The Importance of Embedding Sustainability in Secondary Education Curriculums

By Hunter Lovins

The diverse crises that the planet faces will only be solved when companies and communities implement authentic and innovative sustainability practices. It is therefore encouraging that there are an increasing number of colleges and universities now including sustainability as part of their campus management programs and curriculum.

Are these programs effective enough to create the next generation of thought leaders our world needs? The answer is, “No. Not yet.”

A good start is underway, however. Pressure from companies, students, and ranking organizations is forcing colleges and universities to embrace sustainability.

The business community is demanding candidates with sustainability training. Accenture found that over 93 percent of CEO’s see sustainability as crucial to business success, with 88 percent stating it needs to be fully embedded into their strategy and operations.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) reporting is increasing annually, creating job openings for graduates familiar with integrated reporting. Given that about 20 percent of CSR reports each year are submitted by companies reporting for the first time, recruiting candidates who are familiar with sustainability, or training existing employees is a top priority for these companies. Job candidates who have a strong knowledge of sustainability are better positioned not only to fill current job openings, but help lead their companies into the future.

A 2010 study by McKinsey found, however, that many companies need education on how to go forward. Most executives surveyed considered sustainability important to their future, agreeing that the management of environmental, social, and governance issues was “very” or “extremely” important in a wide range of areas, including new product development, reputation building, and overall corporate strategy. However, only 30 percent said that their companies actively sought opportunities to invest in sustainability or embed it in their business practices. Respondents admitted to a pervasive lack of understanding of what sustainability is and how to implement it. This educational gap, they stated, was inhibiting action.

In part in recognition of this opportunity, and in part because this is what they care about – MonsterTRAK reports that 92 percent of recent college graduates want to work for a company that cares about the environment – students have been a major driver for campus sustainability. At the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU), students demanded that all new buildings be LEED-certified. Now CU has 14 LEED-certified buildings. This is not unique to CU. According to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) in 2011 more green building efforts were underway on campuses than ever before. Additionally, 677 colleges and universities, representing all 50 states and more than 6 million students, one third of the national student body, have signed the American College and University President’s Climate Challenge (ACUPCC). Signatories commit to create a plan to achieve carbon neutrality on campus and to integrate sustainability throughout their curriculum.

As the interest in sustainability and “green collar” jobs has grown, colleges and universities have incorporated sustainability across their operations and into degree programs. Of the roughly 4,000 colleges and universities within the U.S., 65 percent have instituted an Office of Sustainabilityor at least a centralized program management office to oversee the diverse number of sustainability programs on campus.

The National Wildlife Federation found that 64 percent of campus leaders believe that environmental stewardship and sustainability fits with the culture and values of their campus, and 17 percent stated that it helps with student recruitment. Colleges that invest in sustainability are saving money and gaining a competitive advantage.

Students are looking for schools that make living and teaching sustainability a priority in their coursework and in campus life. Two thirds of the more than 15,000 respondents to The Princeton Review’s “College Hopes & Worries Survey,” said that “they would favor having information about a college’s commitment to the environment and that it may impact their decision to apply to or attend the school.” Almost 25 percent said it would “Strongly” or “Very Much” contribute to their assessment of a school.

To help students choose, campuses are reporting their initiatives to external outlets that rank or track their sustainability efforts. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), partnered with Princeton Review and Sierra Magazine, provides the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Reporting System (STARS). The 2011 Green Report Card issued by the Sustainable Endowments Institute showed dramatic increases in implementation of their 52 green indicators over results from 2007. More than 60 percent of schools surveyed have made a commitment to cut carbon emissions compared to 23 percent in 2006. Seventy percent have a campus farm or garden, up from 9 percent in 2006. Almost 80 percent have implemented a green building policy, compared to 22 percent in 2006, and almost all (95 percent) have a formal sustainability committee. In 2006 only 40 percent did.

Proquest’s list of “Academic Programs in Sustainability” counts 180 total programs in the U.S., 134 degree programs and 46 certificate programs. This is up from zero a few years ago. Universities such as Arizona State even offer a PhD in Sustainability.

Despite all this, efforts are falling short. When both the International Energy Agency and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Developmentwarn that unless global leaders implement more sustainable practices immediately the world faces a grim future, universities have a duty to see that graduates are trained in sustainability.

Three main problems exist today:

  1. Most programs poorly integrate sustainability with other curriculum and across departments. Sustainability on many campuses is still a buzzword used to help with student recruitment and public perception, not a central organizing principle for higher education. Because of this, sustainability curriculums are tacked on to programs as an elective. This approach does not teach students how to think critically about future challenges facing their world.
    This is particularly true in business education. Sustainability has as much to do with business management as does economics and accounting. Training students on how to approach complex problems, how to employ systems thinking, and how to engage younger workers who care deeply about sustainability by implementing it throughout the company cannot be done with dated and often inaccurate case studies that are the staple of most MBA programs.
    Few business schools have fully integrated sustainability into their MBA programs. The leaders include Bainbridge Graduate Institute, Dominican University, Marlboro, and a new program being introduced by BardCollege. Bainbridge has gone further than the rest, not only weaving sustainability into every class, but also integrating the business disciplines together. Classes that most institutions teach as stand-alone Economics, Finance, Operations, Marketing and so on, at Bainbridge are taught as:
  • Capitalism in Context: Economics for People and Planet;
  • Values and Values Creation: Business Models for the 21st Century; and
  • Means and Measures: Accounting for Integrated Bottom Line Success

This integrated Curriculum 2.0 blends innovation, social justice, sustainability, and leadership with the traditional core business strategies and skills. This course of study enables students to learn how business is done in the real world, not as an academic exercise. Second year students undertake Action Learning Practica in Entrepreneurship, Local Living Economies, and Organizational Leadership.

Bard integrates sustainability completely into curricula, offering classes such as Finance for Sustainable Business, Accounting & The Integrated Bottom Line, and Political Economy of Sustainability. All students engage in the Living Laboratory of New York City, a mentored program that matches students with companies, NGOs and governments to deliver real world experience in implementing sustainability.

  1. Programs are taught by academics, instead of practitioners. Unless you are working on the ground, it is hard to realize how fast the field of sustainability is evolving and gain the skills to innovate to make real changes in business.
    Both Bainbridge Graduate Institute (BGI) and Bard feature faculty who bring real world experience to their students. Blending academic rigor with practical and innovative training, the programs give students an advantage over tenured schools that offer little incentive to modernize. Both use the flipped-classroom approach, where lecture occurs via digital means, and face time is used for intensive conversation and peer learning. Integrated, innovative curricula, coupled with an all-star cast of practitioners, is why these programs are considered leaders in sustainability education.
  2. There arenot enough programs.Sustainability should be taught to all business leaders. In this time when businesses are experiencing the costs of climate change, resource scarcity, and an unengaged workforce, leaders need clarity on how to innovate solutions to the gnarly problems facing their industries. Alternative educational offerings like The Unreasonable Instituteand Singularity Universityare wildly popular programs that have rejected the traditional academic model. Both are helping to make sustainability education accessible to entrepreneurs, not just undergrad or full-time MBA students.
    The University of Denver(DU) offers a Certificate in Sustainability Leadership and Implementation for individuals already employed who need training to implement sustainability in their organization. Designed to cater to people working full-time, the program features a faculty of sustainability thought leaders and industry experts. BGI will offer a similar program in Fall 2012.

Making sustainability accessible to all types of students is a key issue that schools need to address. Colleges and universities are training the next generation of leaders to confront climate change, resource scarcity, and economic collapse. It is time for the academic world to embrace its role as the torch bearer of sustainability.

image: beanbag amerika via Flickr cc (some rights reserved)

This article was reprinted with permission from Sustainable Industries.

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20 responses

  1. Knowledge is the only instrument of production that is not subject to diminishing returns. An interesting research article called High Speed Universities is the solution to stop your job hunt. Search for it online.

    1. Heck, you are leading the effort. I’m honored to be able to be in service to that work.

  2. It’s taking off everywhere. I called the University of Hawaii business school last year to see if they were interested, and that’s about all it took. Before I knew it, I was teaching a sustainability course for their MBA program and now we’re working to get it into the core (not elective) for both that and the undergrad biz majors. 

    We stand on the shoulders of Bainbridge, Hunter, and everyone else who laid the groundwork. A huge thank you to all of you. 

  3. I’d be remiss to not also add that we’re gamifying this. I developed GBO Hawaii (, a sustainability strategy board game (and now card game, too). There are free lesson plans for teachers from 9th grade and up available for download on our site, too. Sorry for the shameless self-promotion, but this is exactly the change we need to see in the world…engaging our youth and the future leaders of the world to think beyond Monopoly’s single bottom line. 

  4. As a high school teacher who has started a sustainable food club, I have decided to take a grassroots empowerment approach. Teach cooking from scratch such as making your own own baking crust and using cooking products directly from local farmers/farmer markets. Take control of your kitchen and empower citizens in our community!! We emphasize small business and organics based on ethical production method when “big” is the only buying option. Food is power, so we also emphasize self-grown food. I am hoping our edible landscape initiative will serve as a model for suburban gardens by students. We also emphasize the importance of political activism such as contacting senators to oppose cumborsome regulations designed by big agra to regulate competition out of business under the guise of fake food safety. We have supported with phone calls and letter writing campaigns GMO labeling and study tactics of corporations to co-opt the food freedom movement. I always mention to the students to ask the question, “who’s getting the money and power?. For example, when all seeds are patented and the common heritage is humanity is destroyed, who benefits financially?

    1. Thanks for all that you do to educate students on sustainability concepts. If you’re looking for free lessons and ideas about how to integrate sustainability into your lessons, check out GEF’s sustainability lesson clearinghouse. A division of GEF, GEF Institute, also offers a comprehensive blended learning curriculum on green building strategies. It could be something of great value to a forward thinking school!

  5. Thank you Hunter for this well well-documented current state.

    This is exactly the challenge & opportunity we’re addressing at Sustainable Minds. Faculty & students from 350+ colleges and universities globally have started using Sustainable Minds software in business, design and engineering curriculum. Check out the blog posts and webcast replays from the first two parts in our series featuring educators telling their stories: Creating Knowledge Workers for the Greener Product Marketplace. Part three will be Aug 28th.

    We have also created a Curriculum Library, which is a collection of projects and course descriptions contributed by faculty using Sustainable Minds, which we share with new educators getting started.

  6. I hope all of you brainwashed fools like Communism because all this warm and fuzzy save the bunnies is a disguise for Global Governance. Enjoy what little freedom you have because when they are done it will be poverty for all except of course the ruling class. This sustainable crap is straight from UN. You know how Hitler and many other tyrannical dictators controlled and murdered millions???? LIES. And lies are what you so called educated people are being fed. You are victims of an educational system that no longer teaches critical thinking. You have been dumbed down to the point of nothing more than a herd of sheeple.

    1. Kendi, I agree in part with you. But there are two sustainable movements. The small farmers markets are all about green. Shutting them is also green. One is a green freedom movement and another is a green eco-nazi movement.

      Fortuanetely, the rank and file eco-nazi generally have good intentions, so it will be hard for the leaders to impose the level of control they desire over populations. Most of the rank-and-file just want to go to a nice park and hike. But there is a powerful element at the top that is just like Kendi-5 says.

      But I appreciate your valuable contribution.

    2. Congratulations Kendratilly, you win “insane post of the day”.  Loosen up the tinfoil hat there buddy…

      1. I don’t disagree with Kendri with regard to the fake environmentalists who are totalitarians, want to restrict rural life, force us into the urban control grid.Not an insane post at all.

        But the environmentalists have a point that it is also possible to make urban life more efficient. I love the efficiency of the small condo and subway life in Japan. It was convenient for me to live with no car.  And I think, unlike the eco-nazis, that the suburbs can also be green if they become a small garden plot paradise. With permaculture, rain barrels etc. With veggies replacing green grass.And even solar panels so people can be independent if they choose from corporate and government controlled power grids.

        And Kendi is also right that many eco-nazis are collectivissts who want us to have no access to rural life, that humans must work in dense cities and be partitioned off from a pristine unspoilt nature. With forced depopulation. There are some scary ecologists out there. 

        I reeally like the fact that there are more greenways and I love national parks etc. But I hate it when people think that people enjoying parks have to be kept on strictly controlled trails and in gift shops.

  7. In my country most if not all the school teach only for knowledge  not for values and sustainability please all of you as expert teachers try to help me to complete my master degree on ( education for sustainable development in Sudan  through references essay and research guide lines.
    thank you in advance 

  8. Infusion of technology and field-based knowledge will be extremely valuable tools for embedding sustainability with respect to K12 curriculum. Certainly courses delivered by individuals directly connected to guiding sustainability efforts will have more lasting impression on young minds. We need to prepare next generation curriculum based on case studies and offer more latitude for interdisciplinary collaboration.

  9. With the growth we’re seeing in the green economy it’s critical that US students are at the leading edge with sustainability education. GEF Institute is offering a free partner program to K-12 schools and higher education institutions. By becoming a partner you can get access to FREE online sustainability courses, teaching tools and discounts on certificates. Check it out!

  10. I agree with you 100% that programs need to be taught by practitiones not academics.  As an instructor at UCSD Extension in their Sustainability Business Certificate and work professionally in the energy industry on sustainability and clean energy programs, I receive great feedback from my students that they appreicate the fact that I am working in the indsutry.  Students want to learn first hand from the people in the field.  We need to find ways to recruit professionals to be willing to teach. 

  11. Susliving – in Ireland:
    This is fantastic piece of information for us as it completely encapsulates our mission here in Ireland. It gives us some further links to explore and share. Susliving launched in September this year has a pilot programme in 11 schools to promote sustainability awareness among students. We raised funds from charitable sources and will need to tap into the corporate market not only to source patrons but also to promote sustainability into the corporate ethos. We have a lot of development ahead of us but we view the programme as a long long term project, really long Term!

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