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Student voice: What students think of our climate change survey findings

We recently shared the findings of our student survey on climate change now, we speak to students about their thoughts on the findings, and what they’re doing to be more environmentally sustainable.

Current students’ views on climate change are not a secret; after all, this is the generation that walked out of their A-levels to strike for climate change. Yet the findings of our recent climate change survey, in which 1,000 students were surveyed, were still stark. Climate change was considered a more urgent priority than Covid-19, while around 4 in 10 students would not apply for a job at a company with a poor record on climate change.

To better understand and develop these findings, we spoke to four students – Ellie, Dom, Joy and Elliott – to gauge their thoughts, as well as their own lifestyle choices on climate change, and any further suggestions they had for a more sustainable Higher Education sector.

 

Personal measures vs corporate response

An overwhelming majority of students surveyed said they were taking measures in their personal lives to cut down on their environmental impact; limiting the number of flights taken, sometimes following a vegetarian diet and choosing which brands to buy from. Similarly, every student we spoke to expressed an interest in living sustainably, and all had taken measures to live in an environmentally sustainable way, including regularly recycling items, using metal straws instead of plastic ones, and using shampoo bars instead of bottled shampoo.

However, there was a strong feeling that individual efforts were less important and impactful than those of organisations, reflecting the sentiment of those surveyed. All those we spoke to about the survey results supported fining companies who didn’t meet climate change targets. “Individual lifestyle emissions make up a tiny fraction of the driving forces affecting the environment – change by governments, companies and universities will have a much greater effect than change by individuals,” said Dom, a final-year music student at London College of Creative Media.

There was agreement that universities and accommodation providers could support eco-friendly living in a range of ways. One topic covered in our survey was on climate change in the curriculum, with just over 6 in 10 students wanting to see more university courses with a focus on tackling climate change. Ellie, a film and theatre student at the University of Glasgow, strongly supported a greater academic focus on climate change, based on her own positive experiences of this: “In one of my classes, we covered how the film industry’s carbon footprint contributes to climate change. It would be great to spend even just one class discussing how each subject and industry impacts the planet and how we, as the future of these industries, can make a difference.”

 

Single-use plastics

Our survey found 70% of students wanted to see a ban on single-use plastics on campus, and there were some thoughtful suggestions from those we spoke to on how these could be taken further. Dom suggested that universities could potentially work with local businesses to encourage them to move away from single-use plastics, such as plastic cups sometimes given out in nightclubs at the end of a night out, while Joy – a journalism student at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen – added that she’d like to see to more sustainable packaging and utensils at campus food outlets, as well as an increase in the number of water fountains and coffee machines on campus to encourage bottle refills.

Elliott, a third-year maths student at Manchester Metropolitan University, also supported the idea of a single-use plastic ban, but was worried about knock-on effects on students. “It’s a good idea in theory, but this should only be done with due consideration to the economic impacts on students,” he said. “A lot of alternatives to single-use plastic are much more expensive, which is a problem as many students live on a tight budget. There needs to be considerable focus on making alternatives more commercially available so that there is more incentive for students to use them.”

 

Financial impact

Financial concerns were a key consideration more broadly when it comes to living more sustainably, and in particular there were concerns about the prospect of universities fining students for not following rules about sustainable living, supported by 33% of those surveyed. Joy believed that this would add to the existing stresses of student life, while Dom said that it was “unethical” to fine students for this.

She also felt that sustainable living was difficult to manage on a student budget, saying “I try to make small changes to become more eco-friendly but sometimes buying fully sustainable products can be more expensive – I believe companies need to do more to make it more affordable to live a sustainable life.”

However, it’s clear that while finances can be a barrier, this generation of students isn’t only thinking about affordability. Ellie pointed to data from the 2019 Global Web Index indicating that environmental credentials were generally seen as more important to those aged 16-24 that products be environmentally friendly, while those aged 55-64 were more concerned by affordability. While “surprised” by the finding, she felt “hopeful” that her peers were so engaged in sustainability initiatives.

The suggestion of meat-free campuses came with some pushback both in the survey and our conversations with students; just 14% of those surveyed supported the idea, while none of the students we canvassed agreed with it entirely, regardless of their personal choices about meat. Joy wanted to see a focus on organic and sustainable ingredients on campus, while Ellie favoured a moderate approach to plant-based campus food: “We don’t need to do things perfectly to make a huge impact – perhaps campuses can be meat-free for half the week?”

From these conversations, it’s clear that students are keen to see a visible acceleration of universities’ and accommodation providers’ environmental sustainability initiatives – and also that significant decisions made, such as fines and bans, should be made in consultation with the student body to ensure it meets their needs, doesn’t compound students’ financial stresses, and as such is genuinely sustainable in the broadest sense of the word.

 

What Unite Students has pledged

In March, Unite Students announced five new sustainability commitments, including net-zero carbon operations and construction by 2030. Our detailed net-zero carbon pathway will be published later in 2021, and will include ambitious, science-based targets in line with a future in which the world’s temperature rises by 1.5˚C, as set out by the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi). We are also committed to sourcing 100% renewable energy across our property portfolio inline with the RE100 initiative.

As part of our journey to being a more sustainable, environmentally-friendly business, we have also recently signed up as a supporter of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), and are working to better understand and disclose the financial impacts of climate change on our business. Additionally, we are currently in the process of appointing an Environment Performance Manager to improve our waste and recycling strategy to help increase recycling and drive down the amount of business and student waste going to landfill each year.

Listen to the sustainability episode of our Accommodation Matters podcast now: