As sustainability practitioners, we see the need for a focus on human values, attitudes, and behaviors to achieve a true sustainability transition. This is as true for individuals as it is for businesses, even if the motivating factors may differ (somewhat).

What are values? Where do they come from? Why are they important?

Values, including sustainability ones, are “expressions of, or beliefs in, the worth of objects, qualities, or behaviors.” These values are formed over a lifetime starting with our primary spheres of influence including family, friends, community, and educators.

As I write, droves of students are returning to schools, colleges, and universities. All of them (for better or worse) are taking their values and beliefs with them. These will be continuously adapted or changed as influenced by the people, places, and experiences around them. I just read that the University of Vermont (UVM) is requiring its new class of undergraduates to complete the university’s general education requirement in sustainability. This is in addition to its existing core requirements in writing and information literacy and diversity. As a sustainability practitioner (and a graduate of UVM), I could not be happier to learn that the university has taken this step to help cultivate sustainability knowledge and values in future generations.

Our values are the foundation of who we are and who we become. They are the driving forces behind how we treat others and the society and environment in which we live. Sustainability really does boil down to cultivating and aligning values, beliefs, and behaviors with environmental stewardship and social responsibility. We can choose either to support or undermine the planet, people, and prosperity.

So, what are sustainability values? And how do they translate in a business setting?

Sustainability values come in many shapes and sizes and may express themselves in different ways. At their foundation, they are rooted in the three pillars of sustainability: environment, economic, and social. If we think about it, these more abstract sustainability values break down further into discrete concepts as follows:

While most businesses (and the individuals within) may agree about the importance of such key issues, there are clearly strong tensions between them. For example, conservation of natural resources is often in conflict with resource extraction and use. Integrated sustainability values aim to mediate and resolve these conflicts - consistently, innovatively, and favorably! But to get there, businesses need to cultivate a culture of sustainability through workforce education and strategic programming, just as colleges and universities are beginning to do with students.

Why don’t sustainability values and attitudes always translate into actual behavior?

It is hard to say exactly. But, it seems that there are more often than not gaps and barriers between expressed values/attitudes and actual behaviors. While many organizations (and individuals) have positive sustainability values and attitudes, their actions do not always support positive, holistic sustainability outcomes. The reality is that people and the communities in which they live (including students) make tradeoffs (implicit or explicit) between conflicting values and this affects their sustainability choices, behaviors, and actions.

According to Leiserowitz et al’s, Sustainability Values, Attitudes, and Behaviors: A Review of Multi-national and Global Trends (2004), there are at least four things we should think about when engaging sustainability values, attitudes, and behaviors. I have adapted them for the business/employee context. But they apply to academic institutions and students as well.

  1. People (and the institutions they are affiliated with) can lack the time, knowledge, skills, or perceived efficacy to translate stated sustainability values (or goals) into action.
  2. Structural barriers such as infrastructure, available technology, laws, and regulations, can create barriers to values, attitudes, and desired behaviors. For example, barriers that prevent organizations or institutions from deploying or accessing renewable energy (e.g., infrastructure, cost, policies) may prevent them from putting their energy/carbon management values and attitudes into action. Until renewable energy infrastructure or costs are more accessible for companies, these positive attitudes and goals may go unrealized.
  3. Habit and routine are significant barriers for people and institutions. It takes time and energy to overcome past or “bad” habits. Even habits as simple as disposing of recyclable waste or switching off the lights.
  4. Behavioral change is mutually supportive. The creation of positive feedback loops can support and speed up the rate of behavioral change. This requires active and visible management support.

Businesses (or institutions) may support abstract values like economic prosperity, environmental protection, and social well being. But when it comes to concrete decisions, these values are often in conflict with one another or other business goals and objectives. This results in difficult choices such as sourcing cheaper fossil fuels like coal over more expensive renewable energy. As Leiserowitz et al say: “Almost all choices involve explicit or implicit prioritization of different values. It is only in the concrete decisions that the tension between different values or attitudes becomes clear.” In this context, businesses may feel forced to make tradeoffs between competing values.

Do there have to be trade offs where sustainability values are concerned?

The short answer is No. If a businesses or institutions (and the people within them) commit(s) to its sustainability values it will seek to “integrate” not “trade off” these values. No doubt it will take time and effort to align business or institutional values, attitudes, and behaviors (decisions/actions) in favor of sustainability. Sustainability is indeed a journey and a destination. Once this shift happens, organizations find themselves more committed to values that favor of people, the planet, and prosperity. Over time, this makes for a more unequivocal and innovative sustainability transition with people from all walks of life getting on board.

Call to Action

Start creating a culture of sustainability with inspiring education. Education that makes people want to solve tough problems spurs innovation and collaboration.  At Sustrana, we give you the tools to customize sustainability education. Let us show you how we empower organizations to develop a sustainability strategy and plan to support and cultivate values and desired behaviors.