Meet Ki-Hoon Lee, appointed Senior Professor of Sustainability in Business & Management

Senior Professor of Sustainability in Business and Management, Ki-Hoon Lee,

What got you focused on the issues surrounding sustainability for business?

My interest came from my personal interest in environmental management and climate change during my Masters program and PhD, in the late 1990s. At that time, a majority of scholars and researchers looked at environmental challenges from the perspective of mainstream economics, so the focus was on environmental considerations and investments as additional costs, which will lead to negative impacts on economic performance. A more balanced approach is to look at balancing ‘the economy’ with society and the natural environment. My starting point was why did these views polarise?

What aspects of sustainability are you focused on currently?

I have spent over 20 years trying to discover how businesses can achieve more on sustainability without incurring a commercial competitive hindrance. There is much positive evidence now that if companies focus on environmental benefits, then it brings them positive economic impact.

Towards sustainable business and society, we need to train and support business leaders, both now and for the future, to do more for the environment and build greater economic success. This is not just about financial success, but also intangible benefits like improved public trust, broader stakeholder support, and positive reputation in both the short and long term.

Of the companies operating today, and established in the US and Europe, fewer than 1 per cent have had a corporate lifetime that can stretch back 100 years or more. The question is why? To me, the answer to longevity lies in building and maintaining trust and stakeholder support. Unfortunately, many of the companies that have disappeared can be shown to have focused only on shareholder value in the short term.

We are now in an environment where we cannot avoid sustainability – we must integrate it into business, but the question remains how?

The trailblazers must achieve a positive position in the market. That might require them to invest more on environmental mitigation measures now – but in the longer term the return on that investment will bring enhanced opportunities. That is how we can lead to more sustainable practices: by looking to reduce carbon footprints or mitigate other negative environmental impacts.

This value must be integrated into how we review operational costs. Historically, when economically difficult times come around, it is the companies that can draw on a wider base of stakeholder support that are the ones that remain strong.

Most global surveys of CEOs confirm that chief executives are aware of the importance of sustainability. Many even have existing strategies in place. But if you delve deeper, is that ‘strategy’ truly integrated into the business’ operations? How do they measure success of sustainability strategy and implementation?

If gaps remain between strategic talk and operational implementation, then the strategies are empty. These businesses need to know how to close that gap. They need better support, and that is where the Business School and our Centre for Business Innovation and Sustainable Solutions comes in.

What attracted you to The Business School?

The new development plan for Edinburgh Napier has sustainability as a key focus. My role as Senior Professor of Sustainability in Business and Management is a new position, created to help us lead the field as a university focused on applied research and teaching.

When I received the offer, I was delighted to see the Business School’s strategy included a new research centre for Business Innovation and Sustainable Solutions (BISS). We have ambitious plans and we now need partnerships to help us work with and for businesses of all sizes.

In these tough economic times, serious changes can be seen as financial burdens, and we need first to focus on how we change that mind set. BISS will help position us as a leader in sustainability-related business research. We need to fill the gap between academic questions and applied impact – and I am excited to help build that bridge.

How do you hope the curriculum might evolve over the next 3 years?

Our curriculum is evolving to address the big challenges surrounding the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Evidence-based education will reflect our research outcomes in our curriculum. Our postgraduate education is especially important, as we are educating our future business leaders across the world. I am already working on a new PG programme in Sustainability Management.

The market environment is not favourable to investment in sustainability, but we take this responsibility to do more for sustainable business and management education as a key responsibility of our responsible management education: our mission is to empower our communities to apply business knowledge for positive societal impact. This is why I am here now, to play my part in delivering that.

What do you think about Edinburgh?

There is new development, but we protect the best of what we have as the city develops. My own behaviours here in Edinburgh have changed. I use public transport to reduce my carbon footprint, for my family, the city’s rich historical, cultural and green environment is great. We enjoy places like the Botanic Gardens and are also attracted by the rich history and culture here. That was one of key motivations in bringing my daughter here.

There is a good infrastructure here to support recycling and a greener way of living. As people, we all need support to become more sustainable in our lives – just like business. I am glad to be here in Scotland, to do that for my family and for our business partners.

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