Should Religious Organisations Manage Their Sustainability Impacts?

Should Religious Organisations Manage Their Sustainability Impacts?

Worldwide, more than 80% of the people are identified with a religious group, what this means is that religious leaders have a big voice in the lives of people. Given the comparative advantages with regards to access, authority and credibility in the communities, religious leaders are becoming increasingly important partners for official development. With such influence, faith-based organisations or religions have become easy tools to accelerate efforts towards sustainable development.

How Some Religions Drive Sustainability

The word Sustainability is used to describe how organisations display sense of responsibility in managing their financial, social, and environmental impacts and obligations. In this case Sustainability Impact Assessment (SIA) is a non-financial audit that involves in-depth assessment of the potential economic, social, and environmental impacts of their activities with the ultimate goal to create healthy ecosystem.

While most faith-based organisations concentrate only in uplifting the spiritual welfare of their members, others have gone beyond their primary assignment to care for nature and assist people to meet their physical needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. In Sub-Sahara Africa, for instance, about 50% of basic social services are provided by religious organisations, according to the “Meeting the SDGs: The Role of Religions for Sustainable Development” seminar report. They offer ethical, spiritual and material resources for ending poverty (SDG 1), hunger (SDG 2), and providing health care (SDG 3).

Speaking on the contributions of faith-based organisations, UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) Secretariat staffer Alexander Saier, explained that “Faith-based organisations did an excellent job in helping us get ambitious [Paris] agreement”.  In fact, the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has been nicknamed “the Green Pope” for his work in highlighting the importance of environmentalism for Christians in the world today. “Respect for the human being and respect for nature are one and the same”, he said in 2015, drawing on religious teachings to promote the low-carbon lifestyle. He also reminded Church leaders of the importance of “La cura della casa commune” (the care of the common home), that is, humanity’s moral obligation to create a planet-strong future. Also, in 2015 world Islamic leaders called on people of all faiths to address the global climate crisis, asking, “What will future generations say of us, who leave them a degraded planet as our legacy”?

Case Studies

Witnesses Receive Highest Rating by GBI for Sustainable Design of New World Headquarters:

Upon completion in August 2016, Jehovah’s Witnesses received official recognition for the sustainable design of their new world headquarters in Warwick, New York. Their strategy included preserving the trees on the property and incorporating felled trees into the construction project. The green roof of the Offices/Services Building, composed of native flora planted in a growing medium over a waterproof membrane. Storm water runoff from the building is treated on-site to reduce strain on the public water infrastructure.

The Green Building Initiative (GBI), an organisation which offers environmental assessment and certification programs for commercial buildings, awarded the Witnesses the highest possible rating of Four Green Globes for all seven of their buildings that qualified for consideration.  This accomplishment represents a very high level of commitment to water, energy, and environmental efficiency.

Church of England’s National Environmental Campaign (ChurchCare)

The Church’s campaign aimed at helping its 42 dioceses and 16,000 churches reduce their carbon footprint, and is committed to a carbon reduction target of 80% by 2050, with an interim target of 42% by 2020.

“In the 21st century, in an interconnected world, practicing love of neighbours means that we are committed to mitigate the effects of climate change which will fall disproportionately on the poor and vulnerable in the world”, says the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres.

Why Many Religions Are Not Sustainable

Investigating the reasons behind the poor attitudes of people towards sustainability, a recent research on “The impact of religious faith on attitudes to environmental issues…” found that “Muslim and Christian participants [had]… relatively low perceptions of urgency for environmental issues, particularly climate change, due to beliefs in an afterlife [in heaven]  and divine intervention”. But secular participants in the research “expressed anxiety in relation to environmental issues, due to their lack of belief in an afterlife or divine intervention, which led them to focus on human responsibility and the need for action” towards the ecosystem.

Many religious leaders are only interested in the proliferation of their places of worship and the increase in the number of devotees, but not interested in managing their adverse effects on public health and the entire ecosystem. Very few of them understand the concept of sustainability and maintain their civic responsibilities, while many others function in ways that negatively impact the lives of the communities and the environment in which they exist. For instance, while the proliferation of places of worship, retreat camps and religious villages lead to the need for more land, this has inversely led to the indiscriminate felling of trees and exploitation of the nature.

Also, just as manufacturing equipment industries are sources of noise pollution in the environment; use of powerful public-address system during religious programmes like vigil, open air crusade service, and weekend service, contribute to noise pollution. In many developing countries with unreliable power supply, most religious centres use power generating plant, which generate noise and air pollution. This is a serious problem that has caused ill health to many people and has forced some to abandon their homes.

Can The Footprints of Religious Organisations Be Measured?

Unfortunately, due to reverence, sentiment and fear involved in worships, people shy away from discussing about or measuring and reporting negative footprints from religious activities. Since businesses now measure their impact across the economic, social and environmental aspects of the business, it would be beneficial to the larger society if faith-based organisations can act in similar manner. What this implies is that managing organisational impacts is not what should be left for profit making organisations alone, as every organisation is a makeup of people, that exist in communities, have civic obligations and makes use of scarce resources such as land. Peter Drucker is no doubt correct when he says: “What gets measured, gets managed.” So, if social and environmental impacts can be measured by every religion, they are more likely to be managed as well. Managing organisational impacts can also be undertaken out of a religion’s concern for seeking out efficiencies and good public image.

One good thing about this discussion is that it is a voluntary call for responsible action, which should not to be misconstrued as a government’s regulatory tool to checkmate the activities of religious bodies that have played vital roles that have expanded our democracy and abolished certain harmful socio-cultural practices that hamper human dignity.

Let us hear your opinion: should religions engage in Sustainability Impact Assessment (SIA)?


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  1. Abuse of religion and environmental pollution in Nigeria: An Islamic perspective. Rafiu Ibrahim Adebayo, 2013
  2. Green Congregations Promote Sustainability. Joan Huyser-Honig, May 28, 2013
  3. Meeting the SDGs: The Role of Religions for Sustainable Development. Katholischer Akademischer Ausländer-Dienst, March 2017
  4. Shrinking the Footprint. ChurchCare
  5. The impact of religious faith on attitudes to environmental issues and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technologies: A mixed methods study. Aimie L.B. Hope and Christopher R. Jones, August 2014
  6. The role of Religious leaders in achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS). Inter-religious Council of Uganda, November 4, 2015
  7. What do the world’s religions have to say about sustainability? 1Million Women
  8. Witnesses Receive Highest Rating by GBI for Sustainable Design of New World Headquarters. Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, February 14, 2017

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