Sustainability is one of those buzzwords that tends to be used widely, but
which means different things to different people. The widely accepted
definition of ‘sustainable development’ is that proposed by the Brundtland
Commission in 1987: ‘Sustainable development is the development which meets
the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations
to meet their own needs’. (WCED, 1987, 42)
Depending on the ways it is looked at, sustainable development may have
many meanings (Leal Filho, 2011), such as:
G8 University Summit: Statement of Action (2010).
But even though over 600 universities worldwide have committed themselves
towards sustainability by signing international agreements and conventions,
and despite the fact that several thousand of them are pursuing matters related
to sustainable development on an ad hoc basis, many of them have not
succeeded in fully implementing the principles of sustainable development into
practice due to a combination of reasons, varying from lack of institutional
interest, to limited resources or staff involvement. The implementation of sustainable
development at universities is therefore, not only a matter of policy.
University blueprints (or strategies), declarations or action plans are useless,
unless they can be backed up by concrete action in one or more of the following
(a) curriculum greening;
(b) campus operations;
(d) extension (i.e. continuing education and further education programmes);
(e) concrete projects.
Critically speaking, one of the reasons why few universities have ever succeeded in
the quest of implementing sustainable development in their programmes is due to
the existence of various misconceptions, which prevent many universities from
taking full advantage of the potential sustainability offers. Some of these
misconceptions, according to an international survey undertaken in a sample of
universities (Leal Filho, 2000), are:
i. Sustainability is too abstract: partly because of the scope of the theme and
partly because of lack of information, some of the universities which took
part in the survey see the theme as too abstract and as too distant from
the reality. The truth is that if carefully looked at and properly linked to
the activities of higher education institutions such as teaching, research,
extension or even purchasing and electricity use, sustainability is as close
to their lives as it could be.
ii. Sustainability is too broad: second to ‘abstract’, the adjective ‘broad’ is also
often used as an argument against the undertaking of sustainable
measures. Once again, a mistake is being made, since one can apply the
principles of sustainable development to different parts of the university
life, contextualising it.
iii. We have no personnel to look after it: such a misconception finds its basis in
the fact that, traditionally, a job at a university (e.g. tutoring, counselling)
is performed by someone formally qualified. This is especially the case in
countries which attach a great value to formal education, such as
Germany, where practical and operational skills (also greatly valued
elsewhere) usually come in second place. In reality, anyone familiar with
the principles and practices of sustainable development and who is
sensitive to the impact university activities have on the environment is in a
position to potentially carry out activities in this area; it is often a question
of having someone sufficiently motivated and willing to be trained to do so.
This reply, however, raises one issue, namely the lack of adequately trained
personnel to tackle matters related to sustainable development.
iv. The resources needed do not justify it: this misconception is not based on
hard evidence. Although financial benefit is not the primary motivator for
institutions adopting sustainability policies, it does play an important role,
as shown by the pilot project ‘50-50’ which is now widely implemented in
Germany. As part of this project, schools are encouraged to implement
initiatives towards energy saving, hence reducing their energy bill. Such
savings are then shared by the school and the education authority, which
then gives 50% of the money saved, as cash, to school activities. Schools
can then use the money to purchase goods or services, or re-invest.
v. The theme has no scientific basis: this was not often mentioned by the respondents,
but unfortunately still referred to as a problem. But, sustainability
is now an item found at the top of the scientific agenda. In many
European countries, substantial resources are available for research on
sustainability and, for example, in the European Commission’s 7th Research
Framework Programme, sustainability is a research topic to which
considerable funding is allocated.
vi. Too competitive: here it is argued that there is much competition for funds
and resources for sustainability initiatives. This is something not inherent
to sustainability; other areas of knowledge are also under the same competition
and submission of research bids is a normal part of academic work (Leal Filho, 2000).
When carefully examined, the misconceptions outlined above have deeper
roots. Some of the factors that influence an individual’s attitude towards
sustainability are described in Table 1 (below). The list, albeit not exhaustive, does
illustrate some of the key items to which attention should be paid.
Table 1 Some factors which influence attitudes towards sustainability
(Modified from Leal Filho, 2010b)
Information on the meaning of sustainability and its implications.
The nature of one’s training often influences an individual’s degree of receptivity to sustainability issues.
Previous experience with environmental and social issues facilitates understanding of the role of sustainability.
The integrated view of environmental, political and economic elements enables a broader perception of sustainability.
Due to its high degree of complexity, an individual’s values often determine whether his/her attitudes are favourable to sustainability.
Sustainability is not only related to ecological components per se, but also entails items such as economics, politics, and social matters. However, links with the latter are often ignored by universities.
Sustainability is not about short term, isolated efforts, but continuous, long term ones.
A key question one may pose at this stage is why is sustainability — as a
process — is so difficult to understand? There are various reasons for that:
i. Sustainability is not a subject per se. Since it is not classified as being the
domain of any given science — rather a component which may be incorporated
into all disciplines — there tends to be a trend towards perceiving it
as an abstract concept. Another aspect of the problem is that items such as
sustainability or specific variables such as ‘Local Agenda 21’ are often illdefined
(Patterson and Theobald, 2005) as being implemented under great
financial and administrative constraints.
ii. Sustainability is too theoretical. Here part of the difficult lies in the fact that
sustainability and sustainable approaches are seen as theoretical matters,
part of the political discourse and hence a mere theoretical expression.
iii. Sustainability is too broad. This is felt in some contexts (e.g. the civil
service, the engineering professions), where the subject is seen as too broad
and, by default, impossible to handle.
iv. Sustainability is too recent a field. This is observed by organisations such as
OECD or the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) in some
southern European countries, which see it as a new issue and a new field of
action. As a result of this misconception, some universities think they
should wait and see how it develops, as opposed to taking a proactive role.
v. Sustainability is fashionable. This is unfortunately seen in many situations
and derives from suspicion of the real purpose of sustainability.
Perhaps the most worrying feature in relation to the above state of affairs is
that one or more of the above points negatively affect the development of
sustainable development at the institutional level.
Sustainability at Universities: The Way Forward
It is paradoxical that, although sustainability is on one hand seen as one of the
most important issues affecting modern society worldwide, awareness about it
and a sense of worthiness of its value, on the other hand, is still confined to
small circles of universities. Part of the problem resides in the fact that the
complexity of sustainability — as mentioned earlier in this paper — has largely
been underestimated. Further underestimations are also seen with respect to
the body of knowledge, information and political will needed to put its
principles into practice. It is thus reasonable to expect that a broader sense of
awareness of sustainability at universities is only to be realistically expected if it
is better communicated. And here the key task is not only to spread the word,
but to do so in a way that different audiences be reached and sensitised.
The introduction of a sustainability dimension to university programmes
would enable the following goals to be achieved (Leal Filho, 2010b):
(a) the holistic handling of sustainable development issues, integrating them
with social and economic matters, as well as with biological and ecological
issues, hence enhancing the quality of the education provided to students,
as well as the quality of research;
(b) encourage development of conservation ethics among students, staff and
(c) motivating people to play their role in the process leading to a better use of
natural resources, in the way they consume goods, purchase or even vote;
(d) building among participants on sustainability courses an awareness of and
support for environmental conservation policies and regulations as a
whole, and on conservation in general.
The literature contains many concrete examples of the various benefits to be
gained from the inclusion of sustainable development dimension into university
programmes (e.g. Speller, 1992; Creighton, 1996; Kitamura and Hoshii, 2010;
Mitchell, 2011). One of the benefits is that several target groups may benefit
from such initiatives, which includes, among others:
i. the university leadership (e.g. Rectors, Vice-Rectors, Deans);
ii. workers within the university administration;
iii. university teaching and research staff (faculty);
Furthermore, as an ‘add on’ effect, NGOs, suppliers, research partners
and users of university services are also able to, inter alia, benefit from sustainability
initiatives, since it widens their horizons and shows how much can
be achieved by incorporating a sustainability dimension within university
But the implementation of sustainable development at universities is not
without challenges. The following list of challenges reflects a number of needs
that are yet to be met in order to achieve a broader understanding of what
sustainability is about (Leal Filho, 2010b).
Challenge 1 — the need for a broader interpretation of sustainability
The original definition of sustainable development provided at ‘Our Common
Future’ (WCED, 1987) and reiterated by ‘Caring for the Earth’ (IUCN WWF
UNEP, 1991) which regard it as ‘the care with which environmental resources
available today should be used so that they are available in the long-term and
for future generations’, still finds large acceptance, and is still valid today.
However, the problem here is that the meaning and the implications of this
definition are not always easily understood. The problem of interpretation here
includes items such as:
What does one have to do to support sustainability?
There is an additional issue which demonstrates the need for a broader
interpretation of sustainability, namely the fact that there is often the impression
that countries or organisations — and not individuals — need to be
involved. This is a mistake which can be traced back to Agenda 21 (UN, 1992),
one of the most important outcomes of the UNCED held in Rio de Janeiro in
June 1992. The document rightly emphasises what countries should do with a
view to moving towards sustainable development and the need to engage
various groups, but it could have done more in respect of emphasising the role
of individuals. Although it is not the purpose of this paper to deliberate on
Agenda 21, the heart of the matter here is that individuals — as well as
countries — should be brought to feel responsible. It is important that, when
interpreting sustainability, each individual feels that he/she has a role to play.
Challenge 2 — the need to translate sustainability to different audiences and to
At present, there are various groups (e.g. politicians, liberal professionals,
engineers, etc.) which have paid little attention to matters related to sustainability,
partly because they do not see the connection with what they do —
that is, the connections between their professional activities and the environment.
Moreover, in cases where such connections exist, the links between them
and the long-term goal of sustainable development are missing. This is fortunately
changing thanks to the work of organisations such as the International
Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, which has a set of on-going initiatives
aimed at bringing sustainability closer to the lives of local administration.
However, there is little doubt that there is a need to bring sustainability
closer to different audiences, or in other words, there is a need to translate it so
as to facilitate an understanding of what it is all about and — as importantly
— why different groups should be involved.
Moreover, there is a need to dispel a widely held misconception that
sustainability is mostly a matter of relevance to industrialised nations, and that
poorer countries are unable to engage. Although most scientists will believe
that the opposite is true (e.g. Couret, 2008; Du¨ lger and Ozdemir, 2008), we
need to understand that, for various countries, sustainability is far down the
political agenda due to other more pressing economic and political problems.
Having said that, once the long-term benefits are shown, a nation can benefit
from adopting sustainability policies in, for example, areas vital to their
economies such as tourism or agriculture; they — more often than not — are
able to see the argumentation and to therefore switch priorities. This has been
the case in countries such as Kenya (which has largely adopted the principles of
sustainable tourism), India (where progress is seen in relation to sustainable
agricultural practices) and Mauritius (where sustainable land use has enhanced
its ability to cope with the demands from tourism).
Challenge 3 — the need to operationalise sustainability
One positive trend is the considerable number of publications, reports and
documents containing theoretical elements related to sustainability. However,
we need more case studies and projects which show in a concrete way what can
be achieved and how. The UN, via its Commission for Sustainable Development,
has taken a step forward in this direction, by providing a website
http://www.un.org/esa/dsd/resources/res_docucsd_16.shtml where successful
stories on sustainability are documented.
Challenge 4 — the need to raise more support for sustainability
Based on the background provided here, it would be reasonable to expect that
further support for sustainability, both financial and otherwise, will only be
gathered if the challenges listed are successfully met. To do so it is necessary to
make sustainability a more prominent topic in the environmental protection
debate, moving away from short-term measures aimed at solving problems
today, towards measures which may allow problems to be completely solved in
the long term, via more carefully established mechanisms. Only in this way can
durable solutions to pressing problems be found. The opportunities are many.
They can vary from the still pressing need for a plan for the sound use of
rainforests (a topic which has high on the political and ecological agenda in the
late 1980s and early 1990s, but which has unfortunately faded away), to the
management of coastal areas to prevent the long-term negative impacts of
tourism as seen in southern Europe (e.g. Spain, Turkey, Greece) or in the
Indian Ocean (Mauritius, Seychelles).
The set of sustainability-compatible measures may be initially more expensive
than quick fixes, but bring the advantage of being durable. It is thus in this
context important that politicians and decision-makers become more aware,
involved and feel encouraged to see sustainability as something concrete and
useful, as opposed to an abstract and neutral matter, which has largely been the
case so far.
As seen in the data and examples described in this paper, a certain degree of
preparedness to pursue sustainability may be felt, also at the regional level.
This state of affairs is also seen in some developing countries, where innovation
at university level takes place at a relatively slower pace than in industrialised
nations and where the lack of resources sometimes prevent active engagement
in the debate on international themes. But a number of features need to be put
into place so as to enable all universities to fully engage in the debate on
sustainability and take advantage of the opportunities it provides. Some of
these, as stated in Leal Filho (2010b), are:
i. an understanding of the role universities may play in implementing
sustainable development (Romero, 1995; Simai, 1995; Selman, 1996);
ii. reliable in-service training provisions on matters related to sustainability
for academic staff;
iii. setting-up of research centres or working groups to debate how best to
pursue it via specific initiatives;
iv. development of partnerships and networks (intra-institutional and interinstitutional)
to exchange ideas and experiences (Speller, 1992; UNESCO, 1995);
v. setting-up and execution of specific projects.
It is also important that attempts to implement initiatives related to sustainability
at universities should be followed according to a proper structure
(e.g. Sustainability Programme, Sustainability Action Plan, etc.). Although this
is not always easy, it helps to provide a sense of direction. They also help to
measure results against aims within a number of months or years. Such results
are, without any doubt, the persuading arguments in dismissing misconceptions
There is no doubt that sustainability has become a scientific field per se, drawing
from experiences and inputs in different areas of knowledge such as environmental
sciences, economics, sociology, ethics and politics, among others. In
addition, there is a wide diversity of research approaches, research methods
and applications related to sustainability, which, over the past 10 years or so,
have shown how this field has evolved. The provision of information on
matters related to sustainable development, in a way that people can understand
it, is perhaps the best way of effectively trying to increase its profile and
foster commitment and long-term action from universities. In doing so, there
are two factors which are of particular importance:
(a) the precision and technical correctness of the information passed on to the
target public; and
(b) the techniques used in passing on the information.
It should be pointed out however, that as all educational strategies, the
inclusion of sustainable development in university programmes can only
succeed if schemes aimed at informing and mobilising people are combined
with relevant structural measures such as campus greening, a robust sustainability
research programme or a set of concrete, practical demonstration projects.
In order to achieve such a goal, the following points may prove useful:
1. knowledge of issues linked to sustainability, and which are of most interest
to universities and where there is a keen willingness to learn more about
them (e.g. transport, energy, waste management, etc.). Without awareness
of such issues, no focus is possible;
2. knowledge of the attitudes of university personnel towards sustainability, so
that the necessary focus may be placed on changing patterns of behaviour at
the institutional level;
3. knowledge of the interest of students, so that they may be more actively
The universities that have been successful in pursuing sustainability programmes,
such as the University of British Columbia (Canada), University of
Sonora (Mexico) or University of Michigan (USA) (Leal Filho, 2010a), have
also successfully implemented the above points and have facilitated and
stimulated the introduction of sustainability initiatives as part of their teaching
and research programmes. This is not an easy task and much continued effort
is needed. But if one takes into account how important matters related to sustainable
development are, one can more or less easily conclude that, by
pursuing sustainable development, universities are taking a positive step ahead
in fulfilling their role as educational institutions. But not only that, they are
also meeting their commitments to society.
Allen, R.E. (2010) Human Ecology Economics: A New Framework for Global Sustainability,
Abingdon, Oxfordshire: Routledge.
Borne, G. (2010) A Framework for Sustainable Global Development and Effective Governance of
Risk, Lewiston, New York: Milen Press.
Couret, D.G. (2008) Sustainability in Developing and Developed Countries, Washington, DC: BVSDE.
Creighton, S.H. (1996) Greening the Ivory Tower. Improving the Environmental Track Record of
Universities, Colleges, and Other Institutions, West Sussex: John Wiley.
Du¨ lger, F. and Ozdemir, Z.A. (2008) ‘Current account sustainability in seven developed countries’,
Journal of Economic and Social Research 7(2): 47–80.
IUCN WWF UNEP. (1991) Caring for the Earth, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kitamura, Y. and Hoshii, N. (2010) ‘Education for sustainable development at universities in
Japan’, International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 11(3): 202–216.
Leal Filho, W. (2000) ‘Dealing with misconceptions on the concept of sustainability’, International
Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 1(1): 9–19.
Leal Filho, W. (ed.) (2010a) Sustainability at Universities: Opportunities, Challenges and Trends,
Frankfurt: Peter Lang Scientific Publishers.
Leal Filho, W. (2010b) ‘Teaching sustainable development at university level: current trends and
future needs’, Journal of Baltic Sea Education 9(4): 273–284.
Leal Filho, W. (2011) ‘Applied sustainable development: a way forward in promoting sustainable
development in higher education institutions’, in W. Leal Filho (ed.) World Trends on Education
for Sustainable Development, Frankfurt: Peter Lang Scientific Publishers.
Mitchell, R. (2011) ‘Sustaining change on a Canadian campus: preparing Brock University for
a sustainability audit’, International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 12(1): 7–21.
Parkin, S. (2010) The Positive Deviant — Sustainability Leadership in a Perverse World, London: Earthscan.
Patterson, A. and Theobald, K. (2005) ‘Emerging contradictions: sustainable development and the
new local governance’, in S. Buckingham-Hatfield and S. Percy (eds.) Constructing Local
Environmental Agendas, London: Routledge, pp. 155–170.
Romero, M.J.R. (1995) ‘The role of the university in sustainable development: challenge and
opportunities’, Higher Education Policy 8(4): 26–29.
Selman, P. (1996) Sustainable Development: Managing and Planning Ecological Sound Places,
London: Paul Chapman.
Simai, M. (ed.) (1995) The Evolving New Global Environment for the Development Process, Tokyo: UN University.
Smith, M., Hargroves, K.C. and Desha, C. (2010) Cents and Sustainability — Securing Our
Common Future by Decoupling Economic Growth from Environmental Pressures, London: Earthscan.
Speller, P. (ed.) (1992) ‘Building partnerships for sustainable development: Federal University of
Mato Grosso’, Higher Education Policy 5(1): 31–32.
Strachan, J. and Vigilance, C. (2011) Integrating Sustainable Development into National Frameworks:
Policy Approaches for Key Sectors in Small States, London: Commonwealth Secretariat.
Ukaga, O., Maser, C. and Reichenbach, M. (2010) Sustainable Development: Principles,
Frameworks, and Case Studies, Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
UNESCO. (1995) The University and Sustainable Urban Development, Paris: UNESCO.
United Nations. (1992) The UN Conference on Environment and Development: A Guide to Agenda 21,
Geneva: UN Publications Service.
World Commission on Environment and Development/WCED. (1987) Our Common Future, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Walter Leal Filho is Senior Professor & Head of the Research and Transfer Centre
‘Applications of Life Sciences’, Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, Hamburg, Germany. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
|Back to Title|
PelicanWeb Home Page