Education for Sustainability and the SDGs: A QuickLook at Advocating Organizations


April 2, 2022


Education is not merely a Sustainable Development Goal (#4), but also an important tool to address the broad range of security and sustainability issues.  Obviously, we cannot have security without sustainability, nor sustainability without security.  But “sustainability,” “sustainable development,” and “security” have various overlapping definitions.

“Sustainability” generally encompasses environment issues (climate change, energy, pollution, biodiversity) while “Sustainable Development” encompasses environmental issues and progressive social issues such as human rights, gender equality, reduced inequality, and justice.  “Security” is also very broad, and can include peace, national security, cyber security, food security, energy security, water security, economic security, and human security (which can encompass all of the above). For example, the ten targets for SDG#4 on “Quality Education” include 4.7 on “all learners acquiring knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including … human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship … (etc.),” which loosely covers all three terms.

This QuickLook offers a brief and preliminary look at very different but overlapping organizations advocating education for sustainability and/or the SDGs. A few organizations (1a, 3) focus on education at all levels: pre-school, school, college, and lifelong learning. A few focus only or largely on schools (2, 3), and several only on higher education (6, 7, 11-16). Two organizations focus only on management and business (5, 9).  One each focuses on global citizens (4), climate action in higher education (8), education for global ecovillages (18), and, very broadly, on security and sustainability (10).  Three organizations (4, 14, 17) do not mention sustainability or the SDGs at all, but are relevant to several of the SDGs.       UN organizations are involved in half of those listed: SDSN (1, 3), UNESCO (2-4, 6), Global Compact (5), UNEP (6), UNU (17), and ECOSOC (18). 

1. Sustainable Development Solutions Network (2014, New York)

  • SDG Academy. The flagship education initiative of SDSN, with the mandate of creating and curating the best available educational content on sustainable development and making it available as a global public good. Since 2014, the SDG Academy has created over 35 free online courses, which have reached some 300,000 learners in >190 countries. Course topics include planetary boundaries, poverty and inequality, globalization, food and agriculture, global water crisis, and environmental security. The Academy also offers online Masters degrees in Sustainable Development.  Since 2017, the SDG Academy Community of Practice has served as a key offering, inviting global higher education institutions, NGOs, businesses, and relevant government entities to advance education for sustainable development through peer learning, sharing best practices, customized resource development, and opportunities for research and thought leadership.
  • SDSN Youth (2012, New York). Educates young people about the SDGs and the Paris Agreement, and provides opportunities for them to pioneer innovative solutions to achieve the goals. With a membership of >1,000 organizations, ranging from student associations, youth-led and youth-focused organizations and other institutions dedicated to youth empowerment in >85 countries, SDSN Youth creates platforms for young people to connect and contribute to regional and national pathways for implementing the SDGs and the Paris Agreement. So far, 700 schools across 72 countries, with >200,000  students, are involved in a comprehensive sustainability curriculum for primary and secondary schools developed through their Global Schools Program

2. UNESCO Associated Schools (1953, Paris)

Links educational institutions across the world, with >11,500 member schools in 182 countries. It has mobilized >2,500 school leaders, teachers, students, and parents to engage in joint reflections about education in the future, i.e. how can education promote sustainable development and global citizenship and how should the content and methods of educational programs evolve.

3. Mission 4.7 (2021; UN-SDSN/New York)

Founded by SDSN’s  flagship programs, Global Schools and the SDG Academy, in partnership with the Ban Ki-Moon Centre for Global Citizens, UNESCO, and the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. Strives to implement Education for Sustainable Development (SDG Target 4.7) in K-12, tertiary, and professional education across the globe to impact “the behavior and social-emotional well-being” of individual learners and wider society. Offers free K-12 educational resources on sustainable development, as well as case studies of existing educational policies for the SDG 4.7.

4. Ban-Ki Moon Centre for Global Citizens (2018, Vienna)

Aims to “use its expertise and network to work for peace, poverty eradication, empowerment of youth and women, justice and human rights worldwide”. Offers free and self-paced online courses on global citizenship and gender equality, co-developed with UNESCO Asia-Pacific Centre of Education for International Understanding, and publicly accessible on the Global Citizenship Education Online Campus. Organizes interactive workshops on the same topics. Sponsors Global Citizen Scholars to attend European Forum Alpbach.

5. UN Principles for Responsible Management Education (2007)

An initiative of the UN Global Compact, involving business schools committed to integrating six core principles to “transform business and management education, and develop the responsible leaders of tomorrow”.  More than 800 signatory business schools report progress towards realizing responsible management education by submitting progress reports and presenting their strategies in the Transformational Model for the Implementation of PRME and in the Blueprint for SDG Integration into Curriculum, Research and Partnerships.

6. Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (2012, UN-DESA)

Provides higher education institutions with an interface between education, science, and policy making. Created in the run-up to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), HESI gathered voluntary commitments from >300 universities worldwide. The Initiative led to the launch of the Platform for Sustainability Performance in Education, showcasing higher education sustainability assessment goals, supported by UNEP, UNGC PRME and UNESCO. Holds the annual HESI+10 Global Forum, (6 July 2022) and co-published The SDG Partnership Guidebook (2020, 93p) with The Partnering Initiative, on building high-impact multi-stakeholder partnerships and the 2030 Agenda Partnership Accelerator.

7. International Sustainable Campus Network (2010, Lausanne, Switzerland)

ISCN, with 97 global members, works together with the Global University Leader Forum of the World Economic Forum to provide a global forum for exchange of information, ideas, and best practices for achieving sustainable campus operations, as well as to integrate sustainability into research and teaching. Aims to “reinvision the future and take meaningful action contributing to sustainable development.”  Sponsors the annual Global University Climate Forum.

8. Second Nature (1993, Boston).

A US non-profit committed to accelerate climate action in, and through, higher education. It has worked with over 4,000 faculty and administrators at >600 colleges and universities, with a vision of “higher education playing a prominent leadership role in shaping research, learning, and communities that inspire and operationalize this positive future.”  Programs include The American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, Higher Education & Climate Resilience, and Campus Sustainability Day.

9. AIM2Flourish (2019, Case Western Reserve Univ., Cleveland)

World’s first higher-education curriculum integrating the UN Sustainable Development Goals with the idea of positive and profitable business (“Business as an Agent of World Benefit”). The platform aims to be a source of inspiration for other higher education institutions and wider public, whereby students share their research on positive business innovations. AIM2Flourish seeks to “change the story about business from the best IN the world, to best FOR the world”. Its team supports education around the world by providing videos, classroom presentations, monthly newsletters, and other materials.

10. Security & Sustainability Forum (2009, Falls Church, Virginia)

A public interest membership organization that convenes global experts for free educational webinars. They focus on energy, food and water security, public health, urban resilience, economic vitality, infrastructure, governance, and other issues and impacts that must be solved in meeting climate security challenges. SSF developed a masterclass on important sustainability topics for professionals, >25 audio interviews with experts, and a free-access archive of over 150 webinars, including webinar series on ‘Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience Leadership’ and ‘Professional Sustainability Certification’.

11. The Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future (1990, Washington)

The Secretariat for signatories of the 1990 Talloires Declaration, signed by >500 college and university presidents in >50 countries. Its mission is to “support sustainability as a critical focus of teaching, research, operations and outreach at colleges and universities worldwide through publications, research, and assessment”.

12. The Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (2005; Philadelphia, PA)

Aims to lead higher education to be a foundation for a thriving, equitable and ecologically healthy world.   Its work is devoted to sustainability practices that address campus environmental, social and economic impacts. AASHE established the annual “Sustainability Campus Index,” “The Campus Sustainability Hub” and “STARS: The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System” to measure sustainability performance. [See Relevant Literature, below]. Together with the US Partnership on Education for Sustainable Development, it coordinates The Disciplinary Associations Network for Sustainability (DANS), with some 50 organizations, and the Higher Education Associations Sustainability Consortium (HEASC).

13. The U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development (2005)

“Acts as a convenor, catalyst, and communicator across all sectors of society.”  [See DANS and HEASC, above.]

14. World University Consortium (2013, World Academy of Art & Science)

Involves 11 NGOs and organizations seeking to “promote development of accessible, affordable, quality higher education worldwide based on a human-centered approach that shifts the emphasis from specialized expertise to contextualized knowledge”.  WUC, together with WAAS, has organized five conferences on the future of education, providing background for the 2022 UN conference on education.  For proceedings, see here.

15. United World Colleges (1962; London, UK)

Aims to make education a force “to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.” It has 18 schools and colleges on 4 continents. The colleges teach the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma as their formal curriculum and offers on-site and online short courses. The educational model aims to prepare the students “to engage in continuing, positive action towards issues of sustainability, on both an institutional and individual level.”

16. ProSPER.Net: Promotion of Sustainability in Postgraduate Education and Research (2008; UNU-IAS, Tokyo)

Involves 52 higher education institutions in the Asia-Pacific region working towards multi-disciplinary solutions to a wide range of sustainable development challenges. Apart from establishing education and research programs in sustainability and related fields, ProSPER.Net publishes books and brochures on transforming higher education and creating sustainable societies and organizes mobility programs, Young Researchers’ School, a Leadership Program and webinars on related issues.  The UN University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability serves as the Secretariat.

17. Education Development Center (1958, Waltham, MA; ).

Addresses  major education, health, and social challenges. In the past, EDC has worked on curriculum development programs in the fields of science, social studies, and mathematics. With a focus on workforce solutions, its projects are especially relevant to SDG#5 on Gender Equality and SDG#8 on Decent Work and Economic Growth.  EDC has 1,300 staff and has worked in 80 countries around the world.

18. Global Ecovillage Network (2006, Findhorn, Scotland)

Provides education and collaboration opportunities for young people to co-create a peaceful and regenerative culture. It has a consultative status with the UN-ECOSOC and functions as a network of autonomous regions in Latin America, Asia and Oceania, North America, Africa, and Europe), coordinated through the NextGen International Youth Council that meets on a monthly basis. Recent projects include Youth Social Innovation for Resilient Communities, Youth-Led Societal Innovation for Resilience, and Zambia Greening Schools.


      The purpose of this QuickLook is to illustrate the diversity of organizations advocating education for sustainability, security, or the SDGs.  It includes five Networks (1, 7, 12, 16, 18), two Associations (11-12), two Consortiums (12, 14), a Partnership (13), a Forum (10), and “United Colleges” (15).  Presumably, these terms of association are largely similar.

Appreciating the similarities and differences of these organizations concerned with future education can lead to strengthening one’s own organization, and perhaps to new and strengthened partnerships.

The ten idealized targets for SDG#4 on Quality Education are largely concerned with primary and secondary education for boys and girls, especially needed due to a year or two of schooling lost to the COVID-19 pandemic.  But most of the organizations in this QuickLook focus on higher and continuing education, and lifelong learning for adults–formal and informal–which is equally important and especially needed in the turbulent decade ahead.

      The 2020 SDSN report, Accelerating Education for the SDGs in Universities [see above] notes that the most common approaches used so far by universities are awareness raising, interdisciplinary introductory units, integration into the existing discipline curriculum, co-curricular activities, leadership programs, student-led activities, MOOCs and other online content, and sustainable development degrees.  SDSN President Jeffrey Sachs remarks that “hundreds of universities around the world are reconfiguring themselves to address the complex challenges of sustainable development” (p.iii).  This is very likely a quantitative understatement: more than a thousand universities are part of a network or association noted here, and many more might be included if a global census were possible.  But the great majority of these universities appear to be in Europe and North America, not worldwide.

As for accelerating qualitative progress in universities, efforts are underway to assess and rank North American universities (see AASHE and Princeton Review), but curriculum needs to be critically assessed in learner-oriented guides, especially at postgraduate and non-degree levels.  The companion QL to 41 PhD programs is a start, and many more programs at PhD and Masters level can be–and should be–identified and initiated!


  • Education for Sustainable Development Goals: Learning Objectives (UNESCO, 2017) states that “ESD can produce specific cognitive, socio-emotional and behavioral learning outcomes that enable individuals to deal with the particular challenges of each SDG, thus facilitating its achievement” (p.8). It is supposed to equip a wider population of not only understanding the importance of SDGs, but also to prepare each individual to contribute to necessary social transformation. Recognized key competences for addressing sustainability are: systems thinking, anticipatory competency and normative integrated problem-solving.
  • Practicing Education for Sustainable Development: Case Study Guide of Educators (UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Jan 2021, 79p). Addresses the urgent need for education institutions worldwide to orient their curricula and procedures toward UN education initiatives, namely Education for Sustainable Development (EfSD) and Global Citizenship Education (GCE).  Successfully integrated initiatives result in students developing soft skills, empathy, and sustainable behavior.  But it is not an easy task to reform existing institutions.  Results from the SDSN Global Schools Program enable learning from local communities by the Global School Advocates.  Case studies are presented from Asia, South America, Africa, Europe and North America. Concludes with lessons learned on challenges that such projects face, such as supportive school leadership, teacher autonomy, localized resources and translations, time constraints, financial resources, etc.
  • Accelerating Education for the SDGs in Universities: A Guide for Universities, Colleges, and Tertiary and Higher Education Institutions (UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network,  2020, 78p). Aims to “inspire universities to take action and support them through this process, regardless of their context, capacity or starting point”. This report was made possible thanks to “more than 1,300 universities, think tanks, and non-governmental organizations around the world that are members of the SDSN” (p.v). Jeffrey Sachs, President of SDSN, stresses that “sustainable development is a holistic concept, involving economics, social justice, and environmental management” and “therefore must be taught, researched, and promoted in a holistic manner – cutting across intellectual disciplines, faculties and departments, and even methods” (p.iii).
  • Blueprint for SDG Integration into Curriculum, Research and Partnerships (PRME, 2020, 51 p).  An initiative of UN Global Impact, Principles for Responsible Management Education (#5, above).  Provides a “roadmap for business schools already embarked on their SDG journey, those beginning their journey and those considering the challenge.” The two objectives: (1) to support business schools with adequate concepts and frameworks on their journey of integration of the SDGs into their working programs, and (2) to propose successfully adopted approaches as practical guidelines to interested business schools.
  • Sustainable Campus Index (AASHE, 2021 edition, 84 p). “Highlights the most sustainable colleges and universities in 17 impact areas and overall by institution type, as measured by the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System” (STARS).   Participating institutions share their data, which is reviewed by AASHE staff and rated in categories of academics, engagement, operations and administration. As of March 2021, STARS reports were submitted by >550 institutions in 14 countries, covering 49 US States and 8 Canadian provinces.
  • The Campus Sustainability Hub (AASHE) is an online resource library providing access to resources for all aspects of sustainability in higher education, including campus sustainability practices. It covers 3,209 programs in 693 organizations in 27 countries, including 548 programs under the category of Sustainability Studies and Science.
  • STARS Aligned: Using the Sustainability Tracking Assessment & Rating System to Report on Contributions to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (AASHE, 2020, 84 p).  In spite of  growing interest to orient sustainability efforts towards the SDGs,  academic institutions have no standardized methodology of measuring and reporting their contribution. This guide aims provides a self-reporting framework that “captures many of the main ways that higher education institutions can contribute to the SDGs,” and “a four-step process for using STARS to report on and expand an institution’s contributions to the SDGs”.
  • Princeton Review Guide to Green Colleges (2022). Free online, this 12th annual edition ranks the Top 50 US green colleges, and provides sustainability information on 420 schools, 391 in the US and 26 in Canada.
  • Guide to Quality and Education for Sustainability in Higher Education (University of Gloucestershire, 2012). The result of a Higher Education Funding Council for England project, “Leading Curriculum Change for Sustainability (2010-2012),” in collaboration with the UK Quality Assurance Agency and a consortium of five higher education institutions. Designed as an interactive guide with video and other downloadable materials and tools, it seeks “to make connections between Education for Sustainability (EfS) and the practice of quality assurance and enhancement in the HE curriculum”.
  • The Journal of Education for Sustainable Development (Prescott College, Prescott, Arizona; bi-annual). Aims to serve as a “forum for academics and practitioners to share and critique innovations in thinking and practice in the emerging field of Education for Sustainable Development”.
  • The International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education.  Aims to provide “up-to-date information on new developments and trends on sustainability in a higher education context, and to catalyse networking and information exchange on sustainable development as a whole, and on the SDGs in particular, on a global basis”.

Marta Nešković earned a recent PhD in Anthropology at the University of Belgrade. She is a researcher at the Institute for Political Studies in Belgrade, and a WAAS Junior Fellow. 

Michael Marien is Founder and Senior Principal of The Security & Sustainability Guide.

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