Skip to main content

Youth, sustainability, and decision-making

By Dylan Kelly

3 circles labeled social, environment, economic. The area where all three circles overlap labeled sustainable.

In June of 2017, Jayathma Wickramanayake was appointed the first United Nations Envoy on Youth. She was charged with engaging young people as critical thinkers, change-makers, innovators, communicators, and leaders in the support of a more sustainable world. Through the efforts of her office, young people are contributing their ideas, energy, and leadership to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

How can we support youth in attaining these goals?

We can do this by asking young people to consider the social, environmental, and economic impacts of their decisions.

For example, I worked with a group of 4-H youth leaders who had an important decision to make. They had to decide which fundraiser to implement for their county 4-H program. Their options included continuing with the annual cheese sale, switching to a coffee sale with a local roaster, or switching to a local company that sells gift items and boxes. Instead of asking, “Which option will make us the most money?”, the group of young leaders asked, “What are the environmental, social, and economic implications of these options?” The conversation led to all sorts of fascinating observations:

  • Environmental - While the coffee may be roasted locally, it is grown very far away.
  • Social - Some people want and expect the cheese, but it is not the healthiest product to sell.
  • Economic - While the gift items and boxes provide a good profit margin (40%), the products offered may be in less demand.

These are just a few of their observations on the sustainability pros and cons of the group’s fundraising options. Ultimately, the young people chose to try the local coffee roaster, but not without some hesitation over the environmental and societal impacts of coffee (even with Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade certifications!)

Practicing sustainable thinking provides youth an opportunity to strengthen important skillsets like questioning, listening, systems thinking, and decision-making. It helps them better understand their sphere of influence and how to use it for the betterment of their local and global communities. Sustainable thinking positions youth to be the innovators and leaders that our world needs.

What choices and decisions have the youth you work with made recently or will they make soon? How could analyzing those decisions through the lens of sustainability help them grow as leaders?

-- Dylan Kelly, Extension educator

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

Print Friendly and PDF