Students Make Sustainability Matter in Higher Ed
Shelton Stat of the Week
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.
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.
It's a Period of Change
“Disposable” and “single-use” are becoming bad words. What customers really want is reusability, which is pulling ahead as the next big market trend. We’ve homed in on one particular industry and product type where we expect the biggest upset: consumer packaged goods and feminine hygiene products. Women are embracing reusable products and it’s shaking up the industry. And chances are, it’ll spread to YOUR industries and products.