driven by sustainability have a short-term cost associated with them. The challenge is getting the recognition for the benefits of these changes that will outweigh the costs in the long term. These benefits are often intangible, which makes the argument even more difficult to make. But the benefits of sustainability include goals companies are already striving to reach like improving the company’s reputation, appealing to more customers, and recruiting more talented employees.

The current state of business sustainability

The three pillars of sustainability are environment, equity, and economics. Most people think of sustainability only in terms of the environment, but equity and economics are just as important.

Equity refers to social equity and things like the health of the community and workplace environment. Economics, on the other hand, refers to the cost of sustainability. These three pillars represent a more balanced view of sustainability.


On the environmental side, climate and water are huge issues and will be for some time. Byrd says that those companies on the cutting edge of sustainability are developing science-based carbon reduction targets right now. Some organizations are even going so far as to set an internal price on carbon emissions like a carbon tax.

Water use disclosure is also becoming more sophisticated with quantity, quality, and context all being addressed. Byrd is very excited about context-based sustainability. It relates company activities to some share of what the environment can provide or absorb when it comes to emissions.

“Green design of products is important if we are going to move toward a more circular economy where we reuse and recycle more materials.” – John Byrd


On the equity side of sustainability, it makes sense that employers need to focus on designing workplaces that are safe, healthy, support families, and allow for personal growth. These employee benefits are virtually required in this day and age to attract and retain the best talent.


Designing more circularity into products and processes and thinking about context is also becoming more important. Circularity refers to designing products and choosing materials that make them highly recyclable. The goal is to reduce the production of new raw materials in order to support a growing global population.

Companies are also looking at their supply chains much more carefully to make sure there are not labor abuses, child labor issues, unsafe workplaces, or illegal raw materials. These issues have large costs associated with them and can drag a company down.

Byrd commented, “In the US there are incentives for renewable energy generation and electric vehicles.  Building codes are getting updated, especially in coastal areas that are vulnerable to extreme weather events, so there is some adaptation to climate change impacts. Building codes are also starting to require more efficiency in water use.”

Luckily, companies are making a lot of these changes without formal regulations driving their decisions.  However some issues, like plastic waste and micro-particle plastic waste in the oceans will have to have strong policies in place before they get resolved.

Empowering professionals in Denver and across the globe

As a final piece of advice, Bettenhausen says to “think globally, but act locally. It’s the only way to make a difference. Through our students, the Business School impacts businesses in and around Denver. My hope is that through our MOOC we empower thousands of learners around the world to identify and implement changes that make their workplaces more sustainable.”

Anyone is able to sign up for the MOOC, which covers all of these topics in order to make a positive impact on the business world.

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