The failure of non‐binding declarations to achieve university sustainability

S.A. Bekessy (School of Global Studies Social Science and Planning, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia)
K. Samson (School of Global Studies Social Science and Planning, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia)
R.E. Clarkson (School of Global Studies Social Science and Planning, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia)

International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education

ISSN: 1467-6370

Publication date: 17 July 2007



This paper aims to assess the impact and value of non‐binding agreements or declarations in achieving sustainability in universities.


A case study of Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University is presented, analysing the reasons for lack of progress towards sustainability and evaluating best ways forward. Using a timeline and analysis of historical records for the 12 years since RMIT first engaged in the sustainability agenda, major trends in the process of implementing policies are identified. Secondly, 15 semi‐structured interviews with university leaders and key sustainability stakeholders from across the university are analysed to provide insight into how and why the university has failed to achieve sustainability.


New implications for successfully achieving sustainability arise from these findings. Accountability is a key issue, as RMIT appears to reap benefits from being signatory to declarations without achieving genuine progress. To ensure that declarations are more than simply greenwash, universities must open themselves up to scrutiny of progress to determine whether commitments have been honoured.

Practical implications

Relying on small‐scale “club” activities establishing demonstrations and raising awareness is unlikely to lead to permanent change. The evidence of RMIT's engagement with sustainability shows that, for example, even when successful pilot studies are conducted, these initiatives may do little to affect the mainstream practices of a university unless certain conditions exist. Furthermore, given the on‐paper commitments institutions have made, and the role of the university in society, small‐scale and gradual changes in university practice are a far from adequate response to the urgent sustainability imperative.


The initial engagement of RMIT University with the sustainability agenda 12 years ago marked it as a world leader in sustainability best‐practice. Analysing how and why such a disappointing lack of action has resulted from such promising beginnings provides insight into future directions for implementing sustainability in universities. The paper argues that considering the key responsibility of universities in leading the sustainability agenda, a more systemic and serious response is required.



Bekessy, S., Samson, K. and Clarkson, R. (2007), "The failure of non‐binding declarations to achieve university sustainability", International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 8 No. 3, pp. 301-316.

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Copyright © 2007, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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