International Perspectives

Students Observe ESG Initiatives Firsthand in South Africa

April 24, 2023
John Sollecito, '23

As organizations become more socially conscious, environmental, social, and governance (ESG) frameworks are embedded frequently into corporate strategy and operations. Sustainability reporting and disclosure standards are quickly evolving to become a major functional area of organizations in all industries, and the business school is finding ways to provide students with hands-on learning opportunities in the field.

International Perspectives: Sustainability Initiatives, Metrics, and Disclosures, an accounting course, examines the state of U.S. and international ESG disclosures and took students to Cape Town, South Africa, to witness CSR initiatives firsthand. 

South Africa was one of the first countries in the world to require disclosure of ESG information from corporations and in 2018, Cape Town narrowly avoided a “Day Zero” crisis, where the city would have no alternative but to turn off all the water. Given its history, the city provided a unique opportunity to learn from its experience.

Students & faculty experience South Africa

Two students in the course, John Sollecito and Jay Welle, are both graduating in May and joining two of the Big Four accounting firms in audit roles. Their motivations for taking the course were similar. “I wanted to gain a better understanding of sustainability reporting,” Sollecito said. “As ESG reporting and disclosures are becoming more commonplace among investors, as an auditor, I want to become more familiar with the subject.”

Said Welle, “Before beginning my professional career, I wanted to familiarize myself with ESG reporting and become aware of the developments of sustainability reporting across the globe. No other course in the Robins School is like this one and I wanted to be exposed to unique content in my last semester.” 

Students traveled to South Africa over spring break and observed businesses in the Victoria and Alfred (V&A) Waterfront and met with executives involved in the V&A sustainability initiatives in Cape Town. They also visited a large farming operation using regenerative techniques and local businesses involved in the food ecosystem.

“The students had an overwhelmingly positive reaction both to engaging with a very different culture and to what they learned about sustainability initiatives,” said Joyce van der Laan Smith, professor of accounting and course instructor. “More deeply, the students confronted their own understanding of a corporation’s responsibility to society.” 

“A major takeaway from the course was that sustainability and profitability can coexist,” Welle said. “The benefits of sustainability are not just confined to a positive impact on the environment and humanity but extend also to the bottom line of businesses. Sustainability is more than a trend – it’s the future of businesses across the globe."

But students learned much beyond Cape Town’s sustainability initiatives, receiving a cultural immersion in South Africa’s recent history both through readings and the in-person experience.

“The most significant thing I will remember is coming to the realization that the same problems that exist in America exist across the globe as well,” said Sollecito. During a speaking engagement, the students attended on Robben Island, the speaker shared that he was proud of students protesting to fuel change in South Africa. “The majority of people in Cape Town said the most beautiful view in the world was at the top of Table Mountain. I would disagree,” Sollecito said. “I would love to return to Cape Town in 60 years after these students have made a positive impact in the world—to see people of all backgrounds carrying out their dreams and living equally would be the most beautiful view in the world.”