Learning together about sustainable development

Two people roasting marshmallows around a campfire

People find themselves learning about sustainable development with their colleagues and peers for a variety of reasons:

  • they have been asked to see what climate change means for their organisation;
  • they’ve been asked to develop a sustainability policy because of pressure from their customers or stakeholders;
  • someone up high has read a book, or watched a film, and has decided that the staff need to learn more about sustainable development and discover the opportunities and risks facing their organisation.

One reaction would be to reach for an off-the-shelf policy. A word of warning: these won’t lead to anything but the most superficial changes.

It’s better together

For deeper and stickier change, people need to learn about sustainable development - and decide what the organisation should do - together. It will be stretching, but it’ll be wonderfully rewarding for you, your colleagues and your organisation.

It’s important to involve people from a cross-section of your organisation, so they can learn together about some of the principles and frameworks for sustainable development. Working together, they can identify the issues which are most relevant to their organisation, drawing on expert support where they need it. Then, they can talk together about what this means for operations, brand or – best of all – strategy.

An action research approach works well. You start taking action (quick wins are just that) and make time to actively reflect on what’s happened and what’s worked to make it happen. Sharing “travellers’ tales” in a cycle of action and reflection means people rapidly learn together about how to be most effective in their own situation.

Diverse approaches

There are some great programmes which combine learning from world-class academics and thought-leaders with learning from fellow practitioners. I’ve been privileged to be a tutor and facilitator on the Post-Graduate Certificate in Sustainable Business at the University of Cambridge since it began in 1998. I’ve listened as presenters, tutors and course participants have contributed to conversations of the highest quality, all focused around how businesses can be more effectively engaged in helping to create a sustainable future – and what the limits are to their ability to act.

This kind of formal, external training with academic credibility and accreditation is one effective approach. I’ve also seen great results from working with groups where people bring their general awareness and desire to ‘do something’, at home or at work. By exploring sustainable development from a practical, can-do perspective, they have been able to work out what they will do next and how they’ll get others on board.

So if you’ve been asked to develop a sustainability policy, think your organisation needs to understand the risks and opportunities relating to climate change, or have the opportunity to get environmental thinking into a team’s work programme, here’s my advice: learn about it together, make sense of it together and move forward together.