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By Stephanie Lim

‘Sustainability’ has become a hot term in businesses the past few years. However, in business schools, sustainability is not always a central focus of education.

In a region where people have been working their way from rags to riches, running businesses for a better livelihood, sustainability is usually not on their top of mind. It is easy to fall into the logical fallacy of a zero-sum game and pit profitability against sustainability.

The possibility of sustainability as a business strategy

Business and sustainability can complement each other and create a competitive advantage for companies. Take the popular Nutella maker, Ferrero, for example. As a result of its commitment to source 100% sustainable Palm Oil , Ferrero has been recognised by consumers and stakeholders as an industry leader.

Musim Mas has in turn, benefitted from Ferrero’s commitment, as we are the only sustainable Palm Oil supplier in Indonesia for Ferrero.

Dr. Judith Walls: Educating undergrads on sustainability

In Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore, a group of educators set out to promote critical thinking around sustainability issues, through introducing a massive online module that addresses environmental, social, and business aspects of sustainability.

I spoke to Dr. Judith Walls, who collaborated on the development of the university-wide sustainability module as a faculty member and Associate Director for the Centre for Business Sustainability at Nanyang Business School (NTU Singapore). Dr. Walls is now Professor and Chair of Sustainability Management at the Institute for Environment and Economy (IWOe), University of St. Gallen (Switzerland).

Tell us about the module you created.

We created this module, “Seeing through the Haze”, as a massive online course that is a mandatory requirement for all undergraduates at NTU, regardless of their discipline or school.

The module explores the social and environmental impact of businesses, and how sustainability problems are being addressed, by using the Palm Oil industry as a case study.

In the creation of the module, I had the opportunity to interview experts in the Palm Oil industry, as well as academics and NGOs. We used this material to create a ‘documentary-style’ module that would be interesting and informative for students.

Why did you pick Palm Oil as the case study?

We wanted to pick a sustainability topic that was relevant to students in Singapore. Everyone in Singapore knows about the haze. Since the extended haze period in 2015, many Singaporeans are more concerned about Palm Oil and its provenance. Yet, many are probably not aware how prevalent Palm Oil is in everyday items, such as makeup, processed food and hygiene products.

Also, the Palm Oil debate is also interesting at a global level because of the polarizing views different parties take. On one end, you have environmental activists calling for a total boycott of Palm Oil , and on the other, you have the private sector working to make sustainable palm oil the norm.

It highlights how complex sustainability is and that there are trade-offs from business decisions, and the need to involve multiple stakeholders like government and NGOs to work towards a solution.

What did you expect the students to get out of the module?

We hoped that students, through taking this module, would gain a general understanding of sustainability, and how it affects many stakeholders. It was important to us that students could see the relevance of different disciplines in solving the Palm Oil sustainability problems. We also wanted to show that not everything about Palm Oil is negative.

Personally, I changed my stance on Palm Oil after researching and preparing for this module. I used to lean towards boycotting Palm Oil . However, as I started to learn more about the topic, I released that Palm Oil is the most land-efficient oil crop compared to rapeseed, soy and other oils. Therefore, I now take the more balanced view that on the one hand, high value conservation and biodiverse areas need to be protected from deforestation. But on the other, if we can produce Palm Oil in an efficient and sustainable manner, we have an opportunity to use less land area for oil production.

Of course, a critical aspect for the Palm Oil industry is that it is produced in a sustainable manner and the governance over the supply chain. It seems like the industry is moving in this direction. By showing students how complex sustainability problems and solutions are, they will hopefully learn to think more deeply and critically about the topic.