What Does Sustainability Mean to the World's Young People?

Read All Posts
What Does Sustainability Mean to the World's Young People? Hero Image

For International Youth Day, we asked a subset of the young people our initiatives reach around the world about that day's theme: the role of youth in fighting poverty and driving sustainability. The United Nations, whose decree makes August 12 a day where the world focuses on youth power and potential, defined sustainability in environmental terms, but the word holds different meanings for young people from Mexico to Mozambique.

The answers to the question "What does sustainability mean to you in your daily life?" reflect meaningful geographic and socioeconomic differences. They also confirm something we've long known: just how practical, thoughtful, and capable young students, employees, business owners, and innovators really are. The world must engage them as agents of change if we want to reach the Sustainable Development Goals.

Environmental sustainability

Many of the young people our staff spoke to offered answers that align with the definition of sustainability in terms of conservation. "Sustainability is a way in which I can satisfy my needs without sacrificing resources," says Conrado, a 19-year-old participant in EquipYouth Mexico. In Latin America, this global employability initiative is a NEO-associated project.

Responses from Palestine highlighted rights and fairness. "Sustainability means equal rights: all people on earth have same rights, and equity in resources distribution, including water, home, air, and earth, says Daniel, 23, who participated in Youth Entrepreneurship Development, funded by USAID West Bank and Gaza. "As you have the right to access resources, you must have the duty to preserve it to continue for future generations."

In Morocco, participants in Emploi Habilité cited specific examples of ways their environments were changing. "In my town ... the expansion of the city caused a lot of damage to the forest. Someday, the image I have of Kenitra, my city, will just be a distant memory, but the forest should belong to everyone—even the children who aren’t born yet," says Yassir, 23, a graduate of our Passport to Success® life skills training. Fatima, 22, adds, "We must give nature time to regenerate."

Entrepreneurial sustainability

Zimbabwe:Works (Z:W) is one of several IYF work readiness initiatives with an entrepreneurship component, and responses from participants indicate they have developed sharp minds for business. Dudzai, 29 and owner of a catering company, says for her, "Sustainability means improvement, innovation, creativeness. If l’m not creative or innovative, my business will collapse."

Rudo, a 31-year-old chemical engineer, also is thinking ahead—and thinking green. "In my line of business, sustainability means being able to pay employees on time and able to let the organization run even in my absence," she says. Her company, which employs other youth, sells soap made from oils that would otherwise be wasted.

Z:W is supported by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Embassy of Sweden, in partnership with Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Small and Medium Enterprise and Cooperative Development.

Personal and family sustainability

In Kazakhstan, 16-year-old Assem spoke generally about sustainability, saying it means to "give a fishing rod, not a fish." He is a participant in Zangar, a STEM and life skills-focused initiative carried out in partnership with Chevron.

Nearly 10,000 miles away, in Argentina, Anna, 22, sees a need for order and implications for how people and systems work together. This participant in the Walmart Social Retail Training initiative, a NEO-associated project carried out in partnership with the Walmart Foundation, says, "The way to be sustainable is to divide tasks and share responsibility. Organize—not just at work, but also in a family and society."

For others still, the word sustainability takes on a deeply person meaning. It becomes about dedicating time and resources for the well-being of their loved ones and themselves as individuals. "To me, sustainability means investing in your own education, so that in the future you have a permanent job that will ensure that you can support your family," says Sabino, 18 and a participant in Escolhas, a partnership with Mozal in Mozambique.

"At first, sustainability for me meant caring for the environment, resources, and nature," says Ayse Bor, 29, a social entrepreneur from Turkey and 2015 Laureate Global Fellow. "Later, I discovered about sustainability of the human being: slowing down, creating bonds, taking care of ourselves and one another as well as the environment. Now I think being 'sustainable' is not enough, what I believe in is 'love'—loving nature, loving people, loving myself, loving what I do. When there is love, all else will follow."

international youth day youth voices sustainability environmental protection education