Embracing Sustainability in International School Operations: Challenges and Pathways to Success

By Grace Hu- Head of Sustainability at Education in Motion (EiM).


In recent years, sustainability has emerged as a critical global concern, with individuals, organisations, and governments recognizing the need for sustainable practices to ensure a viable future for our planet. As the world becomes more interconnected, the role of education in promoting sustainability has gained significant importance. International schools, being hubs of diverse cultures and ideas, have a unique opportunity to foster sustainability principles and inspire young minds to become responsible global citizens. However, integrating sustainability into the operations of international schools presents its own set of challenges. In this blog post, we will explore what sustainability entails and discuss the hurdles faced in its integration, along with potential solutions to overcome them.

I have been working in the field of sustainable development for 15 years. In that time I have served the world’s top 500 companies, NGOs and Charitable Foundations at home and abroad. No matter which institution I work with, the questions I get asked the most are: “What exactly do you do?” and “What is sustainable development?” Here, I explain.  

What is sustainability?

At its core, sustainability refers to the practice of meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs[1]. It encompasses three interconnected pillars: environmental stewardshipsocial responsibility, and economic viability. Achieving sustainability requires a holistic approach that considers the environmental impact of actions, embraces social justice and equity, and promotes long-term economic stability. More commonly referred to these days as ‘ESG’ – which stands for Environmental, Social, and Governance. It is a framework used to evaluate a company’s performance and sustainability practices based on its environmental impact, social responsibility, and governance structure. ESG factors have become increasingly important for investors, as they seek to align their investments with companies that demonstrate responsible and ethical practices, making a positive impact on society and the environment while maintaining strong governance standards.

While we see sustainable development being valued and practiced by more and more governments and institutions, we also see many challenges in operational integration. 

School operations sustainability challenges:

  1. Challenges in Integrating Sustainability in International School Operations:

Awareness and Mindset Shift: One of the primary challenges in integrating sustainability into international school operations is raising awareness and fostering a shift in mindset among the stakeholders. Sustainability should be seen as a fundamental value and a shared responsibility rather than an optional add-on. Educators, administrators, students, and parents must understand the urgency and benefits of incorporating sustainability principles into everyday practices.

  • Curriculum Integration: Developing a curriculum that integrates sustainability across various subjects is crucial for embedding sustainable practices into the fabric of an international school. However, achieving this integration requires dedicated effort and collaboration among teachers from different disciplines. Incorporating sustainability into existing curriculum frameworks can be challenging, but it can be achieved through interdisciplinary projects, case studies, and experiential learning opportunities that highlight the connections between subjects and real-world sustainability challenges.
  • Infrastructure and Operations: The physical infrastructure and day-to-day operations of international schools often present obstacles to sustainability integration. Outdated buildings, energy-intensive systems, and wasteful consumption patterns can undermine efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of a school. Retrofitting buildings with energy-efficient technologies, implementing waste management systems, and promoting sustainable transportation options are some strategies to address these challenges. However, budgetary constraints and resistance to change can pose hurdles that need to be carefully addressed.
  • Community Engagement: Sustainability efforts can only thrive when the entire school community is engaged and actively participates. Communicating the importance of sustainability to parents, involving local communities, and collaborating with external organisations can create a supportive ecosystem. By organising workshops, awareness campaigns, and community service initiatives, international schools can foster a culture of sustainability that extends beyond the school premises.
  • Evaluation and Measurement: Measuring the progress of sustainability initiatives is essential to understand their effectiveness and identify areas for improvement. Implementing evaluation mechanisms, such as sustainability audits, tracking energy and resource consumption, and conducting regular surveys, can provide valuable insights. However, developing suitable metrics, ensuring data accuracy, and interpreting the results can be complex. Schools may need to seek external expertise or collaborate with sustainability-focused organisations to overcome these challenges.

On top of these challenges, there is perhaps one other substantial obstacle, which I believe is the most significant and a root cause for difficulties in operational integration. Let’s consider the different departments within a school, such as procurement and HR. These departments operate like specialized tools, addressing specific needs as they arise, similar to using a screwdriver for fixing screws or a wrench for tightening bolts.

Now, imagine sustainable development as a different kind of tool, more like a comprehensive toolkit. It doesn’t have a single specific function, but rather it encompasses a range of tools and approaches that need to be used strategically and in harmony. It’s like having a multi-purpose toolset that allows you to tackle various tasks, solve complex problems, and build for the long-term.

However, the challenge arises when some stakeholders expect sustainability efforts to function like a single-purpose tool, providing immediate results and short-term benefits, much like using a hammer to drive in a nail. Sustainable development, however, requires a broader perspective and a more patient approach. It’s like investing in a solid foundation for a building, where the benefits may not be immediately visible, but they ensure long-term stability and resilience. (I will not describe too much here about the economic, humanistic and future risks caused by not paying attention to sustainable development.) 

This metaphor helps illustrate why integrating sustainability into operational practices can be challenging. It requires a shift in mindset and understanding that sustainable development is not a quick fix, but rather a holistic and enduring process that requires long-term vision and commitment. By embracing the comprehensive toolkit approach, we can unlock the full potential of sustainability and create lasting positive impacts. 

Therefore, when dealing with these challenges, the first priority is leadership and firm awareness. Starting from this, I list some relatively feasible strategies [AD1] for your reference:

  1. Leadership and Commitment: Effective leadership is vital in driving sustainability integration in international schools. School administrators should champion sustainability initiatives, allocate resources, and provide professional development opportunities for staff. A top-down commitment combined with a participatory approach can create a strong foundation for sustainable practices.
  2. Professional Development: Investing in professional development programs for teachers can empower them with the knowledge and skills required to integrate sustainability into their teaching practices. Providing training on sustainability concepts, curriculum design, and pedagogical approaches can enable teachers to be effective sustainability advocates.
  3. Student Empowerment: Students are key stakeholders in the sustainability journey. Engaging them in decision-making processes, encouraging student-led sustainability clubs, and providing opportunities for hands-on projects can foster a sense of ownership and empower them to become sustainability leaders.
  4. Partnerships and Collaboration: International schools can leverage partnerships with sustainability-focused organisations, NGOs, businesses, and universities to gain expertise, access resources, and share best practices. Collaborative projects, joint research initiatives, and exchange programs can enrich the learning experiences and amplify the impact of sustainability efforts.

In summary

Integrating sustainability into international school operations is a complex endeavor, but one that holds immense potential for shaping a more sustainable future for us all. By addressing challenges such as awareness, curriculum integration, infrastructure, community engagement, and evaluation, international schools can embrace sustainability as a guiding principle and inspire the next generation of global citizens to become advocates for a sustainable world. With strong leadership, commitment, and collaborative effort, international schools can be at the forefront of promoting sustainable practices and nurturing environmentally conscious individuals who will drive positive change in the world. Remember, together, we make a pioneering impact. How are you going to make a difference today? 

Grace is a purpose-driven Sustainability and CSR Director/Head and consultant with 15+ years of experience. She excels at bringing people together in the area of school sustainability to achieve common goals. She is able to set and achieve clear sustainability targets for schools, setting clear structures for their implementation, delivering results on time and within budget. Her exceptional project management skills, persuasive communication abilities, and talent for building positive relationships with stakeholders make her an outstanding partner for any school and organisation looking for a dynamic and collaborative leader in the field of sustainability.

Grace Hu is Head of Sustainability at Education in Motion (EiM)

To connect with Grace on LinkedIn, click HERE

For follow questions please contact: grace.hd@icloud.com

[1] University of Alberta – What is sustainability?

 [AD1]Are they coping strategies? 

2 thoughts on “<strong>Embracing Sustainability in International School Operations: Challenges and Pathways to Success</strong>”

  1. Thank you Grace for sharing such an incredible article on sustainability with us! Recently I read so many news on climate changing, flood in China, as well as the wildfire in Italy, all this remind us it’s urgent for everyone to take actions, live a sustainable lifestyle. International schools which are the places to foster global citizens, have the responsibilities to immerse students in a sustainable atmosphere.

  2. Pingback: Unveiling the Fukushima Ripple: Urgent Call for Global Attention and Action on ESG and Sustainability - Leading Your International School | News

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