Mother Pelican
A Journal of Sustainable Human Development

Vol. 8, No. 2, February 2012
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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About the Role of Universities
and Their Contribution to Sustainable Development

Walter Leal Filho
Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, Hamburg, Germany

Originally published under a Higher Education Policy, 2011, 24, pp. 427 – 438

Abstract: The debate on sustainable development is not new and the search for new approaches, methods and means to further the case of sustainability in a higher education context is needed today more than ever. This paper reviews the status of sustainable development at universities and presents issues which need to be considered in ensuring sustainable development is integrated in higher education institutions in a systematic way.

Keywords: sustainability; implementation; universities; misconceptions; policies

Introduction: Sustainability as a Concept

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:

  • the systematic, long-term use of natural resources — as defined in the Brundtland Report — so that these are available for future generations (here the concept refers to country and local policies);
  • the modality of development that enable countries to progress, economically and socially, without destroying their environmental resources (with reference to country policies);
  • a development which is socially just, ethically acceptable, morally fair and economically sound (referring to the social ramifications of development);
  • a development where environmental indicators are as important as economic indicators (here referring to the close links it bears with economic growth). Ukaga et al. (2010) undertook a review of the term sustainable development, concluding that in order to be sustainable, all societies must adjust to new realities, which include changing ecosystems and natural limits to growth. They emphasised the need to move away from an unwanted situation (i.e. a polluted world) by being systemic in our thinking instead of symptomatic.

    According to Borne (2010), in order to be fully understood, it is important to provide an accessible framework for the current and future exploration of sustainable development, which includes considerations at the local and global levels. This means that one cannot simply look at issues such as rainforest depletion, desertification or sea pollution under a local perspective, since they often have international, regional or indeed global implications. Another need, as outlined by Allen (2010), is the necessity to respond to global sustainability concerns. This is based on the fact that, unlike traditional economics and other social sciences, it allows a long time run perspective, encourages use of the humanities, and effectively juxtaposes ‘sustainability’ and other interdisciplinary issues alongside traditional economic issues.

    Sustainability is not only a matter of concern to large countries. Strachan and Vigilance (2011) outlined the importance of and need for the integration of sustainable development in regions such as small island developing states, covering seven of the 20 issues that have been outlined in the ‘Mauritius Strategy’ as being important for the sustainable development of Small Island Developing States — disaster management; marine resources; freshwater resources; land resources; energy resources; tourism resources and trade. Parkin (2010) described the fact that, in order to promote more sustainable behaviours such as reducing CO2 emissions and moving towards a low carbon economy, it is necessary to inform and motivate people. Only if they are well informed and entirely confident about what to do will they be willing to engage.

    In the book ‘Cents and Sustainability’, Smith et al. (2010) showed that it is possible to reconcile the need for economic growth and environmental sustainability, through a strategy of decoupling economic growth from environmental pressures, combined with a renewed commitment to achieve significant environmental restoration and poverty reduction. Beginning with a brief overview of some of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time, they explain the ‘decoupling theory’, setting out the factors that can undermine and even block efforts to decouple growth and environmental pressures in both developed and developing countries. They discuss key considerations to assist the development of national ‘decoupling strategies’, which is in line with the principles of sustainable development.

    But even though there is at present a large body of literature on sustainable development, a detailed vision of what sustainability might mean in practice is likely to be the subject of continuing discussion. Having said that, there are some assumptions that need to be made, if sustainable development efforts are expected to yield the expected benefits:

    Assumption (1) Sustainable development efforts should involve everyone.
    Assumption (2) Sustainable development efforts should be lifelong.
    Assumption (3) Sustainable development efforts should be holistic and about connections.
    Assumption (4) Sustainable development efforts should be practical and action-oriented so as to convince people it works and makes sense.

    Moreover, it should be stated that, in order to yield the expected benefits, efforts towards implementing sustainable development need to provide people with the knowledge, understanding and capacity to influence mainstream society in a way which progresses environmental objectives along with other legitimate social and economic objectives.

    Sustainable Development at Universities: Not Only a Matter of Policy

    As far as the university sector is concerned, there have been various landmarks in the process of designing approaches and mechanisms to bring sustainable development issues to university policies — some of which were set in motion well before the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) — which include many important documents such as:

  • the Magna Charta of European Universities (1988);
  • the Talloires Declaration of University Presidents for a Sustainable Future (1990);
  • the Halifax document ‘Creating a Common Future: an Action Plan for Universities’ (1991);
  • the ‘Urgent Appeal from the CRE’ to the Preparatory Committee of UNCED (1991);
  • the COPERNICUS ‘Universities Charter on Sustainable Development’ (1994);
  • the Lu¨ neburg Declaration on Higher Education for Sustainable Development (2001);
  • The Ubuntu Declaration on Education and Science and Technology for Sustainable Development (2002);
  • Graz Declaration on Committing Universities to Sustainable Development (2005);
  • G8 University Summit Sapporo Sustainability Declaration (2008);
  • 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 areas:

    (a) curriculum greening;
    (b) campus operations;
    (c) research;
    (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)
    Knowledge Information on the meaning of sustainability and its implications.
    Background The nature of one’s training often influences an individual’s degree of receptivity to sustainability issues.
    Experience Previous experience with environmental and social issues facilitates understanding of the role of sustainability.
    Perception The integrated view of environmental, political and economic elements enables a broader perception of sustainability.
    Values Due to its high degree of complexity, an individual’s values often determine whether his/her attitudes are favourable to sustainability.
    Context 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.
    Continuation 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 other groups;

    (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);
    iv. students.

    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 programmes.

    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 long-term means?
  • What does it have to do with my activities?
  • 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 different nations

    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 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 about sustainability.


    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 engaged.

    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.


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    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:

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