Mission Possible: The United Nations Opportunity Pavilion at Expo Dubai, 2022

January is always a time of goal setting – for individuals and organizations – nearly all of which center on actions and change initiatives to improve, to achieve, to contribute, and/or to do better in some way.  It’s an exciting time of year to get on new and impactful pathways for positive change.

And as we enter 2023, it’s important to consider our goals in the context of a larger frame – the world is now at the midpoint of its critical journey to the Sustainable Development Goals – and we are well off track toward achieving them. 

It is also the perfect time for each of us to be thinking about how we can contribute to influencing and scaling actions through all of our circles to accelerate progress toward any and all of the SDGs.

UN Secretary Guterres effectively covered this point in his opening remarks at COP27 in November.  Citing the fact that “the eight billionth member of our human family” was about to be born, he challenged: “How will we answer when baby 8 billion is old enough to ask, ‘What did you do for our world, and for our planet, when you had the chance?’”

I found his question to be a powerful action call at a time when we are continually bombarded by signal after signal (ex. drought, fires, floods, ocean warming, rising hunger, species loss) of the need to transform critical systems (food, energy, transportation, education) to accelerate progress to the SDGs and ensure that the world rapidly moves to operate within planetary boundaries. 

And I found his phrasing regarding “our human family” to be especially appropriate – as it reinforces that we all have a responsibility to act to take care of one another.  We can’t effectively address global food insecurity, for example, without demonstrating the needed elements of caring and will for our fellow citizens. 

Citing the climate crisis specifically, Guterres noted that greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow, global temperatures continue to rise, and we are rapidly closing in on tipping points that will make climate change irreversible.  Significantly, he added that “we are in the fight of our lives, and we are losing.”

So as we enter 2023, emerging from the stubborn grips of the pandemic, dealing with myriad disruptions from Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, and one year closer to the pivotal 2030 deadline, it is indeed a pivotal time for all of us to be thinking about the power of one – and how we can contribute to accelerating actions to help the world get on track for sustainable development.

Toward that end, I would suggest that we double down on education efforts. 

A Celebration of Education

On that score, it is worth noting that last week (January 24th) we celebrated the International Day of Education on the UN calendar – and we can draw inspiration from its purpose.

Adopted in 2018, the resolution calling for the International Day of Education demonstrated the will of member nations to support “transformative actions for inclusive, equitable, and quality education for all.” 

Further, through the resolution, member nations “reiterated that education plays a key role in building sustainable and resilient societies” and “contributes to the achievement of all other Sustainable Development Goals.” 

The recognition of the interconnection between education and the other SDGs is significant, reinforcing that education leads to multiple wins for sustainable development.  The resolution notes that education:

  • plays a key role in building sustainable and resilient societies and contributes to the achievement of all the SDGs,
  • increases the productivity of individuals and strengthens the potential for economic growth,
  • develops the skills needed for decent work,
  • develops the professional skills needed for sustainable development, including in the fields of water and sanitation, green energy and the conservation of natural resources,
  • helps to eradicate poverty and hunger, contributes to improved health, promotes gender equality and can reduce inequality, and promotes peace, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.

Appropriately, this year’s theme for the International Day of Education is “To invest in people, prioritize education” – building on core tenets that education is both a human right and a public responsibility, and that it is “essential for the success of all 17” of the SDGs.    

In its Futures of Education Report video, UNESCO stresses that humanity’s future is at risk, and that urgent action is needed to change course and transform the future.  UNESCO notes all of us alive today have an obligation to ensure that future generations have a world of human rights and abundance, and that education is one of the key ways to “address inequality, exclusion, and work on healing our damaged planet.”

We have an obligation – and there is a lesson here for all of us to reflect on at this critical time:  What can we do in all of our circles – with family members, in religious groups, in our social circles, in our workplaces, and as consumers – to influence and educate others on the imperative of change for sustainable development.    

Leveraging Education for Action

UNESCO suggests that to transform the world, we need to transform education – leading us to evaluate what actions should be continued, what should be abandoned, and what we must invent anew.

How can we be transformers of education to in turn accelerate transformational social and environmental actions?

Perhaps a key thought for us to consider is that we need not look far.  The opportunities to be transformers are in front of us – we just need to choose to engage, acting on the signals of dysfunction that we encounter daily.    

We can leverage educational efforts to address a slew of challenges underlying the SDGs – hunger, nutrition, climate, plastics, water security, deforestation, biodiversity loss, or whatever sustainability challenge most drives us – through our everyday actions. 

Consider the food waste challenge, for example.  We all encounter examples of wasted food in our lives, with multiple opportunities for intervention through education.

One area in which we can get more active concerns our school food programs.  My colleague Jonathan Bloom has taken a deep dive into food waste in K-12 schools, the very place where you would think we would be prioritizing actions that create a mindset of food waste reduction among youth – a mindset that students can carry forward throughout their lives.  This is an essential environment to educate on the scope and scale of food waste with a focus on changing the wasteful behaviors that epitomize our culture of abundance around food, driving food waste reduction while simultaneously achieving gains in many other SDGs (hunger, climate, water, biodiversity, and more).

Bloom points to several factors, including subpar food, logistical errors (such as lunch periods that are too early, too short, or occurring just prior to recess), lack of choice, and lack of sharing options – all of which lead to an increase in food going to waste.  Viewing all of these factors together, Bloom posits that in many ways we are in fact educating our youth on how to waste food rather than how to reduce food waste – exactly the opposite of what we want (and need) to do.  In so doing, we are reinforcing a culture that doesn’t properly value food and essentially normalizes food waste – a giant missed opportunity to create food system change leaders of the future. 

He suggests many fixes for this problem – such as improving the quality of school food, allowing sufficient time for lunch, scheduling lunch prior to recess, and setting up sharing tables while enabling redistribution efforts. 

Building on Bloom’s findings, I experienced similar concerns upon observing lunch operations in an urban school setting several years ago, where I found that the overriding structure reinforced unsustainable behaviors rather than advancing sustainable outcomes and learnings.  Resources were clearly limited, and the overriding focus from the staff seemed to be on maintaining order.  On the plus side, lunch was subsidized – but choice was clearly lacking and the food was unappetizing.  Students were given packaged food items straight from warmers, such as a boxed pizza slice and a sealed plastic container of green vegetables, regardless of whether or not they planned to eat them. 

At the end of the lunch period, rolling trash containers were brought to each table, and all food items, napkins, plastic bottles, and cutlery were quickly swept into the containers in robotic fashion.  There was no effort to segregate untouched (and sealed) containers of vegetables or pieces of fruit for sharing or donation – even though those items could have been donated to several students and their families, as well as local pantries.

Nor was there any effort to separate plastics for recycling or food scraps for composting.

Lunch wasn’t a chance to celebrate food with friends, but was a tightly-regimented script in a short window – sit, quickly eat what you will, and discard everything else together. 

The entire structure, with its focus on cheap food, speed, and easy disposal, served to devalue food and normalize waste in the minds of the students.  It also represented a giant missed opportunity to educate the students on the value of food resources, the cost of food waste and the multiple benefits of food waste reduction, and the potential to build community through donations.

It was clearly an opportunity for transformative education.

We can look beyond schools to our experiences at other food operations as well. 

For example, back in May, I wrote of an opportunity to break existing mindsets and procedures leading to food waste at Panera Bread and educate employees on the importance of maximizing food resources.

And in 2021, I reviewed a high-profile incident of food waste at Fred Meyer (division of Kroger) and discussed the importance of creating a culture in which all employees not only understand the company’s food waste reduction strategy, but also feel empowered to find creative solutions to reduce waste – especially in times of crisis. 

As consumers, we can educate ourselves and our peers on upcycled food products, and we can show support for producers (and retailers) who are acting responsibly to minimize food waste in operations. 

Further, we can support high-impact NGOs who are leading educational efforts to transform key aspects of the food system, such as the Chef Ann Foundation and the Future Food Institute, as well as Sonia Massari and the FORK organization, thereby positively impacting multiple SDGs. 

Leading Transformation through Education

The point is, there are numerous opportunities for all of us to engage as educators on SDG challenges – and at this critical juncture for sustainable development we must embrace them.

Last June, Quantis wrote an excellent piece calling for organizational leaders to make sustainability the business of business.  We can apply that thinking in our own lives, striving to make education for sustainable development our business. 

We can all be changemakers.

The UN did a brilliant job of highlighting this point at Expo 2020 (Dubai), emphasizing that small actions can have big impact, and inspiring everyone to take action to build a better world with the following message: You are one in 8 billion.  And while it may seem that the actions of one person can’t change the world, it’s time to think again.  Be an agent of change and build a better future for everyone.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reminds us that we are “halfway there” on the timeline for the Sustainable Development Goals, and that the SDGs “remain our best chance to spread prosperity, security and human rights to all corners of the world.  Significantly, UNDP adds that “2023 brings the possibility to reset and recommit to this transformative agenda for humanity.”

I agree.

So as the world faces the urgent need to accelerate actions toward the SDGs, let’s all accelerate education efforts in our own circles.

Let’s act as transformers, leveraging education to achieve multiple sustainable development wins.

And as UNESCO notes, “Let’s all work together for our communities and across the world to ensure that education best supports our shared futures.”

It’s hard to say it any better than that.