Culture – the fourth pillar of sustainability

The transformation towards a sustainable society requires not only technological progress and innovative solutions, but also a strong cultural sector that inspires change in consumption and production. Culture is the fourth pillar of the Nordic countries’ sustainability approach, complementing its economic, social and environmental dimensions.

By Páll Tómas Finnsson

Close linkage between culture and sustainability
Sustainability is being mainstreamed into all Nordic Council of Ministers activities, and the culture area is no exception. Sustainability is one of five main themes in the Nordic region’s common culture strategy for 2013-2020, which defines how the countries wish to manage their historical, cultural and linguistic heritage.

“The Nordic countries are open societies and we value culture highly. Our region has a long tradition of supporting production and dissemination of culture and working with its significance to our societies. We also put much emphasis on sustainability and aspire to incorporate it into all our policies and activities,” says Yvonne Halkjær Jensen, Senior Advisor at the department for culture and resources at the Nordic Council of Ministers.

The Nordic strategy for sustainable development, A Good Life in a Sustainable Nordic Region, also underlines the importance of developing a culture of sustainability: “Culture concerns for example choice of lifestyle, consumption patterns, relationship to the environment and acceptance of the processes of change in society.”

This clear cultural focus is a reflection of the need for a holistic, cross-sectoral approach to maintaining and developing the modern Nordic welfare societies. The challenges include creating more jobs in a green economy, ensuring cultural diversity and responding to changes in the region’s demography.

“The linkage between culture and sustainability is highly relevant in a modern society where things are changeable. Culture builds bridges between different interest groups and contributes to social development, identity and inclusion. It’s a valuable add-on to the three pillars of sustainability – the economic, social and environmental,” says Halkjær Jensen.

Creative and cultural industries lead the way
As part of the Nordic-Baltic cooperation, the Nordic Council of Ministers’ offices in Latvia and North-western Russia have conducted a variety of cultural activities, many of which focus on developing a more sustainable textile and fashion industries.

“Despite our experience in working on culture and sustainability, we still need to reach out and learn from other regions and partners. The Baltic Sea Region cooperation is a good example of this,” says Halkjær Jensen.

Imants Gross is the Director of the Nordic Council of Ministers’ office in Latvia. He has led regional activities involving the creative and cultural industries, aiming at developing a more sustainable Baltic Sea area.

“We’ve worked with the textile and fashion industry to develop a link between fashion brands in the Nordics and the Baltic countries’ production units. Our long-term aim is to transform the production in the Baltics and establish the region as a sustainable fashion and textile production area,” he explains. The activities include a project where 32 Nordic designers were invited to explore sustainable solutions during Riga Fashion Week, and workshops with participation from the entire textile and fashion value chain.

“It’s important that we use the experience we’ve gained from these cultural activities to reach the aims of sustainability in other sectors,” says Gross.

Culturability BSR – Culture for Sustainable Development
The experience has already carried over into Culturability BSR, a flagship programme under the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region. The programme, which was launched in 2013, is a partnership between the Nordic Council of Ministers, the Government of Slesvig Holstein and the Ministry of Culture in Poland.

Culturability BSR’s main aim is to build cooperation between Nordic and Baltic stakeholders in three selected areas: Creative Industries, Social Innovation and Urban Development. All three are characterised by their cultural value and potential to make a considerable impact in order to promote a sustainable lifestyle.

“Our objective is to identify best practices – cases where culture is a driving force or a vehicle to reach sustainability aims,” says Gross.

The beginning of a long journey
According to Gross, the world is at the beginning of a long journey towards sustainable societies – a transformation in which culture should play a key role.

“We need to admit culture into other activities in a way that we haven’t seen before. Culture is not only about consumption, it’s also about production. It’s about creating better methods and producing better solutions,” says Gross, who looks forward to continued cooperation on the issue.

“We can all improve in all areas. The Nordic countries and the Baltic Sea Region can still learn a lot from each other. It’s important that we continue creating these networks that enable us to draw upon each other’s experiences. By doing that, the whole region can only grow stronger,” Gross says.

Art and culture challenge and develop us as individuals and as a society, and thereby help to promote a sustainable society
Nordic Council of Ministers Strategy for Nordic Cultural Co-operation 2013-2020.

“A vibrant art and cultural life is necessary in a modern society. Cultural experiences and activities are important for social development, identity and inclusion, and help to establish trust, respect and social bonding between people. Art and culture challenge and develop us as individuals and as a society, and thereby hel to promote a sustainable society.”

To solve some of the major challenges facing the Nordic welfare societies, a holistic approach is needed that embraces many sectors and policy areas
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