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Does Canada Need a Sustainability Literacy Month or a Decade? A Look Back at 2012 and ahead at 2013

Did you know that November is financial literacy month? My trusted friend Wikipedia tells me that financial literacy is “the ability to understand finance.” More specifically, it refers to the set of skills and knowledge that allows an individual to make informed and effective decisions through their understanding of finances. Clearly, this is an important capacity to cultivate.

I think we need a sustainability literacy month – or perhaps more realistically a sustainability literacy decade. As hard as it is for those of us who work in this field to believe, many more people need to realize the seriousness of the sustainability crisis we face, the integrated nature of our social, environmental and economic challenges, and the fundamentals of sustainability science. Sustainability professionals still operate in a relatively small bubble of like-minded individuals and/or face major challenges in engaging their colleagues, customers, employees, investors and others who are often not as sustainability literate.

I’ve come to realize that this is The Natural Step’s core capability. Through our learning programs and within our advisory service engagements, we have proven over the years to be extremely effective at helping individuals with diverse worldviews to see the sustainability challenge differently and to understand its relevance to them. Suanne DeBoer, the past GM of DeBoer’s Furniture, expressed her experience of this just this week in an article she wrote for the Sustainability Learning Centre’s newsletter about The Natural Step’s Sustainability 101 eLearning course.

It has been a terrific year for our sustainability learning programs at The Natural Step Canada. Together with our partners at The Co-operators and supported by dozens of other partners in five cities across Canada, we’ve established a fantastic youth sustainability leadership program, IMPACT! Sustainability Champions, which is making an enormous difference in the lives of the 150 young people who have participated to date and the dozens of mentors and community partners who are supporting them. Two successful MBA Sustainability Leadership Bootcamps have had a profound effect on 70 young and mid-career professionals who are now better equipped to play a sustainability leadership role wherever their careers take them. We have run sustainability leadership courses in cities across Canada, and helped raise sustainability literacy levels for hundreds of individuals through training components in our various advisory engagements with businesses and municipal governments. Leaders in two of our best partner companies, The Landmark Group of Builders and The Co-operators, were even recognized for their sustainability leadership at the Clean 50 awards this year. Those two individuals, Barbara and Reza, are terrific examples of what it means to build sustainability literacy. Five years ago, neither of them would have considered themselves a sustainability leader. Barbara had risen up the ranks of a large insurance company and was a specialist in the insurance business. Reza was a home-builder, having built one of the most successful home building companies in Alberta. And yet, each of them in their own way has become highly “sustainability literate” to the point that this insurance expert and home builder are now being recognized as sustainability leaders. Reflecting back to the definition of financial literacy above, Barbara and Reza have developed “a set of skills and knowledge that allows them to make informed and effective decisions through their understanding of… sustainability.”  We need many more like them.

So, what is even more important than what The Natural Step has accomplished in sustainability literacy in 2012 is where we plan to go next. We believe that raising the level of sustainability literacy in Canada is both vitally important and an area where The Natural Step can provide issue leadership and build partnerships and coalitions. In doing so, we will put our learning programs and core capability toward the service of a bigger collective mandate.  In practical terms, this means that we will seek partnerships that will create opportunities to build sustainability literacy in strategic domains, such as professional associations, corporate boards, and certain high-profile public contexts. We will also be guided by the collective impact philosophy in how we evolve the model for delivering our courses; for example, by creating real opportunity for regional and local NGOs to benefit by offering the courses in their communities. Further details on all of this will be provided in our next newsletter in early 2013.

Since this is our final newsletter of the year, I close my message the same way we do every year – with a humble request for your support. The Natural Step Canada is a charitable not-for-profit organization that accomplishes its goals in part through the financial contributions of many individuals who care about its mission and support its programs. If you believe in the importance of raising sustainability literacy rates in Canada and in The Natural Step’s capacity to play a leadership role in doing so, please consider making a year-end donation to us. Thank you to those of you who have given in the past and who give regularly. Your support makes a big difference for a small organization with big goals.


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