From periphery to business core

Sustainability was an unusual, if not odd, research topic in business schools in the early 1990s. The most radical changes are, however, yet to come, says Professor Minna Halme.
Aalto Sustainability Days 2018 Panel discussion at Otaniemi. Photo by Heidi Konttinen
At the Aalto Sustainability Day 2018 professor Ramia Mazé hosted a panel discussion with professor Minna Halme, Dr. Janez Potočnik, Dr. Ilkka Herlin, MEP Sirpa Pietikäinen and professor Peter Lund. Photo: Heidi Konttinen

The UN Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 was a major turning point: global environmental problems made the headlines. In business schools at the time there were only a handful – mostly young – researchers interested in environmental management.

In 1993, researcher and later professor Raimo Lovio at Helsinki School of Economics and Business Administration established the Sustainability in Business (SUB) research group, one of the world’s first ones in a business school. Among the first research topics were environmental management and reporting, followed by service business models that improve material efficiency. 

Professor Lovio had a key role in establishing a national contest on social responsibility reporting in 1996. Nowadays we talk about sustainability reporting, which has so far been voluntary for Finnish companies but will become statutory starting next year.

In the early 2000s, human rights in global supply chains emerged in discussions and climate change got increasing attention. Covering ecological, social and long-term economic considerations in the context of business, corporate responsibility made its way as a key concept in the field.

Societal pressure kept mounting and corporate responsibility began getting more attention from top management of corporations. Toward the end of the decade, the SUB group’s research began to increasingly focus on innovations solving major sustainability problems. The focus also became more global as innovations aimed at alleviating poverty in low-income emerging markets entered the group’s research agenda. During the two first decades, the group had grown considerably, but its research mainly remained dependent on external research funding.

Creative Sustainability opiskelijoita Meksikossa 2018. Kuvaaja: Heidi Konttinen
Creative Sustainability students attending a course in Mexico in 2018. Photo: Heidi Konttinen

More systems thinking

By 2010, many business schools had established research groups on sustainability and responsibility. At the time, the Helsinki School of Economics became a part of Aalto University, and this transition launched a significant shift in teaching and research.

'The multidisciplinary ‘How to Change the World: Innovating toward Sustainability’ course created new opportunities in teaching and allowed us to step outside the classroom', recounts Minna Halme, Professor of Sustainability Management.

The multidisciplinary Creative Sustainability study programme was also launched, and Aalto Global Impact was established to help Aalto’s researchers and students co-create challenge-based solutions with stakeholders in the Global South.

'We’ve educated a great number of professionals in sustainability management early on, and they now have roles in the industry, public sector, NGOs and consultancy firms, working with business development and corporate responsibility.'

When the multidisciplinary Smart Energy Transitionresearch project was launched in 2015, wind and solar power were considered marginal curiosities. In six years, research and interaction work of the project widely impacted the national energy business and policy. Its results can be seen to have accelerated the adoption of renewable energy forms and improved our national energy self-sufficiency.

Currently, the interdisciplinary Finix project comprised of Aalto’s business, design and materials research together with six other universities focuses on research and impact work on sustainable textile systems help to solve some of the global environmental and social sustainability problems resulting from fast fashion.

'Our goal is to provide knowledge and solutions for making garment longevity and textile circularity major business for Finland and Europe. We need new kind of value creation, design, materials and business models, along with changes in consumption habits and legislation development.'

Towards radical creativity

The community built around the Sustainability in Business research group has changed people’s mindsets throughout its existence.

'At the dawn of this millennium, many business students and professionals still felt it revolutionary for their professional identities to be allowed to think about sustainability as a topic with business relevance, and as something that can be incorporated in business. The world has changed – nowadays all this is self-evident.'

Halme says that the field, down to The Economist magazine, now acknowledges that adoption of the ESG criteria has not made the problems go away. Production and consumption continue to grow, aggravating the climate crisis and biodiversity loss.

'Radical thoughts are starting to be presentable in all contexts, but I still often wonder why natural science knowledge is not respected more when organizations make decisions. Clear evidence shows that the resilience of ecosystems and societies has grown weaker, but this is not acted upon with respective seriousness.'

Halme says we need to engage more deeply in the sustainability transition from change of paradigms to implementation, starting from critically examining even the “holy beliefs” such as the GDP growth imperative or NGOs shareholder profits maximization.

'We are faced with a painful need to change certain fundamental beliefs. This calls for risk-taking and leaps into the unknown – which necessitates courage. The success of countries, for example, could be measured with a combined indicator that takes into account the state of the natural environment, wellbeing and long-term economic development – instead of GDP growth primarily.'

Finix tutkimusryhmä Ioncell-laboratioriossa vuonna 2019. Kuva: Cvijeta Miljak
Finix researchers at the Ioncell laboratory in 2019. Photo: Cvijeta Miljak

Sustainability in Business research group

Founded in 1993, the SUB research group was one the first in its field. Around the same time, first steps in environmental management research were also taken at the business school of University of Gothenburg in Sweden and the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland.

SUB has grown from a team of a few people into a group of some thirty researchers. Around sixty dissertations have been completed, and the group’s alumni work as professors and in managerial positions in companies, the public sector and non-governmental organisations in Finland and elsewhere in Europe.

In 2022, Alfred Kordelin Foundation awarded Minna Halme with a 50,000-euro prize for her work that has created prerequisites for a better future in science, culture and civil society.

People on the Finix photo above: Hannu Tanner (VTT), Essi Karell, Kirsti Cura, Linda Turunen, Herbert Sixta, Minna Halme, Elizabeth Miller, Hanna Salmenperä (Finnish Environment Institute), Olli Sahimaa, Sini Suomalainen (Rhea Solutions) and Kaisa Sorsa (Turku University of Applied Sciences).

People on the photo below: (left to right, top to bottom): Jennifer Goodman, Maria Joutsenvirta, Timo Järvensivu, Sara Lindeman, Mika Kuisma, Raimo Lovio, Samuli Patala, Angelina Korsunova, Teresa Haukkala, Maarit Laihonen, Eeva-Lotta Apajalahti, Jarkko Levänen. Jouni Juntunen, Minna Halme, Armi Temmes, Marleen Wierenga and Galina Kallio.

Sustainability in Business -ryhmä vuonna 2016.
In 2016, the Sustainability in Business group was still working in Töölö, but was already collaborating with Aalto's other schools. Raimo Lovio, Eva Heiskanen (not in the photo), Minna Halme and Jouni Juntunen have led the SUB group in 1993-2023.
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