March 20, 2023

What is Sustainability and Why Does it Matter?

Dr. Mumbi Wachira

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This year’s university theme “Caring for People and Planet” has called for a focus on sustainability. From conversations with colleagues and friends within the university, I have appreciated once again how multifaceted the term sustainability can be from the onset. For some, it may seem to be related to high-level UN meetings (e.g. the Conference of Parties or COP) where we occasionally see world leaders gather to discuss even more complicated concepts like climate mitigation, loss and damage, carbon credits, climate finance, etc. Though these concepts and conversations are incredibly important, we may lose sight of their intention because of their complexity. This article intends to shed further insight into what sustainability means and why it’s important for all of us.

The first step to appreciating and understanding sustainability is to acknowledge its origin. This means we first must grapple with the diverse and intertwined social, economic and environmental challenges we experience in our daily lives and more broadly as a community. For example, our weak public healthcare systems, the increased cost of living, poor infrastructure, high levels of inequality and poverty, insecurity, etc. are commonplace for most of us. Sustainability, therefore, can be seen as a response to these challenges. The literal meaning of sustainability is the capacity to continue or maintain a state of being; this can be in the form of maintaining societal systems, ecology, capital or even evolutionary processes. Simply put, sustainability is how we go about responding to the problems we see now and those that are likely to emerge or continue. The second premise to understanding what sustainability is and why it’s important is to acknowledge that the resources our earth has are finite. We, therefore, need to find innovative ways to use these resources (land, water, energy, etc.) to meet the needs of the present and the future. In 2017, French President

Emanuel Macron famously said, “There is no plan B because there is no planet B.”

Sustainability is diverse and can be applied across a wide range of disciplines and practices. As a member of the faculty at SBS, I view sustainability from the perspective of responsible business management and leadership. How should business and society interact? For example, I am very interested in understanding how financial institutions make investment decisions and how they identify and prioritize projects and/or businesses that are solving social problems and creating scalable impact.

However, a researcher at the School of Computing and Engineering Sciences (SCES) may be interested in interrogating how Artificial Intelligence can be used to improve disease detection and create personalized treatment plans. A colleague who is working from the operations side of the university may look to improve the efficiency of water usage and storage in different facilities. Although these are different viewpoints, sustainability is at their core. I have also found immense potential in solving sustainability challenges using an interdisciplinary approach. We all have our strengths and areas of expertise and those can be leveraged towards a common purpose. Sustainability problems such as food insecurity, economic inequality or even scarcity of resources cannot be addressed from one field because they emerge from an interplay of many multifaceted interactions; they go beyond one single discipline.

Finally, unpacking sustainability is complicated and takes some time. It may also be overwhelming. However, with patience, one starts to grasp what it means and ultimately what can be done about it. The challenges are immense, but they also provide us with several opportunities at all levels. Awareness is the starting point, followed by action.

Within the business school and the wider university, there are several initiatives, programmes and projects that we can begin to engage in and contribute to.

At an individual level, we can reflect a bit more on how we make different decisions e.g., how we dispose of our waste, how we support our colleagues, how we run our side hustles, how we consume, etc. We can bring it back to the wording of the theme and turn it into a question: “How do we take care of our people and the planet?”

Article by Dr. Mumbi Wachira, Academic Lead, Sustainability Programmes, SBS

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