INSEAD’s sustainability-focused MBA curriculum is helping students better understand how to address today’s most pressing business challenges, such as decoupling growth from carbon emissions.

Embedding sustainability into corporate strategy is a key challenge for companies seeking to remain relevant and competitive. Driven by varying market pressures, more than one-third of large corporations globally have set net zero targets by 2050. Yet research shows that despite the increasing momentum behind the issue, most companies remain off track.

What is the main stumbling-block here for companies and how can they come up with innovative solutions? These questions were put to INSEAD’s MBA students in a recent competition hosted by the INSEAD Consulting Club, in partnership with global consulting firm Accenture. MBA students from all INSEAD campuses had the chance to design a new sustainability strategy for “Sports & Co”, a fictitious global sports products manufacturer and retailer with a multi-billion-euro turnover. This follows INSEAD’s recent launch of a renewed MBA curriculum embedding sustainability into all 14 of its core courses.

“Today’s consulting industry is being reshaped to accommodate new corporate needs, especially with regard to issues such as sustainability. So, the competition offered INSEAD MBA students who may want to transition into consulting a unique opportunity to tackle a real-world business problem on a hot-button topic,” said Celine Dumas, Strategy Senior Manager, Accenture and INSEAD alumna (MBA’20J), who helped to mentor the competition finalists.

“More specifically, they were challenged to help Sports & Co reinvent its business and operating model to decouple revenue from rising carbon emissions.”

Drawing on strong foundations to craft a winning strategy

Three student teams – Peak Performance Partners, Real MadrINSEAD and Sportsead – passed the contest’s first qualifying round and March 2023 participated in a highly competitive online final.

At this event, they pitched their solutions for Sports & Co to a judging panel of senior industry executives from Accenture and the Hoffmann Global Institute for Business and Society. The panel was hosted by Peter Zemsky, Deputy Dean and Dean of Innovation at INSEAD.

The judges found that the solution proposed by Team Peak Performance Partners was the most creative and comprehensive and so declared it the competition winner.

The team’s pitch for Sports & Co included proposals to reduce carbon emissions from its core business. These included migrating to renewable energy sources and working with suppliers to optimise its carbon footprint.

It also came up with new product innovation strategies. These included integrating new sports equipment eco-designs across the value chain, as well as introducing circular business lines and creating a closed-loop system for supply chain partners. The team estimated that together, these would allow Sports & Co to reduce its Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 26 per cent and carbon intensity by 32 per cent, while also boosting revenue.

Team Peak Performance also drew up a transformation roadmap for the next five years to help Sports & Co sustain its green ambitions. Key milestones included creating a “super-app” so customers could easily access its new offerings and form a community of dedicated users. It also suggested the company hire a Chief Sustainability Officer to drive its new strategy forward while creating an internal culture focused on integrating sustainability into everyday operations.

Finally, the team recommended that Sports & Co build partnerships with firms specialising in sustainability transformation so it could more effectively integrate its strategy into general management functions.

“The challenge the teams were posed was a tough one. The student strategists had to consider how to balance the pressure retailers face to continue business-as-usual – that is, maximising profits in a highly competitive environment – versus becoming a greener brand, and how that can boost consumer engagement in the longer term. Ambitious and clear-sighted, Peak Performance’s solution did just that,” says Dumas.


Understanding sustainability challenges and opportunities

At the finals, the judging panel also held a public discussion on why sustainability has become crucial to corporate strategy and how, as a result, this issue has become a core component of the INSEAD MBA’s approach.

The panelists agreed that an effective sustainability strategy is essential if companies are to meet investor pressure, consumer demand, and talent acquisition requirements. New regulations on non-financial reporting also make sustainability a financial prerogative.

As the panelists also noted, driving sustainability requires companies to consider every aspect of their business, from product offerings to supply chain management. All too often, however, integration into business strategy remains partial and the corporate social responsibility divisions tasked with spearheading an ESG agenda end up marginalised.

The panel agreed that this is often due to the significant challenges companies face in shifting corporate strategy to reduce upstream emissions. These include a lack of data, and sheer supply chain complexity. Other issues can include differing supplier approaches to deploying sustainable processes, and the need to balance costs with cutting carbon emissions.

Leveraging new business models to build growth

Yet as the judges also pointed out, it is not all bad news. Retail frontrunners are succeeding in transforming their core businesses into more sustainable models by embracing data-driven decision-making to help decarbonise operations. They are also reviewing their product strategies to create new, lower emissions products, as well as engaging suppliers to explore decarbonising supply chains.

Others are deploying and scaling sustainable business models that include a greater role for secondhand products, along with repair, rental, and recycling approaches.

The panelists agreed that implementing circular economy business models requires partnerships between companies, governments, and other stakeholders so change can ideally be driven industry and society-wide. The judges referenced some innovative partnership and ecosystem business models that are now emerging, such as Materiact, Citizen Capital, and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.

“The panel’s reflections put the competition in a real-world business context. They also served to highlight how important it is for students to understand the complexities of sustainability and how success involves applying their sustainability skills to all aspects of general management – from strategy and operations to finance, marketing and more,” says Lorien Alecki, Strategy and Consulting Manager, Accenture and INSEAD alum MBA’20D, who also acted as a mentor to competition finalists.

Shaping future business leaders

As both Dumas and Alecki concluded, the grounding that students receive on sustainability from INSEAD's MBA curriculum stood all the finalists in good stead.

“It was clear the teams all came to the competition already equipped with a solid understanding of the importance of integrating sustainability into business practices. Drawing on relevant insights gleaned from the core MBA curriculum helped them craft their solutions to a very high standard,” says Alecki.

“Every day at Accenture, clients come to us for support on how to embed sustainability into their business strategies. Consulting teams need people with the capabilities to help on this issue, so it’s timely and highly relevant that INSEAD is dedicated to shaping future business leaders who can do just that.”

Start your INSEAD journey with us and sign up for this programme now.

Apply Now