Sustainability mindset

What do we mean by Sustainability and what is a Sustainable Mindset?

The Sustainability Mindset dimension of the IDEAS model recognises the pivotal role of Higher Education in supporting the knowledge, skills and competencies that students and staff need to develop to contribute to a more sustainable future” (Advance HE and QAA ESD Guidance, 2021).

Although multiple definitions of sustainability exist, this domain presents Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) as an “educational change agenda allowing us to look critically at how the world is and to envision how it might be, supporting learners to create and pursue visions of a better world”.

The urgency of global challenges, such as climate change, biodiversity loss and rising social and economic inequalities, demands we equip today's graduates with attributes necessary to face these challenges and thrive in a complex, uncertain world” (OBU Strategy, 2035).The intentions of this dimension therefore seek reflection and action on this key question:

“How should – and how can – education and learning be re-thought and re-configured to make a significant and central contribution to achieving a more sustainable and just world?” (Sterling, 2001).

A paradigm shift

Sustainability is often misconceived as being primarily concerned with the environment, conservation or energy saving, yet the focus on a just, inclusive and equitable society is equally critical for addressing the social, environmental and economic concerns outlined in the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

These interconnected and multidisciplinary ‘superwicked problems’ (Levin et al., 2012) are deeply nested within prevailing cultural narratives: how we see ourselves, our relationships to each other and to the natural world. They require a paradigm shift, in our lifestyles and the way we think and act (Rimanoczy, 2021) starting with reflection on the following ‘stories we live by’ (Stibbe, 2019):

  • Economic models that promote hockey stick growth curves, profits as a paramount priority and spiralling models of consumption.
  • Social systems with disabling disadvantages, built in inequalities of opportunity and a lack of inclusivity, diversity and fair representation.
  • Cultural narratives that present humanity as separate from, superior to or intrinsically selfish in its relationship to the natural world.

Although developing knowledge and understanding of sustainability challenges (SDGs) must be an integral part of all subject areas and disciplines, it is also vital to nurture the competencies and mindset necessary to enact the transformative changes needed. ESD recognises that every graduate must acquire the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values necessary to ‘unlearn unsustainability’ (Wals, 2010).

Developing ESD competencies

At the heart of ESD sits Transformative Learning (Mezirow, 2006) that seeks through reflective, collaborative and inclusive practices to enable and empower transformative change. The UNESCO ESD competencies (2017) provide a framework for learner centred, action orientated and transformative HE learning and pedagogy. The framework includes Systems Thinking, Futures Thinking, Critical Thinking, Strategic, Collaboration and Integrated Problem Solving competencies, self awareness and normative competency.

Broadly, these competencies develop the ability to question, interpret or act on knowledge as informed, engaged and empowered citizens.

A sustainability mindset and inclusivity

A Sustainable Mindset is one that engages emotionally, intellectually and responsibly with sustainability issues and can look critically at current norms and behaviours that negatively impact people and planet. ‘Running through the literature on inclusive education is the notion of social justice and rights for all groups of people’ (Hockings, 2010) underpinning the core thread between sustainability and inclusivity encapsulated in the Sustainability Mindset domain. Education can make a difference by supporting sustainability learning, decolonising our spaces, recognizing and respecting difference and always working from a social justice vantage point.

It invites reflection on our potential, both individual and collective, to shape a more inclusive, equal and sustainable society. When leading our learners we need to explore the cultural lenses, habits of mind and assumptions that drive unsustainable behaviours (Rimanoczy, 2021). As sustainability educator Dr Paul Vare (2018) notes “if we are not actively working against unsustainability then we are probably supporting it”.

Why is it important to our students?

Universities worldwide are now engaging with sustainability as a priority across policy, practices, curricula and pedagogy, in recognition of the crucial role of HE in developing viable, inclusive and equitable solutions to today’s challenges. Oxford Brookes University 2035 strategy embeds sustainability as a golden thread, supporting its vision of “unlocking change and transforming futures together” (OBBS, 2021). 

Other pressing reasons for embedding ESD and a Sustainable Mindset include:

  • SOS UK, Sustainability Skills Survey, 2020-21 noted that 79% of students want to see Sustainable Development ‘actively incorporated and promoted through all courses’. Findings from the THE consultancy Report (2022) confirm “how important sustainability is to students but also how much they see sustainability as a wide ranging and all encompassing movement”.
  • Advance HE has recently updated the Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF) to include ESD as an area of core knowledge which educators will need to evidence in their practice.
  • At QAA level, all Subject Benchmark Statements have now been updated to include ESD (Professor Simon Kemp, 2022)
  • Sustainability competencies, many of which are recognised as key attributes for graduate success and employability, are recognised as the most sought after skills in the workplace, yet often the weakest evidenced (QS Skills Gap, 2019)
  • ESD supports university-wide strategic objectives that positively impact students' success including internationalisation, employability, enterprise and entrepreneurship, research and knowledge exchange, health and wellbeing, civic engagement and equality, inclusivity and diversity (Advance HE and QAA ESD Guidance document, 2021).
  • Globally, SDG 4.7 Quality Education is widely recognised as foundational to achieving all 17 SDGs through ensuring inclusive and equitable education and lifelong learning opportunities for all.

Perhaps most compellingly, sustainability literacy competencies and action are critically needed to prepare our graduates to thrive in a VUCA world.

What do I need to do?

Begin by reflecting on the student voice question set. Everyone teaching on a programme should be able to provide a detailed response to the Threshold questions that clearly articulates to students the relevance of sustainability to themselves, their disciplina area and in their future world of work.You do not need to be an expert in Sustainability to engage students but to provide opportunities for reflection, discussion and engagement with the Sustainability Mindset dimension. Exploration of the SDGs and the UNESCO ESD competencies provides useful starting points to explore elements you already include in your practice and areas to develop further. How can your discipline contribute to fostering a sustainable mindset? Where can you move from safe to brave spaces in your teaching and learning?(Winks, 2019)

Engagement with the questions should prompt you to consider areas for development within your programme or module. Refer to the case studies and resources for examples and activities to support you in developing your practice.

OCAED thanks Cathy d'Abreu for the content on this page.