Introduction to Sustainability

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This page is maintained by the Sustainability Committee at the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC). It is intended to provide information about sustainable practices for AIC members, conservation/preservation professionals, and other interested parties within the cultural heritage profession. Please send comments and suggestions to sustainability(at)conservation-us.org.


What is Sustainability?

Redwood tree from WikiMedia Commons, author Mick Lobb

Defining sustainability can be difficult because the term means different things to different people, and it has changed over time. Some definitions include:

  • "Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations." - The Environmental Protection Agency [1]
  • "Green refers to products and behaviors that are environmentally benign" - Brophy and Wylie 2008:8
  • "Sustainable means practices that rely on renewable or reusable materials and processes that are green or environmentally benign" - Brophy and Wylie 2008:8
  • "Sustainability is understood as development that meets the needs of today without compromising the needs of future generations." - Gro Brutland in Adrian Parr 2009: 1


Resulting from a 2014 collaboration between AIC's Sustainability Committee and Collection Care Network, the following definition was created with the field of conservation in mind:

  • "Sustainability derives from a commitment to policies and practices that ensure social, economic, and environmental endurance. Applied together, the principles of collection care, preventive conservation, and sustainability enable the preservation of both our world and its cultural heritage."

The Importance of Sustainability

Sustainability and your institutional mandate

Conservators work in various settings - including museums, libraries, archives, heritage sites, gardens, private collections and conservators in private practice - yet two aspects of nearly all institutional mandates are directly linked to sustainability: 1) caring for objects in perpetuity or with it in mind, and 2) serving the organization's audience, including visitors, researchers, and others. A third aspect considers the creators - the peoples, cultures, and communities whose works are now housed in institutional collections. Climate change is relevant to all three, as weather and temperature extremes increase in frequency and severity, and while air and water pollution, ozone depletion, negative effects on ecosystems, and the like are affected by our actions.

Sustainability and professional codes of ethics and guidelines for practice

This section is in progress.

Sustainability and the Conservation Specialties

Sustainability affects all the conservation material specialties and professional specialties (archaeological, architecture, book and paper, electronic media, objects, paintings, photographic, textiles, wooden artifacts) as well as the professional groups relevant to all specialties (collections care, health & safety, research & technical studies, private practice).

This section is in progress.

Starting a Sustainability Committee At Your Institution

Creating a Sustainability Committee or Green Team is an initial step to encourage sustainable practices at work. Some suggestions to consider when forming a committee include:

  • Invite coworkers from a representative range of departments.
  • Identify a room and a time to meet.
  • Encourage members to assess their relevant skills and expertise.
  • Integrate the committee goals with the institution's goals.
  • Start with small tasks and work to larger projects.
  • Promote the committee and the projects it undertakes within the institution and to the visiting public.
  • Walk through the work space to assist with brainstorming.
  • Research how similar organizations have started their Green Teams.


Small, sustainable improvements to begin with at your workplace:

  • Improve the recycling options for labs, offices, and visitors.
  • Change to environmentally friendly ink and recycled paper whenever possible.
  • This includes not just printer paper but calendars, receipt paper, promotional material and household paper.
  • Locate local food sources for cafeterias and vending machines.
  • Compost food waste.
  • Contact local organizations to see if you can work with them and their committees.
  • For example if a neighboring institution gathers batteries or electronics to send to a specialized recycler, ask if your institution can add to it or if the recycler can make a second stop at your institution.
  • Be a drop-off point for your neighborhood for specialized recycling.

References: Harvard University. "Start a Green Team." [2]

Funding for Sustainability

Sustainable initiatives can open doors to new funding opportunities as well as deepen relationships with previous funders. When searching for funding, look for sources that understand how conserving resources through environmental sustainability enables institutions to better fund their essential goals. It can also be helpful to identify potential partners in businesses or institutions that are following similar sustainable practices. Some potential funding sources include foundations, non-grant programs, corporations, and federal, state, and local agencies (Brophy and Wylie 2008, 137-149.). Sometimes, funders will initiate the process. Therefore, it can be helpful to talk about and make public the sustainability initiatives already occurring at your institution (Brophy and Wylie 2008, 137-149.).

The National Endowment for the Humanities Division of Preservation and Access provides grants to help cultural institutions implement preventive conservation projects that are cost effective, energy efficient, and as environmentally sensitive as possible. Descriptions of previous award winners are posted here.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency currently funds grants/cooperative agreements that implement pollution prevention technical assistance services and/or training for businesses and support projects that utilize pollution prevention techniques to reduce and/or eliminate pollution from air, water and/or land under their Pollution Prevention Grant Program. State governments, colleges and universities (recognized as instrumentalities of the state), federally-recognized tribes and intertribal consortia are eligible for these grants.

Related Organizations

PIC Green Network at the American Alliance of Museums: "[PIC Green is] committed to establishing museums as leaders in environmental sustainability, a critical issue that is inextricably tied to mission-fulfillment. PIC Green’s core values include education, collaboration, research and communication. We seek to advance and celebrate environmental stewardship and aspire to help museums be green in every aspect of their operations and programs.

We believe that a museum’s role in the community includes being a conduit for information and building awareness of issues that impact our world today. PIC Green’s focus is to explore and articulate green practices as fundamental underpinnings to all museum missions. Through example-setting and education museums can be green beacons in their communities to catalyze a potential triple net effect encompassing economic, social and environmental issues, internally and externally." [3]

The PIC Green Network also promotes sustainability through their Sustainability Excellence Award which, "recognizes sustainability efforts in facilities, programming, and exhibits in both large and small institutions. PIC Green views the award as an opportunity to share sustainability stories and encourage museums to develop and educate visitors about green practices. SEA winners are honored at the AAM Annual Meeting and MuseumExpo and their application materials are shared in the 'Awards Issue' of Museum Magazine. Winners also receive a gift donated on their behalf to the “Adopt an Acre of the Northern Rockies” program from the Nature Conservancy." [4]