How can thinking sustainably benefit children and adults in an uncertain world? Can a constitutional duty for a government to “have regard to sustainable development”, enable a nation to think and plan differently? Should we educate the next generation to become creative problem-solvers and active citizens? The answer for me is not only a resounding ‘yes’ to all three questions, but needs to become a rallying cry for action across the world.

In Our Common Future (1987) – the report of the World Commission on the Environment and Development, chaired by Gro Brundtland – sustainable development is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This definition works for me with its clear call to governments and societies to think longer term, whilst also reflecting on the actions being taken across the globe that put this concept in peril.

Acting more sustainably is as much about social justice as about the state of the planet. It is about ensuring individual and community wellbeing and a better quality of life for all. It is about making better decisions for the longer-term rather than choosing short-term ‘quick fixes’. It is about balancing the needs of the present and the needs of the future. It is about meeting economic and social needs within environmental limits. It is about recognising the impacts of today’s actions on future generations, and protecting and enhancing the natural environment. It is also about making sure that the children of today are better educated to face the challenges of tomorrow.

Wouldn’t we all benefit from living in societies that were more careful, more resourceful, more respectful and more forward-thinking? Such values have driven more equal societies for generations. And when we do ask people their views, we get surprising results. For example, in a poll undertaken by Ipsos MORI in 2011, 64% of respondents thought the needs of future generations were more important than the needs of any other generation such as their own or their children’s; 46% (the largest group) indicated that a healthy planet is the most important legacy to hand on to future generations; and 67% thought the UK government has failed to consider future generations enough in the decisions it makes today.

In another poll, run by the National Union of Students and the Higher Education Academy over three years (from 2011–13), more than 80% of students believed that sustainable development should be actively promoted and incorporated by UK universities.

Are we seeing transformational change in government or the education sector to reflect these findings? Generally, no, although there are green shoots appearing. Wales has taken a bold step with its Future Generations Bill in 2014, an attempt to inspire a nation to think and live differently.

The University of Wales Trinity Saint David has embedded sustainability into every student’s experience since the October 2013 intake, knowing that sustainability skills make our graduates more attractive to employers. We are all witnessing with increasing frequency the climatic responses to our previously unsustainable behaviour. It is time for us to pay our debt to the next generation.

An important step in this process is to educate our young people on the importance of living sustainably. Sustainable development is more than a theory: it requires a change in attitudes and, more importantly, behaviours. Encouraging behaviour change is challenging, but the prospects of success are greater if the messaging is delivered in an environment that places sustainable practice at its core – and, if possible in these hard times, identifies a financial benefit.

One way of doing this is to consider measures to reduce impact on the environment, starting with carbon footprint. The 2008 Climate Change Act requires the UK to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by at least 34% below 1990 levels by 2020 and by at least 80% by 2050. Introducing measures to reduce energy consumption can save schools significant amounts of money. According to the Department for Education and Skills in Wales, the average cost of energy per school is £27,000, although secondary schools can have bills of over £80,000 – double the amount spent four years ago. Case study evidence suggests that an average secondary school could save up to 20% of its energy bills through replacement of heating, lighting and cooling equipment.

So, if thinking sustainably has both environmental and economic benefits, why is it so hard to persuade others to see its value? Introducing such measures seems straightforward in principle, but time and time again research demonstrates that the effective integration of sustainable practice requires an organisation-wide commitment to working together so clear intentions can be communicated appropriately. Without that, there is a danger that at best there is insufficient ‘buy in’, and at worst, active non-cooperation. Creating a sustainable future requires a team effort and a consistent message, whether that is at country level, county level or organisation level.

If we want the learners of the future to have particular attributes such as being active citizens – able to appreciate the importance of environmental, social and political contexts to their studies – and creative problem-solvers, able to think creatively, holistically and systemically and make critical judgements on issues, then we have to change the way we teach and the outcomes we expect.

Research has shown that a sustainable school raises standards and the wellbeing of its pupils. A sustainable school engages its young people in their learning, which enhances their behaviour and promotes healthy school environments and lifestyles. A sustainable school prepares its pupils for real-life challenges.

At University of Wales Trinity Saint David, where I lead on sustainability through INSPIRE – the virtual Institute of Sustainable Practice, Innovation and Resource Effectiveness – we are clear that a sustainable university will realise the same benefits; as educators of the next generation’s leaders, we need to ‘future proof’ what we do to create discerning, responsible, creative problem-solvers.

Taking the necessary steps to embed sustainability at the heart of a university in a country with a similar commitment will, we hope, create new, imaginative and exciting opportunities in Wales to tackle unsustainable practices and ultimately lead to a more promising and secure future within a more socially just, healthy, prosperous and biodiverse world.

Jane Davidson was Minister for Environment and Sustainability in Wales from 2007 to 2011.