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Time for a critical conversation about sustainable business

Master student Nike van der Velde explores two important questions for business students and business professionals in the run-up to the RSM STAR Sustainability Forum at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) on 10 May. After studying business, society and tourism at bachelor level, her master studies and her extra-curricular activities in Rotterdam have all been directed at the issue of sustainability; she will graduate from RSM later this year with an MSc in Global Business and Sustainability; and she is programme manager of the RSM STAR Sustainability Forum at RSM.



“Sustainability is the established paradigm – at least, for everyone in the same bubble as me. As a student of Global Business & Sustainability here at RSM, I think about, challenge and live sustainability every day. Yet, it can be a struggle to connect with people outside my bubble who don’t engage with this subject regularly; so difficult that I consider it an art form. An art form to live by the day. I can only hope that this article and the RSM STAR Sustainability Forum on Friday 10 May will become the stepping stones of a genuine piece of art that everyone will want to appreciate. I aim for a bigger stage to let my voice be heard by those who I would normally not be able to reach.

Sustainability: brave or buzzword?

“I worry that a lot of people are getting ‘sustainability fatigue’. They see and hear the word all the time, but don’t see much genuine movement towards it; they get tired of the whole idea of sustainable development. In fact, we actually tried to give the Sustainability Forum another name because we didn’t want people to roll their eyes at it. It has become just a buzzword to many people; it’s constantly mentioned, but meaningless; I believe this is largely because of all the greenwashing that businesses do.

“Even more frustrating is that even though the business case for sustainability has been made, it’s a struggle to convince businesses to actually make this change. This could be because there is no consensus on what ‘sustainability’ should mean. Does it mean do no harm to the environment, or does it mean actively and positively enrich the environment? Does it mean pay employees according to the law, or pay them a fair wage? And what is a fair wage? We’re always waiting for big societal pressures to push investors and shareholders to change their decisions and set new requirements. I guess that’s just how our capitalistic system works: the business of business is business.

“That being said, I do see some positive change. The current discourse has seen sustainability play a huge role in the entrepreneurial scene. The last few decades have been dominated by big business, dominated by large multinationals. However, start-ups seem to incorporate sustainability into their business model much faster and are therefore attracting a lot of attention – and that feels like good progress!”

We need to lead more vertical collaborations

“What I like most about events like the Sustainability Forum is their multidisciplinary nature, with something for everyone. Our event on 10 May has a financial institution, consultancies, textile, start-ups and more taking part; a very diverse set of stakeholders.

“This year’s theme, ‘Business for the Better?’ exposes RSM to potential criticism about clichéd sustainable business practices, and they are welcoming it. That’s why the question mark in ‘Business for the Better?’ is so important – it isn’t a forgone conclusion. The Sustainability Forum invited businesses based on what they have done to innovate disruptive business models. This is a great and a rare opportunity to give students and professionals a platform on which they can openly and critically discuss how to proceed with sustainable business in a holistic and authentic way. It’s an optimistic, inclusive, and future-oriented attitude to have, especially when you want to become a force for positive change.

“And on that line of thought, it’s great that companies that do not always have the best track record are willing to attend all sorts of sustainability events. It’s refreshing to engage companies who weren’t founded on sustainable principles, and which haven’t managed to fully change their operations yet. It means that these companies are willing to be critical about themselves and be more honest – which is essential.

“It's always good to have tough discussions with yourself, and with others, so I can recommend the RSM-STAR Sustainability Forum on 10 May at RSM. Bring your critical thoughts with you.”

Event details

The RSM STAR Sustainability Forum is open to the wider business community. More information and registration can be found at: www.rsm.nl/rsm-star-sustainability-forum-2019/. The programmer includes keynote speaker Marcello Palazzi, Global Ambassador for the B Corp Movement; a panel of leading professionals from a range of fields on ‘Smashing Sustainability Clichés’; and breakout sessions for the audience to engage in cracking real business cases, facilitated by leaders in sustainable business including EY, Capgemini, ING, Philips, Corekees, Wolkat and Plennid.

More information

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China. www.rsm.nl

For more information about RSM or this release, please contact Marianne Schouten, communications manager for RSM, on +31 10 408 2877 or by email at mschouten@rsm.nl.

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