Teaching Sustainability Skills to Students

Older man talking to a young boy on a farm.
Student Successsustainability
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Charlotte Ellis studied with the Cambridge Institute of Sustainable Leadership and is co-lead of the Cengage Green Employee Research Group alongside her role as Head of Strategic Marketing at National Geographic Learning EMEA


This year, Earth Overshoot Day will land on July 27. This is the day on which we will have used all the resources that earth is able to generate in a year. Indeed if the whole world were to consume resources at the rate of the United States, then we’d have used up a whole year’s worth on March 14. You don’t have to be a scientist or mathematician to see that this equation doesn’t work. It’s, by definition, unsustainable. We have a finite number of resources and a seemingly infinite demand, and that is doing irreversible damage.

A globe showing the dates for each country's estimated Earth Overshoot Day. For a full list of the countries and dates in the image, click "Image Details"

Image Details

When would Earth Overshoot Day land if the world’s population lived like…
Feb 10 | Qatar
Feb 14 | Luxembourg
Mar 13 | Canada, United Arab Emirates, United States of America
Mar 23 | Australia
Mar 26 | Belgium
Mar 28 | Denmark
Mar 31 | Finland
Apr 2 | Republic of Korea
Apr 3 | Sweden
Apr 6 | Austria
Apr 12 | Czech Republic, Netherlands, Norway
Apr 18 | Slovenia
Apr 19 | New Zealand, Russia
Apr 21 | Ireland
Apr 27 | Saudi Arabia
May 4 | Germany, Israel
May 5 | France*
May 6 | Japan
May 7 | Portugal
May 12 | Spain
May 13 | Switzerland
May 15 | Bahamas, Chile, Italy
May 17 | Montenegro
May 19 | United Kingdom
May 21 | Greece
May 29 | Croatia
May 30 | Hungary
Jun 1 | South Africa
Jun 2 | China
Jun 11 | Romania
Jun 22 | Turkey
Jun 24 | Argentina
Jun 27 | Iran
Jul 5 | Bolivia
Jul 8 | Paraguay
Jul 17 | Panama
Aug 12 | Brazil
Aug 19 | Namibia
Aug 25 | Costa Rica
Aug 27 | Ukraine
Aug 30 | Venezuela
Aug 31 | Mexico
Sep 3 | Peru, Thailand
Sep 4 | Algeria
Sep 12 | Viet Nam
Oct 11 | Uzbekistan
Oct 12 | El Salvador
Nov 8 | Colombia
Nov 11 | Egypt
Nov 14 | Guatemala
Nov 24 | Iraq
Nov 25 | Cuba
Dec 3 | Indonesia
Dec 6 | Ecuador
Dec 20 | Jamaica

For full list of countries, visit overshootday.org/country-overshoot-days.
*French Overshoot Day based on nowcasted data. See overshootday.org/France.
Source: National Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts, 2022 Edition


It’s undoubtedly the biggest challenge of our era—how to halt, and ideally reverse, the massive impact that human actions have wrought on the environment. And education is the front line of this fight. Why? Because it’s too pressing not to be, and it’s the upcoming cohort of students who will have the power to do things differently.

Conservation and sustainability skills should be a class taught on every curriculum. Sadly, they aren’t—and we don’t have time to go through the endless back and forth of making it so. Even if they were, we shouldn’t confine these topics to one class. Much like the intricate ecosystem in which we operate we cannot silo out the “environmental issue” to be a standalone issue. It touches on, is affected by and impacts virtually every aspect of our lives. Whatever the subject, discipline or major, we should be teaching sustainability skills to students and modelling the behavior that can impact change. And as AJ Ayer pointed out, “Unless we have a word for something, we are unable to conceive of it.” Students need to be aware so they can understand their own actions and impact.

I’ve talked with many educators, and they are keen to know what they can do to help equip their students with the knowledge, language and skills to take part in the global conversations and be part of the solution. As we celebrate Earth Day, I wanted to share some ideas for teaching sustainability skills to students.


Systems thinking

This is not a new theory by any stretch of the imagination. It’s familiar to many scientists. It’s the way of seeing how things interconnect—the idea of cause-and-effect writ large and taken to the nth degree. The kind of thinking that contemplates what the ripple effects of one solution might be. Sometimes we can be so focused on one outcome—better results, faster, with greater profit—that we are blinkered to the tidal wave of effect that it has in a completely unintended area. And the effect isn’t always obvious within the small range of focus that has been applied for finding a solution to a particular problem. It’s the kind of thinking that attributes value to things that previously haven’t been taken into account because the cost lies elsewhere.

Take for instance the example of fast fashion. When we need new jeans, we get what is most convenient to us at the best price. But that rarely takes into account the hidden costs of where it was made, how it was made and who made it.

This is why the UN Sustainability Goals offer one of the most realistic roadmaps for improving our future. Because it sets out 17 goals for us to strive towards and acknowledges that we need to get all of these right if we are to get one right. We can’t achieve what we need to in our ecosystems if we don’t also try and tackle poverty, gender equality and responsible consumerism. Quality education and strong partnerships are a critical foundation if we’re to tackle any of these issues.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals chart. For a full list of the 17 goals, click on "Image Details"

Image Details

Sustainable Development Goals
1. No Poverty
2. Zero Hunger
3. Good Health and Well-Being
4. Quality Education
5. Gender Equality
6. Clean Water and Sanitation
7. Affordable and Clean Energy
8. Decent Work and Economic Growth
9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
10. Reduced Inequalities
11. Sustainable Cities and Communities
12. Responsible Consumption and Production
13. Climate Action
14. Life Below Water
15. Life on Land
16. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
17. Partnerships for the Goals


In our classrooms, we should be referencing this framework and signposting how things interconnect. We need to demonstrate how we all fit into a bigger more complex network and how many locals make up the global. It often calls for interdisciplinary and international collaboration. Above all, it calls for us to make sure students are asking the questions. Your challenge as educators is to encourage them to follow the thread to find the solutions that have positive ripples rather than negative ones.



For anyone who has spent time studying or investigating the climate crisis, biodiversity loss and man-made natural disasters, there is a clear emotional path. It goes through disbelief, rage and then a massive slump toward impotence. The inevitable questions of “Is it too late?” and “Should I even bother?” come creeping in. There’s a tendency to throw one’s arms up in the air and put it on the “too hard” pile. But it’s not too late, and we should bother. It might be hard but it’s not too hard. This is why we need to teach the values of resilience to our students.

Within our institutions, we need to create an environment where students are comfortable not getting quick wins. Teach them that they won’t always get it right the first time, and that it takes trial and error to get things right. We often place the value on high-stakes exams, the “all or nothing” aspect of them can run contra to this idea of iterative process.

Think about the classes you run. Have you built an environment where students can build resilience in the face of not getting it right the first time? Is failure normalized in your lessons? Do you put as much value on the process as you do on the outcome? Do you showcase role models who kept trying to reach their ultimate goal? Have you made this John Powell quote your class motto?

“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”


Taking action

When we begin to see our place in a wider ecosystem, it’s then impossible to see climate and sustainability issues as something that is happening “over there,” or as something separate from the world in which we operate. We are not passive bystanders in this crisis. While it’s important to understand the challenges we are facing with regard to the future of our planet, that means nothing unless we can do something about it. We are all agents of change, and as educators, we have a unique platform to influence a positive impact.

It’s easy to see ourselves as too insignificant to make a difference, but this is where we have to put our faith in numbers and the compounding effect of repeated behaviors and actions. Yes – we can always recycle, but we can’t recycle our way out of this crisis. We need to modify our behaviors and look to a more cyclical model rather than the “make-take-waste” way of consuming. The simple action of using a refillable water bottle every day, bringing your own coffee cup, or mending a torn shirt builds up. After a year you’ve saved hundreds of bottles and disposable coffee cups from entering the waste system and ending up in our oceans. And if a class of ten does the same thing, then you’ve suddenly got thousands of single-use plastics being removed from the system. Simple actions multiplied over and over can make massive change.

We should also remember that our biggest power lies in our wallets and in who we put in power. Businesses will respond to market demands. So, if we as a consumer base reject single-use plastics, or harmful fast fashion or food that has traveled miles to our plates, then the market will respond. It’s about making sure our students are asking the key questions. Where has this come from? Who made it? What happens to it after I finish it?

You have the power to influence great change. Whether that means developing that critical inquiry process, building the resilience to persevere and overcome or making a class pledge to make one simple change reiterated over the course of the year.

So, what will your action be?


About the author

Charlotte Ellis studied Modern Languages (French and Modern Greek) at Oxford University and has long had a passion for sharing cultures and using languages to cross borders. Most recently her attention has turned to how we can use language and education to try to solve some of the biggest questions our generation has to face – that of climate crisis and sustainable living. Charlotte has recently studied with the Cambridge Institute of Sustainable Leadership and is co-lead of the Cengage Green Employee Research Group alongside her role as Head of Strategic Marketing at National Geographic Learning EMEA.


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