How can educators engage the younger generations in learning about sustainability? How much do students know about the current global challenges, their complexity and how they intersect ? How can educators best prepare their students for the world in which they will be working ? What knowledge should we make available to students? What mindset would be helpful? More importantly, how do we avoid overwhelming them, and rather, empower them to become shapers of the world in which they want to live?
These are some of the recurring questions that educators around the world are reflecting upon as they experiment with different pedagogical approaches. The students’ essays in this book present us with compelling answers, as they describe what they have explored and discovered, and that which they have questioned and learned.
In terms of knowledge, the process led them to an in-depth exploration of the SDGs. For many seeing the SDGs as utopian, high-level goals providing little relevance in their day to day, it became time to correct their assumptions. Since they had to focus on one specific SDG, they soon discovered how difficult it is (if not impossible) to isolate one SDG from the others. How do you disconnect poverty from gender, from climate change, from peace or education? This is how they learned about systemic interconnectedness, observing, in many cases, that their SDG “included all the others.”
At the same time, delving into the SDGs was a way to expand their understanding of the complexity and seriousness of our world’s challenges, a process which triggers many feelings to include sadness, overwhelm, uncertainty, compassion and fear. Yet, as they worked on the SDGs in the context of enterprises that had been nominated and awarded for their performance towards those goals, the landscape quickly shifted towards inspiration, hope and possibilities. It was inspiring and empowering to read stories of entrepreneurs who, motivated by personal experiences of pain and difficulty, converted their experiences into innovative solutions for the greater good. In those stories, many students saw a mirror of what they themselves could achieve if they decided to do so.
The companies they analyzed also challenged other assumptions, for example that business and the greater good are at odds with one another. Instead, they learned about new business models in which profit can accompany services or products designed to solve real problems and make our world a better place, one initiative at a time. Students discovered that corporations “have a great role to play.” The stories are real, and occur in many different geographies. It made them realize that there are even more sustainable corporations out there, still unbeknownst, deserving of promotion and buzz in social media.
To accelerate change towards a sustainable planet we need new business models, innovative solutions, but more importantly, we need a shift in our mindset. The Sustainability Mindset has been defined as a particular way of thinking and being, which becomes the foundation of behaviors for the greater good. The Sustainability Mindset Principles state 12 key aspects to develop such a mindset: Ecoliteracy; My contribution; Long-term thinking; Both-and thinking; Cyclical flow; Interconnectedness; Reflection; Creative innovation; Self-awareness; Oneness with nature; Mindfulness, and Purpose (Rimanoczy, 2021). They can be mapped through the Sustainability Mindset Indicator, a personal development tool that profiles and assesses where an individual is on their journey towards a sustainability mindset.
The students participating in this pedagogical exercise developed key aspects of a sustainability mindset, one team conversation after another. They explored their feelings, developing a more holistic ecological worldview and their attention quickly focused on themselves, to reflect on their personal contribution to the problems (Chapter SDG 13 and 15). In terms of developing a systems perspective for a sustainability mindset, some mentioned how they “shifted towards considering long-term impact of decisions and strategies” (Chapter SDG 14). The interconnections between the SDGs became obvious, as well as the impact of consumption in one part of the world upon human beings living in remote locations of another.
One of the most challenging components of our unsustainable mindset is dualistic thinking, which manifests in the beliefs that we must choose either planet or profit, and that in disagreements there is one “right” and one “wrong” position. Thus, developing both-and thinking is a powerful booster of the sustainability mindset, as our challenges require the acceptance of paradoxes, and solutions must be inclusive of multiple stakeholders. The dualistic paradigm of profit vs. planet was challenged by multiple cases that showcase a new business model linking a profitable enterprise with service to the community or the world. Working in their diverse teams was another important factor for students to develop both-and thinking. Although many began their projects with concerns about their differences, once they connected personally and through their hearts, they discovered that they had much in common. Reading these chapters made me think that perhaps all our diversity and inclusion training should be converted into Commonality Trainings!
Additional aspects of the Sustainability Mindset were also gradually developed. Students practiced reflection and expanded their self-awareness through peer-to-peer conversations after which they said: “After engaging in discussions, reading stories from AIM2Flourish, and reflecting on our own lives, a lot has changed” (Chapter SDG 4), and “It seems that we need a major shift in the paradigm” (Chapter SDG 12). Moreover, they realized the importance of creative innovation as evidenced by: “We truly admire the founders for their actions and involvement in developing the SDGs. We respect them for creating innovations and thinking about helping society” (Chapter SDG 5), and “Climate change itself is a monumental conflict that, in return, will need to be met with revolutionary innovations” (Chapter SDG 13).
The ”Being” dimensions, essential for a Sustainability Mindset, were also present. Through the stories analyzed, participants in this project realized that “a mission beyond earning a profit” is possible (Chapter SDG 2) and that business can be the place for a noble purpose which impacts the greater good (Chapter SDG 2, and 3).
When, amongst colleagues, we discuss the importance of spiritual intelligence as a foundation for sustainability actions, sometimes it sounds overly philosophical or out-of-place in a business school context. Interestingly, students in this project reflected on the importance of mindfulness as a gateway to purposeful action, as in “The founders were practicing mindfulness and so, we have gained an understanding that reflection on our experiences is fundamental, as it can help us recognize opportunities to make meaningful changes that contribute to a healthy world.” The students had an exceptional opportunity to connect with their values, something generally avoided in a classroom setting, indicating: “This is why we are grateful for this project, for it has led to sustainability becoming intertwined with our core beliefs and values, which will undoubtedly stay with us” (Chapter SDG 14).
Overall, the experience of these students arrived where we dreamt we could take them – to be inspired and motivated to engage in concrete actions. “There is so much more left to do!” (Chapter SDG 3) they said, “as consumers we should stop buying from companies that are apathetic about the environment” (Chapter SDG 5). “We can all create change” – It was clearly an empowering experience. “Those of us that see ourselves as entrepreneurs have been inspired to one day be featured in an AIM2Flourish story, either through building a business with a unique innovation or making changes in an existing family business to reduce the negative impacts on the environment and society”(Chapter SDG 14).
The students in this project shared their enthusiasm and intrinsic motivation to be agents of change, “to see if there are any habits in our daily lives that we could modify or implement.” “One of the members of the group wants to create her own company. She had never thought about taking into consideration the SDG 11 when starting her business, but now she wants to create a company that will help to achieve this goal” (Chapter SDG 11). “Right now, we are concerned with the current global issues in our world. Thus, we want to create significant changes that will benefit everyone. We feel encouraged by the founders to create great innovations” (Chapter SDG 5). And “the world needs us and we are in the right place and the right moment to act and become more sustainable with how we live.” (Chapter SDG 9). “We have learned that if we want to be able to have a secure future for ourselves and for the ones after us, we have to take care of our world” (Chapter SDG 6).
As Professor Isabel Rodriguez Tejedo expressed in this book, it all starts with one person, in one moment, deciding to make one change. The stories recounted by students speak of many individuals, who -now, in addition – strongly feel part of an intangible team, connected by the heart.
Isabel Rimanoczy, Ed. D.
Convenor of the Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) Working Group on the Sustainability Mindset.
Rimanoczy, I. (2021) The Sustainability Mindset Principles. Routledge.