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The Next Economy
How Education Helps Set a Better Foundation for Long-Term Sustainability

If you’re a brand that cares about the environment or society but doesn’t invest in education, you’re missing an opportunity to expand your impact. This connects to a larger issue — how CSR and sustainability go far beyond any company’s immediate customer base or market.

Education is, in many ways, the foundation of society — where civic values, core skills and lifelong habits are built. The importance of education is an issue that cuts across partisan, age, race and cultural lines. It can also lead to transformational change, as students and education professionals have played a key role in several of the US’s most influential social movements — from the fight for women’s suffrage to the civil rights movement.

For brands, engaging in education can play a key role in achieving their own goals, especially in the long term. Habits learned in school can have impacts years down the line in enabling better decision-making around sustainability, financial literacy and much, much more.

But for the most part, brands have not engaged in education as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs, for a variety of reasons. That, however, is starting to change — as more companies are realizing that working with teachers and schools is a way to promote long-term social change around the issues that matter to them.

Importance of sustainability education

Education is the focus of United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 and is seen as a key enabler of all the other SDGs. That is to say, without education, achieving gender equality, reducing inequality, promoting responsible consumption and production, and all the other crucial goals is unlikely.

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“Education can be a powerful tool for transforming our relationship with nature. We must invest in this field in order to preserve the planet,” Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, said in a statement.

In fact, UNESCO even has an Education for Sustainable Development program, which argues that “education should be transformative and allow us to make informed decisions and take individual and collective action to change our societies and care for the planet.”

If you’re a brand that cares about the environment or society, but doesn’t invest in education, you’re missing an opportunity to expand your impact. This connects to a larger issue — how CSR and sustainability go far beyond any company’s immediate customer base or market.

It was this type of thinking that led plant-based meat producer Beyond Meat to collaborate with EVERFI, a digital education innovator, in creating a science-based course on sustainability that will be available at no cost to students across the country.

“Health and sustainability are core to our mission at Beyond Meat, so we’re thrilled to partner with EVERFI to bring this digital course to students across the US,” founder and CEO Ethan Brown said in a press statement. “We see food as a vehicle for change, this course being an important part of that commitment — helping students to learn more about the role of diet in health and sustainability.”

The course launched in October; and Beyond Meat plans to actively engage students to reinforce and enhance the curriculum, with the goal of showing students how their everyday choices can make a big impact on themselves, their communities and the planet.

Not just the environment

While climate and environment are key issues, there are many avenues for brands to engage with and enhance education systems across the country.

Take, for example, FutureSmart — a digital financial education course for middle-school students, supported by the MassMutual Foundation, aimed at filling a needed gap in the education system.

“It is imperative that we work together to empower future generations with effective financial literacy skills,” Dennis Duquette, president of the MassMutual Foundation, said in a statement. “Understanding money and how it works provides an important foundation for long-term financial health and resiliency.”

What’s unique about FutureSmart is that the MassMutual Foundation did not just create the program, but brought in outside experts to analyze its impact. The study, conducted by the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute, took place after the program had been running for two years and “found significant and consistent gains in financial knowledge for all students, regardless of personal or school characteristics and regardless of how the program is implemented with students.”

There are numerous other ways for brands to engage with education. Care about voting rights and democracy — a key issue as we see governments across the country restrict ballot access? Data show that students who learn about African American history in school show higher interest in voting and being involved in their communities. Public health, urbanism and agriculture are all topics in which CSR can play a role in empowering better education outcomes.

Sustainable post-pandemic recovery

Across the country, students are, for the first time in months, returning to classrooms. To say the past year has been difficult on the education industry is an understatement. A study released last year from the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health suggests that students lost 2-4 months of schooling; and if this is not addressed, it could even lead to shortened life spans. The impacts of the pandemic will be felt for years; but for students, it could impact the rest of their lives.

If brands want to make a difference now and in the future, education provides a unique opportunity. It will take all of us coming together to ensure that students and teachers can catch-up on lost time. Moreover, the pandemic — which has clear connections to sustainability issues — along with last year’s racial justice protests, show the need to make education more relevant to the challenges facing society today.

“Education systems need to be reformed to allow our young people to leave school motivated, creative and able to be self-reliant — mentally, socially and financially,” Auma Obama, a counselor at the World Future Council, said in a statement. “For education to contribute effectively to the reorientation of societies towards sustainable development, we need to rethink teaching strategies, structures and practices both inside and outside the classroom.”

Investing in education as part of CSR won’t be a one-time project; it will require long-term commitment and deep engagement. But the impacts for society and the planet could provide benefits for years to come.


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