A Reflection on Education for Sustainability

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Home > Articles > A Reflection on Education for Sustainability

 A Reflection on Education for Sustainability

Chris Lim Gin Swee | Today's Manager
December 1, 2018

The idea of education for sustainability has allowed society to expand education in schools and businesses to advance the circularity and evaluation of sustainability.

The concept of sustainability has something to do with the long-term survival of humankind. It is being used as a paradigm for thinking about the self-regulation of various modes of existence of the world. It is one in which interventions are introduced to achieve an improved quality of life through the process of reuse and replenishment.

Concept of Education for Sustainability
The importance of education for sustainability (EfS) cannot be underestimated. Another similar term, education for sustainable development (ESD) is used by the United Nations to incorporate the broad links to develop sustainable organisations, products, and projects. The argument for EfS or ESD has been strong. It includes the following aspirations:

  • The Earth Charter 2 is an education discourse to advance the resilience of community life and the biospheric future of the world through the finding of our own way of living.
  • The UNESCO Global Action Programme on ESD 4, established a historical opportunity to integrate sustainable development into education. In doing so, the programme would intensify efforts on key ESD themes such as climate change, biodiversity, disaster risk reduction, and sustainable consumption and production.

Trends on Education for Sustainability (EfS)
It is the purpose of this article to at least ponder on two main trends on education for sustainability.

The first trend deals with teaching learners about the problems of moving into a circular economy. Typical problems revolve around processes of industrial production that follow a linear pattern from cradle-to-grave and to waste, pollution, and ecological disequilibrium. The idea of the circular economy, in contrast, is to actualise a cradle-to-cradle economy, that is, to recycle the production of resources so that they are in play for as long as possible.

Take for example, the EfS policy of the Mozambique Government to help smallholder farmers who have relied heavily on rain-fed farming agriculture. 1 In this regard the government has encouraged the farmers to focus on crops such as sugarcane to utilise the community-based, irrigation-supported farming practices of a circular economy through the following change process 5:

Resistance. The farmers did not want to change from rain-fed agriculture to the community-based irrigation schemes as this challenged the previous norm of monoculture and they lacked knowledge of the new irrigation planting practices.

Discovery. At the change laboratories, the farmers learnt that community-based irrigation techniques may produce more and reduce costs. The farmers learnt that besides sugarcane, other crops may be profitable and that there are lands that cannot produce certain crops. They also discovered that they need to leave the land fallow without cropping for purposes of land rejuvenation.

Social Learning. The farmers did not merely use fertilisers in the sugarcane fields on a widespread basis. Instead, through the vehicle of social workplace learning, the farmers used weights to measure the required quantity of fertiliser needed per hectare for the optimum growth of the sugarcane.


In an attempt to move to higher levels of sustainability, the farmers have shifted their stance towards a circular economy to regulate the conservation of nutrients in land use. As shown in Figure 1 below, sugarcane growth is represented as a box. Here, the nutrients available for crop growth are from the atmosphere. The rain-fed agriculture however is subject to the rainfall intensity and amount. Unless water management can be properly managed, soil depletion would take place. For a more sustainable agriculture programme, farmers (a) measured the required amount of fertilisers to supply the required amount of nitrogen (or other nutrients) for optimum sugarcane cultivation and (b) utilised community-irrigation systems that control leaching and produced a better sugarcane harvest.

Another trend is education on the evaluation of circularity and sustainability. For purposes of evaluation, the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) 3 may be used as an evolving toolkit for reporting the success of sustainability. After its inception in 1997, the GRI has released in 2016 standards that covered several modular aspects of sustainability. The core modules (GRI 101, 102, and 103) covers the management approach on reporting sustainability impacts. Beyond the core modules, detailed reporting standards are set in evaluating economic issues (GRI 200), environmental management (GRI 300), and social issues (GRI 400).

Corporate governance may select sustainability measures based in three theatres or purposes of sustainability: improving operational effectiveness, focussing on philanthropy, and transforming the business model. 6 Not all measures of sustainability governance would satisfy the interests of all stakeholders. For example, consumers may be more interested in understanding matters that mitigate the risks of its employees rather than the mere economic activities of an organisation. This relationship between corporate governance and GRI standards is possibly reciprocal or iterative. This relationship is illustrated in Figure 2.


Food for Thought
The idea of education for sustainability has opened the scope for society to expand education in schools and businesses to advance the circularity and evaluation of sustainability. This is where human beings and non-being technology co-exist, mutate, and become complementary to the laws of nature. The latter knowledge-building is one important dream outcome of education for sustainability.

1 Beloi A, 2016. Exploring transformative social learning and sustainability in the context of community based irrigation scheme management in Mozambique, PhD Thesis, Rhodes University.

2 Clugston R, 2010. Earth charter education for sustainable ways of living. Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, 4(2), p157–166.

3 GRI (Global Reporting Initiative), 2016. GRI standards, https://www.globalreporting.org/standards.

4 Hopkins C, 2014. Scope and impact of global actions under UNDESD. Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, 8 (2), p13–119.

5 Lotz-Sisitka H, Mukute M, Chikunda C, Baloi A, and Pesanayi T, 2017. Transgressing the norm: Transformative agency in community-based learning for sustainability in southern African contexts, International Review of Education, 63 (6), p897–914.

6 Rangan VK, Chase L, and Karim S, 2015. The truth about CSR. Harvard Business Review, 93 (1/2), pp40–49.



Dr Chris Lim is Head of Programmes at SIM Global Education. He is also the academic project supervisor for the SIM University of Warwick, MSc programme. His research interests are in studies on Confucian psychology and education for sustainable development.


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