Assessing Sustainability?

Assessing Sustainability?

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the term “sustainable” is defined as “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” Thus, “sustainability” is commonly linked with the idea of leaving a better planet for future generations. However, in reality, defining “sustainability” is like nailing Jell-O to a wall- impossible and pretty pointless.

The idea of sustainability in general actually refers to the ability to continue a particular behavior indefinitely. Environmental sustainability, as a term, can be more accurately paired with the definitions above. However, even that idea is a little misleading, given the inherent limitations of the Earth and the imperative of perpetual availability implied by the term sustainability in general. In an effort to nail down this definition more firmly, the idea of pillars of sustainability was created. It states that for true sustainability to occur, we must achieve social sustainability, environmental sustainability, and economic sustainability together, with environmental sustainability being of the utmost importance. As you can see, the term has become complicated and is used by people, NGOs, corporations, and governments in different ways.

However, sustainability is also an important cultural term that has galvanized conversations about ideas as diverse as natural resource preservation, poverty, and racial inequality. In particular, businesses have begun to embrace sustainability as an important goal of corporate social responsibility. But, given the complexity of the term and the issues surrounding it, how does anyone know where to begin?

In an event at the Kedge Business School in Paris, Higher Education Leads on Climate: Connecting at COP21, Second Nature and the University of Connecticut brought together delegations from multiple universities including Emory, University of Edinburgh, University of Minnesota, Agnes Scott College, Dickinson College, University of Vermont, and many more. While discussing our experiences at COP21 thus far, we also heard a presentation by Jean-Christophe Carteron who oversees the Corporate Social Responsibility program at the Kedge Business School. He developed the Sustainability Literacy Test to provide a tool for universities and corporations to assess and grow the knowledge of their students and employees regarding issues of sustainable development.

” sustainable development is not a simple subject for some activists but a serious issue for all “.

-Jean-Cristophe Carteron to Le Monde

Carteron has high ambitions for the test, hoping it will become an international standard, similar to the IELTS and other aptitude tests. The test is comprised of 50 multiple choice questions, 30 of which are standard across the globe, the remainder being chosen on a regional basis, making the test both uniform and flexible. Two general categories of knowledge are tested: challenges facing society and the planet which include “general knowledge on social, environmental, and economic issues” and “basic knowledge of the Earth” and organization responsibility which includes “practices for integrating social responsibility throughout an organization” and “the responsibility of individuals as employees and citizens.” According to their website, the test “assesses the minimum level knowledge in economic, social and environmental responsibility for higher education students, applicable all over the world, in any kind of Higher Education Institution (HEI), in any country, studying any kind of tertiary-level course (Bachelors, Masters, MBAs, PhD).” Carteron told us he hopes to expand the test to primary and secondary education institutions in the future. Colleges and universities can use this tool in a variety of ways, as a diagnostic or final assessment, at the beginning or end of a course or degree program. The aim is to use the test and the data generated to better understand the state of our knowledge on sustainable development in general and asses how we might better educate our future business, government and civil society leaders in this critical area.

While “sustainability” is still a complicated term, the goals of the Sustainability Literacy Test are admirable and a step in the right direction. No business or government leader should be able to claim ignorance when making decisions that negatively affect the future of our planet and humanity. This tool has great potential to ignite a movement to educate our young people on sustainability issues, hopefully leading to more responsible decisions in the future.

To learn more about the Sustainability Literacy Test visit

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