Sustainability Definitions


In 2010, WSU Facilities Management enrolled the university in STARS (Sustainability Tracking Assessment & Rating System), a well-respected, widely used program that helps universities measure progress toward the goal of sustainability across three main functional areas: education and research, operations, and planning, administration, and engagement. STARS is an essential tool for helping WSU measure its progress toward meeting the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, and the subsequent WSU Climate Action Plan signed by then President Ann Millner and WSU Vice Presidents in October 2009, which includes sustainability-related goals.

One of the education and research benchmarks requires establishing a definition of sustainability for our institution’s curricular offerings, and then identifying those course offerings that are sustainability-focused or sustainability inclusive. “Sustainability” is considered at Weber State in a holistic sense, recognizing that environmental, social, and economic health are interdependent and interconnected in both simple and complex ways. Below is WSU’s general curriculum-focused definition of sustainability (approved by the Environmental Initiatives Committee (EIC) in 2010): 

At Weber State University the goal of sustainability education is for students to gain knowledge and understanding of the intricate linkages between human and natural systems. This includes a recognition that healthy human societies physically, socially, culturally, politically, and economically) are fundamentally dependent on healthy ecosystems and the sustainable use of natural resources, such that they are available indefinitely for future generations to meet their needs. Included in this goal is for students to learn how to achieve sustainability across these areas.

Learning about the concepts, challenges and potential solutions for sustainability can occur in classes and departments across the university. Many disciplines consider and address issues pertinent to sustainability such as anthropology, automotive technology, botany, construction management, earth science, economics, education, electrical engineering technology, English, environmental science, geography, graphic arts, history, interior design, nursing, nutrition, philosophy, political science, physics, sociology, zoology, and many others.

Sustainability Courses

What do we mean by sustainability courses?

STARS states, “Sustainability courses can provide valuable grounding in the concepts and principles of sustainability, help build knowledge about a component of sustainability, or introduce students to sustainability concepts. Institutions that integrate sustainability concepts throughout the curriculum prepare students to apply sustainability principles in their professional fields.” More specifically:

  • A sustainability-focused course is a course in which the primary and explicit focus is on sustainability (e.g., Sustainability Science, Nutrition and Sustainable Cooking), the application of sustainability within a field (e.g., Sustainable Land Use Planning, Green Chemistry), and/or on understanding or solving one or more major sustainability challenge (e.g., Science of Global Warming, Environmental Justice, Renewable Energy Policy).
  • A sustainability-inclusive course is primarily focused on a topic other than sustainability, but incorporates a unit or module on sustainability or a sustainability challenge (e.g., climate change, poverty, and inequality), includes one or more sustainability-focused activities, or specifically integrates sustainability issues throughout the course.

Sustainability Course Designation

The SUS attribute on courses stands for “sustainability” and indicates that a course includes at least two sustainability-focused learning outcomes.  These outcomes are achieved through some sustainability components in the course, which aim to both further students’ understanding of and ability to address real-world sustainability challenges.  As noted above, sustainability is defined in a pluralistic way, encompassing human and ecological health, social justice, secure livelihoods, and a better world for all generations. Learning about sustainability in an array of courses across the curriculum will increase students’ awareness and comprehension that healthy human societies are fostered and supported through a complex web of interconnections between their physical, social and economic dimensions. SUS courses may be sustainability-focused or sustainability-inclusive, as defined above.

To see a list of courses that either focus on or include some component related to sustainability (e.g., a case study, module, readings) please visit the course inventory.

Sustainability Connections Across the Curriculum 

Connections can be made to sustainability challenges, opportunities, and solutions from an array of disciplines.  Indeed, skills, perspectives and knowledge from across the curriculum are necessary to meet the collective challenges we face and foster a more just, vibrant, and healthy world for all. Below is a list of example areas/topics connected to sustainability. 

  1. Sustainability as a concept: the history, politics, culture, and science of ideas of sustainability and sustainable development.
  2. Natural limits: the relationship between human population and lifestyle in relation to the finite capacity of natural ecosystems (including the global ecosystem) to provide for human needs.
  3. Maintaining ecosystems: Natural resource conservation science and practices to maintain the integrity of ecosystems in the face of rising human demands.
  4. Health professions: The interconnections between health, wellness, and environmental quality (e.g., air quality and respiratory health, active transit and wellness).
  5. Business and economics: Re-shaping market conditions to address “market failures” with respect to the environment and to provide incentives for businesses and economic systems to better maintain the integrity of ecosystems.
  6. Social capacity: The social factors that support behavioral shifts (including but not limited to economic choices) necessary to enable and encourage societies to live in ways compatible with maintaining the long-term integrity of ecosystems.
  7. Social equity: The mutual interactions between social inequality and environmental degradation, including theories of social reforms required to ensure an environmentally healthy and socially just society.
  8. Sustainability discourse and representation: The framing, discussion, and/or presentation of environmental/social/economic sustainability in the visual and performing arts, literature, media, politics, and everyday life.
  9. Culture, religion, and ethics: How culture, religion, and ethics—from consumerism to environmental stewardship—shape human behavior toward the natural world.
  10. Governance: How legal frameworks and policies shape human behavior toward the natural world.
  11. Science and Technology: The role of basic science and technology (broadly and individual technologies) specifically in influencing human impacts on and adaptations to the natural world and its systems.
  12. Planning and design: Concepts and techniques from urban, regional, and rural planning and/or building design and/or product design that can influence human impacts on the environment and environmental impacts on humans.
  13. Sustainability science: The new field of sustainability science that specifically attempts to build interdisciplinary perspectives from the themes (and related academic disciplines) listed above to promote human-environmental balance.
  14. Applied sustainability: Experience working to address an environmental and social/economic sustainability challenge in a particular context/community/locale.
  15. Other emerging fields and topics relevant to sustainability.

*This list was adapted from the University of Oregon’s STARS Curriculum Definitions.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations (graphic below) also clearly show the range of interconnection between human and environmental realms, the breadth of sustainability challenges, and the potential for the inclusion of sustainability matters by departments all across campus.