Why sustainability literacy is in such high demand

Posted on: 18 September, 2023

Being able to articulate sustainability across groups and disciplines and drive change is high on the wish list of today’s businesses and corporations. Here’s why.

The UK’s push to reach net zero by 2050 has exposed a new skills gap in the employment industry – sustainability skills. A report by PwC released last year detailed a green energy skills gap of around 200,000 workers in the country. Furthermore, the UK is falling behind in developing these skills when compared to other economies. Only 1 in 8 British workers possess environmental and sustainability expertise – less than France and Germany. And with demand for these skills outpacing supply, the UK is in very real danger of failing to meet its sustainability and energy transition targets.

Learn more: Diagnosing the green skills gap: what skills is the built environment missing?

One of the challenges of driving environmental initiatives and enacting change and innovation in business is being able to articulate sustainability clearly. This is why sustainability literacy is high on the agenda of many organisations.

What is sustainability literacy?

Sustainability literacy is the theoretical knowledge that allows someone to understand the intricate relationship and conflicts between humanity, development, the environment, and natural resources. The term has been popularised in recent years amid the launch of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015.

Grasping the language of sustainability enables individuals to make well-informed and meaningful choices and articulate concepts in a business context that help create a better future for our environment.

As a theoretical field that’s continuously innovating thanks to our developing knowledge, it’s impossible to be 100% literate on sustainability. However, without taking the time to develop comprehension of our social and ecological ecosystems and their interdependencies, any attempts to make meaningful change will be unsuccessful and ineffective.

Why is encouraging sustainability literacy so important?

Rather than purely seeking specialist individuals or teams to take ownership of sustainability, businesses want these skills to exist throughout different organisational disciplines and functions.

One of the chief reasons for this is to avoid silos and bottlenecks in sustainability knowledge. For sustainability to be integrated and prioritised effectively in an organisation’s strategy, its paradigms need to be understood and adopted across multiple departments.

Learn more: Why sustainability can’t exist in silos

What’s more, if the understanding of sustainability is only reserved for specific groups or departments, there’s a greater chance of missed opportunities, miscommunication, poor implementation of policies, and ineffective change management.

Sustainability isn’t a static field – it’s an evolving and shifting process that requires more than keeping up with current affairs. To really drive change and reap the commercial benefits of a sustainable ethos, organisations should aim to be at the apex of innovation. Otherwise, they could actually be doing nothing more than greenwashing their business practices.

Learn more: 8 types of greenwashing (and how to spot them)

Demand for sustainability literacy is rising

Governments and legislators are increasing the pressure on businesses to adopt and report on their environmental activities. Greater emphasis on Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) reporting requirements, such as the EU’s incoming Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive, mean organisations can risk significant financial penalties for poor compliance. What’s more, the launch of the Green Claims Code in the UK has placed greater scrutiny on how businesses articulate their environmental practices to the public.

Learn more: A guide to ESG: what is it and why does it matter?

From a commercial perspective, sustainability has become a business imperative. Reviewing how your business interacts with the environment can have significant financial benefits, in terms of value and revenue, through reduced energy consumption and the preference younger generations have towards companies that prioritise the environment. As if that wasn’t enough, the push toward sustainability has created more competition in the marketplace, and understanding the language of sustainability is becoming a key differentiator in client relationships.

Learn more: Building climate competency: how UCEM is leading the way in professional sustainability education

The built environment is no exception. According to research by the Higher Education Academy, the sustainable development agenda ‘is firmly establishing itself as a key consideration for built environment professions’. What’s more, there is ‘widespread recognition’ that sustainability ‘will influence the skill set required of built environment professionals’.

These skills aren’t just required at an individual level – the language of sustainability is needed across the entire organisation to ensure the success of environmental initiatives and programs in the built environment. To put it simply, businesses have to lead the conversation on sustainability or be left behind.

Learn more: Making a business case for sustainability: why now is the time to act

Final thoughts

The picture is clear: sustainability literacy is in high demand. The green skills shortage – not just in the UK but on a global scale – needs to be addressed if we are to halt the continuing damage of global warming to environment and reverse climate disaster.

With such a small talent pool to recruit from, demand for sustainability literacy is high and competition is fierce as businesses look for leaders to enact change. For professionals wanting to innovate in their organisation or develop their existing knowledge, this presents an exciting opportunity and places the initiative in your hands. This shortage won’t last forever, so take the opportunity now to make a difference and be at the forefront of change in your industry.

Sustainability isn’t a passing trend – it’s here to stay and is constantly evolving. If you want employees that inspire and action change in their careers, UCEM’s Sustainability Business Specialist Apprenticeship will give your teams the skills they need, both now and in the future.

Find out more: Sustainability Business Specialist Apprenticeship – University College of Estate Management