Assessing Sustainability Literacy everywhere in the world


Although corporate education programmes on social responsibility, sustainability and social innovation have been flourishing in Higher Education Institutions, we lacked an international standard to assess what students really get from these initiatives. The Sustainability Literacy Test, initiated by a French business school and endorsed by the United Nations, is designed to fill that gap.


“Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world,” said Nelson Mandela. This means planting seeds that will enable new generations to develop new ways to see the world, define what progress is, what a just and fair society is, and what dreams everyone has the right to pursue. It means bringing them up with the certitude that their actions matter – that they can make a difference, and have a negative or positive impact that affects not only themselves, but also the environment they live in. All this is crucial if we want to make change happen.

Education is essential to sustainable development. Citizens of the world need to learn the way to sustainability. Our current knowledge base does not contain the solutions for contemporary global environmental, societal and economic problems. Today’s education is crucial to enable present and future leaders and citizens to create solutions and find new paths to a better future,

writes UNESCO. To support initiatives in the field, the organisation has created “Education for sustainable development” (ESD), an “umbrella for many forms of education that already exist, and new ones that remain to be created” in the field of sustainability.

The question is relevant: How well are we educating our children – who include the world’s future leaders – for the crucial issues faced by humanity in the 21st century? How do we address topics like climate change, risk mitigation, sustainable management, people empowerment, corporate social responsibility, gender equality, health promotion, etc. with the students involved in higher education programmes today? How well do we prepare them to manage the world we will bequeath them, in the most sustainable and enduring way possible?


How business schools include sustainability in their programmes


These questions have been making their way to higher education structures in the past few years. In France, for instance, the top business schools are now addressing sustainability issues through the prism of social entrepreneurship. Several have created social business and sustainability courses, programmes or chairs. In 2008, HEC Paris launched its Social Business/Enterprise and Poverty Chair  in response to the wishes of a growing number of students. Danone has supported the Chair since its creation. The Parisian business school ESSEC also has a Social Entrepreneurship Chair, which was created even before these questions became “fashionable”, in 2002. The school supports an Institute for Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship (IIES); as with HEC, the students are the ones who raise the preoccupation of sustainability. A perfect example of this is ESCP Europe, which does not have a dedicated programme: students there have thus decided to take the initiative. In 2010, they launched the NOISE (New Observatory of Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship) to address the lack of training on this issue. With the NOISE, students gain exposure to the whole social innovation ecosystem, help social entrepreneurs to set up their businesses, participate in project competitions, etc. In France, there is also a Social Innovation Club at the Sorbonne. Elsewhere, prestigious universities like Harvard, Oxford, Columbia and Duke have developed specific programmes based on social innovation and sustainability. These choices reflect the success of a relatively new idea: business must and can do something to protect the environment, empower people and generate positive impacts. An idea strongly supported by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, a fervent advocate of social business.


The need for an international standard


But interesting though these initiatives are, it is a pity that they are only aimed at students who already have an interest in sustainability and wish to specialise in socially oriented business – although these students might well become drivers of change in large corporate companies. In fact, these programmes alone are not enough to fill the educational void regarding sustainability in Western societies. All students should, at some point, be introduced to sustainability. And all should be required to acquire basic knowledge in this field.

This is what led Kedge Business School, a French group of management schools, to create the Sustainability Literacy Test: a sort of “IELTS of sustainability”. Jean-Christophe Carteron, in charge of CSR at Kedge, told “Même pas mal”, LeMondefr’s blog on sustainability, that some political and economic leaders “sometimes express opinions that you’d expect to hear from people in a bar, rather than from educated people with access to information. Because a significant part of them were educated in our schools, we thought we ought to introduce a vital stage into all our curricula.”

But the school’s ambition goes beyond educating its own students: the idea is to make the Sustainability Literacy Test a true equivalent of the IELTS, i.e. an international standard, acknowledged world-wide, with a strong scientific basis. The aim is that one day, all students without exception will complete their education with “basic knowledge about the world’s major challenges and the responsibility of organisations, » said Mr. Carteron.

The ‘Sustainability Literacy Test’ is a tool for the various initiatives on sustainability used by Higher Education Institutions to assess and verify the sustainability literacy of their students when they graduate.

It assesses higher education students’ basic   knowledge about economic, social and environmental responsibility, which applies all over the world, in any kind of Higher Education Institution (HEI), in any country, with any kind of tertiary-level course (Bachelors, Masters, MBAs, PhDs),” to quote the test’s website.

Two-thirds of the test’s questions – which were written by professors at Kedge Business School and a group of experts – are the same everywhere in the world; the rest are adapted to local specificities, with regard to the challenges facing a country, its laws, its habits, etc. All the questions have been submitted to an Expert Committee to ensure that they are relevant and contribute to the test’s credibility.


An international initiative endorsed by the United Nations


Since April 1st, students have been able to register online and try out the test with international questions: the US and Hong Kong versions are already available, and France, Spain, Italy, Quebec, Brazil and Argentina will soon follow suit. A total of 25 countries have adapted the questions, including China, India, Senegal, Columbia, Switzerland and Japan, says Anne-Sophie Novel from “Même pas mal”. United Nations organisations such as UNESCO have in fact endorsed the initiative, which is part of the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative decided in June 2012 after Rio +20. “Chancellors, Presidents, Rectors, Deans and leaders of Higher Education Institutions and related organisations have acknowledged their responsibility in the international pursuit of sustainable development. They have agreed to teach sustainable development concepts, encourage research on sustainable development issues, green their campuses, support sustainability efforts in their communities and engage with and share results through international frameworks.” An international initiative such as the Sustainability Literacy Test will certainly help to assess what students get from higher education in terms of sustainability awareness, and consequently ensure that future generations are more up to the mark than ours has ever been.

Photo © Shutterstock / Poznyakov

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