Research Brief: Greenwashing in Education

How neoliberalism and policy mobility may undermine environmental sustainability

Sustainability and neoliberalism are mobile concepts and processes that when twinned, undermine the way environmental sustainability is being developed and implemented in education policy and practice. (Click here to access the scholarly publication: McKenzie, M., Bieler, A., & McNeil, R. (in press). Education policy mobility: Reimagining sustainability in neoliberal times. Environmental Education Research.)

Sustainability and Neoliberalism Definitions

Sustainability as a vehicular idea

Sustainability is a ‘vehicular idea.’ It is a flexible and vague concept which can be absorbed and used in different, even opposing, contexts. Cynically, it can serve to propel or greenwash economic interests; optimistically, it can allow for coalition building.

GlobeMobility in policy studies

Sustainability, as a vehicular idea, is mobile and is increasingly being taken up in different ways across various contexts. Mobility approaches in policy studies focus on the movement of objects, people, and ideas around the globe. Rather than having a clear centre point or origin, policy is a product of its surroundings, influenced by ideas that are both situated and mobile, producing variations developed in response to different policy contexts and relationships. Mobility approaches to policy development are critical of the policy transfer-diffusion approach which focuses on policies as discrete objects which can be ‘transferred’ in whole to other locations and networks. Rather, mobility approaches emphasize the movement of policies as bits and pieces, which are also transformed through that process of movement and translation.

From this perspective, policy actors respond simultaneously to multiple policymaking networks, and to the tensions and contradictions that come along with these policy domains. They are part of a growing cadre of cosmopolitan policy advocates, aided by new communication technologies, who shape and move policies that are responsive to specific policy networks, think tanks, and media landscapes, and exert political influence through networks and the creation of new networks. Policy mobility is a useful frame for understanding sustainability as a vehicular idea in relation to processes of neoliberalization.

Neoliberalization of sustainability in education policy

Neoliberalism is likewise a vehicular concept travelling globally, taking specific forms in different locales, rather than presenting one single form of “neoliberalism.” It can be described and analyzed as a process in relation to particular sites and situations, rather than discussing “neoliberalism” in sweeping catch-all ways.

Over the last several decades, policy development and practice have been increasingly influenced by the penetration of neoliberal processes into public spaces and bodies. Neoliberalization reframes educational institutions as competitive and commodified entities, and applies private sector management practices in this public sector. Campuses, teaching, and research priorities become commodified and privatized, amplifying relations of competition and an overall growing emphasis on measurable outputs. Neoliberalization filters not only how education is conceptualized and shaped through policy, but also how sustainability in education is understood and addressed.

Sustainability in education is deeply susceptible to being framed in exclusively economic terms, which closes down possibilities that are more just and environmentally sustainable than what neoliberalism has to offer. Claims of a sustainability focus are increasingly a selling point in attracting students, faculty, and funders. In the worst case scenario of institutional greenwashing, sustainability policies and related high level initiatives such as signing of declarations, act as ‘sustainability fixes’ giving the appearance of taking steps towards protecting the environment while a higher prioritization remains given to the institution’s economic considerations. 

Researching sustainability in education policy of Canadian post-secondary institutionsterminology

SEPN’s initial analysis suggests that increasing numbers of post-secondary institutions in Canada are developing sustainability-related policies. How language is used to discuss sustainability in education policy, and how its meaning shifts over time, are indicators of how sustainability is a vehicular concept with increasing popularity, potentially brought on by its links to neoliberalism.

There have been shifts in language around environmental sustainability over the past several decades. In SEPN’s research study of Canada’s 220 post-secondary institutions, 69 out of 110 institutions with sustainability policies included definitions of their terminology, from higher uses of the term ‘environment’ to increasing uses of ‘sustainable development’ and now most recently, ‘sustainability,’ which is the current most frequently used term.

Almost a third of the policies included a definition of sustainability which included a focus on the natural environment, society, and economy, or what is often called a ‘three pillars’ definition of sustainability. However, within the policies reviewed, there was no mention of any hierarchy or prioritization of these three elements.

SEPN_greenwashing_v3_3PillarsThe vagueness of a sustainability definition without explicit prioritization runs the risk of enabling sustainability as a vehicular idea that functions as both a floating signifier through its ambiguity (anything can be ‘greenwashed’ while business continues as usual), as well as enabling sustainability to be ‘fixed’ in certain ways (i.e., giving priority to a particular pillar).

For this reason, it is important to look at how sustainability is understood in education policies, and whether priorities of neoliberalization are embedded within how sustainability is conceptualized and practiced. Segmenting the three pillars can thus insulate the economy pillar from those of social and environmental sustainability, enabling a form of neoliberal sustainability.

Implications for Research

A further exploration of policy mobility can be helpful in identifying how the twinning of neoliberal and sustainability ideas travel and which actors, associations, policies we should be mobilizing in response. This enables us to better consider the value, not only of mobile policies, but those which are also community and place specific.

To better understand the origins and mobilities of education policy as it impacts sustainability, some key questions could be asked: What are the various roles played by different policy actors, both locally at an institutional level, but also across institutions and nations through global policy networks? How can environmental education researchers engage diverse communities in the process of reimagining the meaning and scope of sustainability-related policy in education?

Call to Action

There is a need for broadening the terms of debate around ‘sustainability’ in education policy and increasing the diversity of actors engaged in sustainability policy development. This may offer more critical and imaginative interventions in how sustainability is mobilized in education.



Policy Mobility Tile - AP


Policy Mobility Tile - IG