Teaching sustainability will increase student employment prospects – but we’re still not doing it properly, writes Dora Martínez Carbonell

Sustainability has certainly become the buzzword of the 21st century. From reusable coffee cups claiming to make our coffee break ethical and green, to fashion brands making T-shirts from recycled plastics, to airlines offsetting flights so we can have “eco-holidays” – everyone is using it. 

At the same time, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are gaining visibility and public attention. They highlight the interconnectedness of the critical issues affecting our planet.

We even have the 2030 SDGs official card game now, which explores how we can achieve the Sustainable Development Goals through different “real world” scenarios!

Today, companies and consumers recognise that sustainability is important. But are we doing enough in FE?

‘Values are established in classrooms’

Philippe Joubert, chief executive at Earth on Board, uses a very bold statement when advising his corporate clients: “Business as usual is dead”.

Millions of pounds spent in downstream corrective measures is not the answer. Instead, a different system is.

And while it may be in the boardroom where big decisions are made, it is in the classroom where a society establishes and transmits its values. And yet sustainability is insufficiently discussed in our FE centres.

How future leaders understand and envision the system determines the shape and form our societies take.

The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2020 found that young people (the next generation of customers, employees and CEOs) are highly concerned about environmental sustainability and social justice. They see beyond the immediate demands of the Covid pandemic.

They envision a better place, with fairer systems and a healthier environment. So we must give them the skills to bring that world into reality.

Sustainability is not a subject in and of itself. Rather, it is a discipline that feeds from many others and cuts across sectors, departments and industries.

The Guide for Sustainability in Further Education produced by the Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education makes clear why we need to embed it in FE. It is “to provide learners with the knowledge, skills and values that are needed to mitigate the effects of climate change.

“Students with the skills and competences gained through education in sustainability will have increased employment prospects and greater potential for career progression.”

It adds that colleges have an important role to play in supporting local businesses and the wider community in their “journey towards a more sustainable way of living”.

‘Bring expert voices onboard’

The need is real. The Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment has found that only 13 per cent of companies are confident that they can compete in a sustainable economy. Over half report that it is difficult to recruit candidates with sufficient expertise.

So to achieve the prime minister’s post-Covid-19 recovery plan for a ‘green industrial revolution’ and our legal commitment to zero greenhouse gas emissions in less than 30 years, significant reskilling and training is needed. For that, we must develop strategies that bring all stakeholders together.

In FE, we must bring sustainability expert voices onboard to advise course directors on how best to embed sustainability into their programmes. 

This starts with ensuring our college leaders and course tutors understand the issues at play, and it’s important that they’re given recognised training that’s backed up by science and data. 

This is why West Suffolk College teaches courses from the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment. Only then can we share credible stories and case studies with our students.

Involving local businesses is also enormously helpful. There are some excellent advances being made in technology, processes and business strategy around sustainability that colleges can explore.

For the first time in history, we understand the drivers of the climate crisis and are beginning to suffer the effects of that crisis. But we also now have the knowledge, technology and means to start doing things differently.

It is a matter of transforming our systems, by resetting our mindsets.

As educators, we have the key in our hands to transform the wider system.