Think Piece: Sustainability is not sustainable unless everyone is involved

Think Piece: Sustainability is not sustainable unless everyone is involved

By Caitlin Southwick


In this passionate call for action, Caitlin Southwick, Founder and Executive Director of Ki Culture argues that to become effective advocates for climate justice we need to work together; to share our ideas and co-create solutions. We need to share best practices and combine our knowledge and expertise to find solutions that work.

Sustainability is something that many people care about - but most don’t really know what to do about it. Businesses will form sustainability committees or green teams with the idea of having a lunch meeting once a week to discuss how to tackle these issues. But life often gets in the way, meetings get moved or people are just too busy.  Add onto that the overwhelm of sustainability(the ethical and moral issues, the confusion about energy and carbon)and the mountain of problems (and plastics!) facing us seems insurmountable. Culture is no exception.

The cultural sector has a unique role to play in the discussion of sustainability. Typically viewed as protectors of the past, museums and artists are now thinking about the future - reframing their relevance and role in society. Culture has the capacity to connect with people on a deeper level, to evoke empathy and compassion in a way that can drive change in perspective and habits.


Becoming Sustainable

In order to achieve sustainability, we have to start thinking outside the box. Doing the same but better is not going to reverse the damage already done and save humanity. We have to move away from competition and toward collaboration. We have to stop putting the single bottom line first and think about the triple bottom line. We must recognize that current systems, models, and structures are simply not sustainable. Sustainability affects us all, and we must all be a part of the solution.

Some businesses (even museums) are happy to just tick a box by having a sustainability director or by hiring a sustainability consultant. However, consultants come in and work with the CEO, COO and Facilities Manager to reduce the carbon emissions of a company by 40% under a 3 year contract. But then they leave. In their three years, they have affected change in a single institution, and often only at the surface level. Sure, the consultant works with people who have power to make decisions, but the receptionist's life hasn’t changed. The curator is still thinking about the visual aesthetics of their next exhibition and which paintings to ship in. The conservator is still using toxic solvents in their daily practice. Sustainability is not sustainable unless everyone is involved.

Sustainable thinking must be incorporated in every individual's job, in the work they do every day. We often see Sustainability Directors who are overextended and don’t have the capacity to interact with colleagues at their institutions. To truly be sustainable, we have to create a ripple effect, to cultivate cultures of sustainability in our workplaces, and to ensure that everyone is involved.

Becoming sustainable requires us to make sure that every individual feels they have the agency to make change.

Ki Culture believes in breaking the consultancy model by creating networks and providing training and coaching for cultural professionals who want to be sustainable but don’t know where to begin - or who need help taking the next step. The Ki Futures program empowers those who want to take action to become Champions for sustainability in their work and to create that ripple effect of positivity that will transform the way we all work and work together.


Sustainable Shifts

Cultural professionals globally want to be sustainable. From the materials we use to create art to the stories we tell, from how we get works from one location to the other to how we protect it long term, there are many solutions for a more sustainable cultural sector. But we need to work together and to share best practices and combine our knowledge and expertise to find solutions that work. By sharing knowledge locally and globally, culture can transition to a sustainable sector and become effective advocates for climate justice with our audiences, communities and the world.

We have 8 years left. We simply do not have time to work independently or keep knowledge hidden. The crises we are dealing with today have unprecedented urgency. In times of war, countries come together and refocus priorities to tackle challenges together; factories changing what they produce to drastic government regulations. In times of emergency, people come together in order to move forward. We have seen this during the COVID pandemic as well: the entire world enacted lockdowns, every citizen everywhere is wearing a mask and social distancing. Our worlds flipped upside down in a matter of days. In the face of the climate crisis, climate justice, social justice, is what our future now depends on.

We need to band together and start treating what has been a slow burn like a raging inferno.

Our values must align with the future. Instead of focusing on this year's budget and short term goals, we have to start thinking with 2030 always in mind. Science has been telling us this for years - but cold hard facts can be uninspiring and the missing piece is culture. A cultural paradigm shift is what is needed. And this shift can be achieved by banding together, by communicating with our colleagues and friends about why this matters, and by taking practical actions. No action towards sustainability is too small for every drop contributes to a tidal wave. The momentum is here. It is time for us to carpe diem.


Now what? Start talking about it.

We understand the urgency. We understand that we need to work together; to share our ideas and co-create solutions. But how? Start talking about it.

Al Gore always says that the most important thing you can do for the climate is to talk about it. Bring up sustainability whenever you can - make it a part of everyday conversation, make it the norm. Discuss aspects and ideas for change. Join networks, advocacy groups, get involved. Start a sustainability committee at your institution and reach out to find support systems and partners who can help you. Sustainability does not have to be achieved alone - it is not expected for you to have all the answers or to be perfect. But be transparent and do not be afraid to ask questions. Ensure that you are open to conversations and ideas. Avoid greenwashing. Avoid green hushing.

Sustainability is not something that fits into the structures we currently have, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. We have to break out of our silos and structures to find a new way to solve the issues we are facing. We can do this but we must do it together. We must realign our values and understand that sustainability is not about making money. It is about collectively solving problems that damage our planet and ensure humanity will still be here in 100 years to enjoy the creative works we leave behind. Art is not only our legacy, it is now the means for obtaining a future.

Caitlin Southwick, Founder and Executive Director of Ki Culture

Caitlin Southwick, Founder Ki Culture

Resource type: Articles | Published: 2021