Students Make Sustainability Matter in Higher Ed
Shelton Stat of the Week
82% of American students over the age of 18 say that a company’s environmental reputation moderately to strongly impacts their decision when making purchases (Eco Pulse 2018).
Sustainability This Week
I started my week speaking at the University of Pittsburgh’s annual Engineering Sustainability event and one of the students asked me, “You talked about what people expect of big companies … what do they expect of universities?” Here’s the answer:
According to a 2019 Princeton Review survey of nearly 12,000 college applicants, approximately 64 percent consider a school’s environmental commitment when deciding where to attend.
In the past decade or so, a number of organizations have sprouted up with the sole purpose of measuring universities’ commitments to sustainability. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) has become a hub for colleges to self-report, compare and boast about their accomplishments ever since the founding of the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System™ (STARS) in 2011. The program encourages healthy competition amongst universities and gives out ratings ranging from Platinum and Gold to Bronze and “Reporter” status. Environment America Research and Policy Center also regularly reports on universities’ renewable energy commitments (see their most recent report here).
In some cases, strong sustainability commitments attract students to universities, whereas in other cases, the students spark universities to adapt. Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, became the top-most ranked school for renewable energy in large part thanks to students and university leaders who lobbied the university nearly a decade ago to commit to wind-power electricity and renewable energy credits. Student demand for sustainability has also led to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (my alma mater) creating a dedicated sustainability major and Office of Sustainability. The university now recognizes sustainability as “a rapidly growing interdisciplinary field with practical applications across all sectors of the global workforce.” They also offer a certificate in Sustainability Science and an interdisciplinary sustainability Ph.D. program.
The bottom line is this: Gen Z not only values sustainability; they expect it, and colleges and universities are responding. As the best and brightest come out of a college environment where they’ve been immersed in opportunities, visible actions, messaging, etc. about sustainability, they will expect the same of their employers, and the brands they buy from. Hiring and retaining the best talent is and will continue to be one of the greatest challenges for all companies and organizations. Without strong commitments, actions and communications on sustainability – both to recruits, employees and the outside world – you’re at risk of being passed over.
News of the Week
Another good reason for companies to be considering the switch to reusability. Members of the European Parliament last week voted in favor of banning a number of common single-use plastic items, including cutlery, straws and stirrers. The ban isn’t law yet (it will likely be approved later this year – and will take effect in 2021), but it indicates increasing government and social pressure to cut down on waste – and an emphasis on reusability that we expect will become more pronounced in upcoming years.
What once was thought of as a fad is now here to stay. Tiny houses are increasing in number throughout many parts of the U.S. – and in many cases, they serve as a sustainable response to unsustainable housing problems such as rising home costs and high energy bills. The article shows how downsizing to tiny homes encourages behavior modification, resulting in significantly lower carbon footprints (45% reduction on average) and more pro-environmental practices such as recycling more, wasting less and using renewable sources of energy.
An excellent example of how major companies and brands can use their influence to encourage sustainable practices in the supply chain. “Apple has persuaded 15 more of its suppliers, including Foxconn and TSMC, to manufacture Apple products using 100 percent clean energy” and there are now 44 participating suppliers in total.
A Period of Change
Once upon a time, feminine hygiene was a topic simply not mentioned in polite society – and options were limited to an aisle of single-use products. Now, times are changing, and the options have grown. What once seemed like a segment of the consumer packaged goods industry impervious to change is now undergoing profound transformation. New, reusable choices are flooding the market – choices that are better for the environment and, in most cases, work better too. Fifty-nine percent of women have used or considered using them – what will that do to your business?