This month Western Washington University hosted the WA Higher Education Sustainability Conference (WAHESC),
which focused on how educational institutions can create sustainable practices. The topics covered a broad range from
sharing best practices in teaching sustainability, to how to ban bottled water on campuses. With this diversity of topics,
it really made me wonder: what is sustainability and how do we as a community benefit?
Save the Planet
I come from a generation that has a conventional understanding of sustainability, based on the ecological definition as it
relates specifically to Earth’s environmental systems. However, the opening talk at the student summit at WAHESC
questioned the general interpretation of sustainability. They suggest it is not merely an isolated "green" or
environmental concern and broadened it into a much larger system, where economic vitality and social justice are seen
as equal components of a sustainable system. This interpretation suggests sustainable systems contain many
components like environmental, health, political and economics that support one another. Their suggestion challenges
that conventional views of sustainability of being only about environmental impacts and says they are actually just one
component of the entire (earth and human) system.
In addition to the conventional view of sustainability for the earth, there are the business practices of ‘buy local’
campaigns, zero impact and the Planet, People, Profit model that are designed to be highly sustainable. They certainly
create the most immediate benefits to any community, in economic, social, ecological and environmental impacts.
These kinds of practices in local Bellingham based businesses have been seen for decades and the programs that
encourage it have created models for other communities to follow.
Taking into account the environmental and business interpretations of sustainability, it seems that the question of what
is sustainability is more about scale, not just which component (environmental, economic or social) is being practiced. In
fact, students at WAHESC talked more about global solutions as they apply to disciplines, not location since any local
sustainability practice is part of the global system.
Sustainability is the new norm.
The WAHESC event showed that this new generation of entrepreneurs and innovators are enthusiastic about creating
multifaceted solutions to the challenges in creating global sustainability practices that go beyond existing programs.
Students are the ones who are driving many of the initiatives in Higher Education to change the system and integrate
sustainability into other disciplines including political, social and economic. For them, sustainability is not a question of
scale since they were raised with technology that removed boundaries between countries; it is about integrating a
philosophy into everyday practice in business and life.
Educational institutions have are already started to shift their thinking and have seen an increase in businesses wanting
to work cooperatively with them on projects to develop new sustainable materials, products and processes. There is no
question that as a community we have already seen the benefits of having local businesses with sustainability
philosophies. Now is the time for the community to shift their concept of sustainability to match those of education and
entrepreneurs and embrace the global, multi-disciplinary definition. As a result, the community encouragement and
support of innovative thinking will provide new avenues for entrepreneurs of the next generation to solve our global
*This piece originally appeared in the Bellingham Herald.