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Sustainability: inclusive storytelling to aid sustainable development goals

About the research and why is it important?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were established by the United Nations in 2015 as a call to action for individuals, teams, projects, organisations, and industries. The UK is at the forefront of delivering the 2030 agenda for sustainable development (HM Government, 2019).

The practice of sustainability involves understanding the ways individuals and teams in projects and organisations respond to the sustainability targets set nationally and internationally. There remains little empirical research exploring the ways in which sustainability is interpreted and practiced by sustainability practitioners, including those whose job title infers direct responsibility (e.g., sustainability consultants, sustainability managers, environmental managers, BREEAM managers, etc.).

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How to cite this research
Sergeeva, N. (2022). Sustainability: Inclusive Storytelling to Aid Sustainable Development Goals. Association for Project Management.

Intended audience

The study should be of interest to project professionals, sustainability practitioners, policy and decision makers, academics, and anyone with an interest in sustainability within projects.

How was the research undertaken?

60 life-story interviews were conducted online with UK-based sustainability practitioners across a range of different business sectors. The majority of the interviewees were from the built environment including construction, infrastructure, and real estate along with some government departments.

What did we discover?

In this study, Dr Sergeeva utilises an inclusive storytelling research method to explore the perspectives of sustainability practitioners about the ways they address the sustainability agenda. The study shows that a range of stories, work identities and roles emerge in response to the sustainability agenda these include activists, facilitators, supporters, motivators, influencers, enforcers, coaches, communicators, promoters, educators, and dreamers.

The research highlights the way in which inclusive storytelling is a central part of enacting such responses through collective identity around a shared understanding of sustainability and its goals and through formulating a future vision.

The report outlines several practical recommendations in terms of education, policy, and practice these include:

  • Adopting a holistic approach to sustainability - this might involve systemic air purification, greening the planet, systemic water purification, changing people’s behaviours and mindsets, etc.
  • Greater focus on the impact of sustainability-related practices on the planet and society – participants noted that a greater focus on the (positive) impact of sustainability-related practices on the environment and society based on the choices, decisions, and actions we make throughout our lives.
  • Sustainability assessments – there are noted difficulties associated with green building standards, including being seen as a box-ticking exercise, slow-moving in terms of updating the content whereas the knowledge and capabilities of some fast-paced sectors move much faster than the standards and none of the existing systems really cover embodied carbon. All participants agreed that there is a need for a continuous process of auditing and monitoring organisations’ sustainability-related effectiveness.
  • Creation of new roles - Sustainability Co-ordinator or/and Chief Sustainability Officer - to replace or supplement the role of sustainability consultant in the future at a more macro level.  This role would oversee the sustainability consultants and focus on global sustainability goals. As the number and remit of sustainability consultants expands, there is a need for someone who will co-ordinate them and have a wider perspective on achieving SDGs.
  • Funding and initiatives for sustainability - organisations could attract funding from a variety of sources (e.g., green funding initiatives) for practising sustainability and addressing SDGs in their work. Government should continue to provide opportunities for funding to allow organisations to keep improving their practices.
  • Sustainability strategies - There is a need for sustainability strategies as a vision and reminder to act upon and achieve sustainable goals. How these strategies are communicated externally was emphasised as an area of focus.
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