Identifying skills for sustainability

(A heritage professionals case study with lessons for everyone)

Siân Wynn-Jones
7 min readApr 8, 2022
Woman holds world globe in front of face

From climate strikes and Oscar-nominated ‘Don’t Look Up’ to IPCC reports and rising prices of fossil fuels, sustainability hasn’t left the headlines in 2022, intensifying interest in what we can do to live and work in ways that are better for the health of the planet and people on it. The rise of sustainability-themed conferences and environmental, social and governance (ESG) events demonstrates the appetite for sharing ideas, knowledge and learnings.

Yet, the days of sustainability just being about passive buildings or recycling are gone. To be successful sustainability must be integrated, not siloed. We cannot ‘do good’ in one part of our work to offset elements with more negative consequences elsewhere. That is the land we call greenwashing. And we do not want to go there.

Sustainability is a ‘how’, not a ‘what’. To succeed we need to shift the way we do things. And this can be where it’s easy to panic and think, “We don’t have the skills”. Examining how we work can identify transferrable skills. Understanding these skills helps us integrate considerate intent into how we operate and prepares ourselves and our roles for the future.

I’ve realised this from my own experience. Around 10 year ago, my career pivoted. I moved from looking after the past, to looking after the future. I had trained as an archivist and looked after heritage collections, and I moved to a role in a new team looking after future and to specialising in sustainability communications.

My work over the last decade (firstly in-house and then consulting) has demonstrated to me that people working in archives, conservation and museums have a host of transferable skills. These skills are not only helpful to a more sustainable future, they also demonstrate the relevance of heritage as a key to a better, fairer world.

Here are six transferrable skills that can empower heritage professionals to work sustainably.

1. Long-term thinking

Hourglass with blue sand on stony ground, with caption ‘Long-term thinking’

A mindset that the cultural heritage sector takes for granted, is that we think about the long term.

It never occurred to me that people might think differently, until I mixed more frequently with non-cultural heritage types.

In both heritage and sustainability the de facto time period we consider is ‘beyond our lifetime’. This, let alone beyond humanity’s lifetime, is a really hard concept for many people to grasp, and hence decisions and actions that we consider essential can be regarded as unnecessarily thorough.

Whether it is cataloguing an item that is closed for 100 years or identifying new flood risks on your property from global warming in 2070, we understand the considerations that are at the core of long-term decision making.

2. Prevention is better than cure

Apothecary jars on shelves, with caption ‘Prevention is better than cure’

In both sustainability and heritage work it is acutely apparent that prevention is better and cheaper than cure. In fact, in both sectors we are aware that often cure is just not possible. Unique and important records in the shredder instead of the archives, or an historic textile ruined due to inappropriate storage are scenarios that we work hard to ensure do not happen.

Managing heritage items appropriately avoids the need for intervention treatments and therefore reduce the need for additional expertise, time and money to be diverted towards it.

Forward-thinking planning in sustainable business and behaviours works similarly. A simple example, using a refillable water bottle saves more water than you think: it takes twice as much water to produce a single-use plastic bottle as the amount of water inside. Let alone the issues around what do with the plastic when the water has been drunk.

The third IPCC report stresses the urgency of action now to move us towards a more liveable world. As co-author Professor Jim Skea said at the report’s launch, “The longer we put off climate action, the bigger the feasibility challenges will be.

3. Transparency

Magnifying glass focusing on plastic bottle with paper covering, with caption ‘Transparency’

Whilst we can never be completely free of our biases, cultural heritage professionals are tuned to be as clear and transparent as possible. We record details of the items at every stage that we know it from acquisition to description, from condition to exhibition. We invest a high degree of precision to give our records as much integrity as the items. We strive to be unambiguous and authentic — to be a trusted source of authority.

There has been a growth in recognition and expectation of ESG/sustainability measures and disclosures for both private and public sector organisations. Thinking on sustainability frameworks and reporting continues to mature in both precision and rigour including defining what a net-zero target should be and how companies should include climate-related financial disclosures (TCFDs). If companies’ communications don’t match their actions, they are increasingly called to account on social media (as this ‘paper’ bottle demonstrated).

4. Don’t do what can’t be undone

Kangaroo looks at camera from charred remains of forest after bush fire, with caption ‘Don’t do what can’t be undone’

This principle, imparted to me as I was shown round Berkshire Record Office’s conservation studios as a sixth former, has always stuck with me. It was roughly translated into my brain as “you can’t know or control everything, but know what you do know, control what you can control, and respect the rest.”

In cultural heritage work this shows up in such activities as documenting your arrangement decisions for an archives collection, and testing materials for colour-fastness before conservation work.

From a sustainability perspective, humans haven’t got a great track record on not doing what can’t be undone, particularly in the last 150 years or so. We use more resources than the world can regenerate (in 2021 we’d used them up by 29 July: Earth Overshoot Day) and our behaviours are causing massive pollution and extreme weather systems, which exacerbate natural disasters.

The traditional, linear ‘make –> break –> replace’ model leaves us with a by-product, waste, that we can’t or don’t ‘undo’. We speak of “throwing things away” but there is no such place as ‘away’. The World Bank estimates that 19% of the world’s 2 billion tonnes of annual waste is recycled or composted, 11% is incinerated, while the vast majority of humanity’s debris is placed in landfills or open dumps.

Circular economy thinking is helping the world rethink how to use our resources better, and ultimately design processes without waste. After all, waste is a resource in the wrong place, and less waste means less time, money and effort spent managing it.

5. Context and the big picture

Woman holds world globe in front of face, with caption ‘Context and the big picture’

Context is perhaps the biggest constant of my career.

Whether it is appraising items to be preserved as archives or ensuring teams know where water refill stations are located, I am constantly assessing how people, places and items relate to each other and the world. This perspective can feel like you are on a constant discovery of new balls to juggle BUT the skill of understanding large, complex relationships is incredibly valuable in both sustainability and cultural heritage.

Unintended consequences often appear when context has not been fully considered or understood. In sustainability an example would be considering the re-introduction of metal cutlery rather than plastic on planes. Using metal affects the weight and therefore the CO2 emissions on the flights — and emissions are a more material and impactful issue for most airlines.

Heritage professionals can create order out of chaos. We look at our collections and understand how the items are connected to different times, people and places. Indeed, the new international archival description standard is even called Records in Contexts.

Curators and archivists are brilliantly skilled at cutting through the complexity of collections to share the stories of the artefacts and records in their care. For example, cables connecting people on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in real time or letters revealing a love affair.

6. Always learning

Robot looks up at camera, with caption ‘Always learning’

Whilst heritage professionals look after materials from the past we have our eyes firmly on the future, and this means learning to translate and transpose the principles we know into practices that may not have been considered before. For example, when we consider how we preserve digital archives, or represent an artwork that reacts to each contemporary setting and audience.

This is exactly the same in sustainability. Where the world’s brightest brains are trying to invent scalable carbon capture technologies to avoid the catastrophic scenario of a world warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, and that despite global efforts we are still working out the indicators and data needed to demonstrate our progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

Continuing professional development schemes of heritage bodies have grown in rigour and scale. Indeed, the UK’s Institute of Conservation has environmental considerations built into its professional standards. The collective action of the Climate Heritage Network at the UN climate summit COP26, is one example of how heritage professionals are already looking to scale their learning for more sustainable impact.

I am sure that with reflection, everyone can identify skills that they could be using to make a better, fairer world. In particular, cultural heritage professionals have skills that are transferrable across sectors as well as time. The world urgently needs us to use them. We know the ‘what’, let’s embrace the ‘how’.

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