For the past number of years, universities and other higher education institutions such as business schools have increasingly made the choice of placing sustainability on their agendas. They develop courses and specific programs around sustainability and teach their students how to act sustainably in their respective fields and domains. Sustainability has slowly but surely become a key driver for a university’s reputation and appeal. However, teaching sustainability as well as further societal skills, will not be enough.
Walking the Talk
Beyond course and program content, universities will be held accountable for walking the talk. Students and other stakeholders want universities to practice what they preach, i.e., operate sustainably and ever eco-friendlier physical locations. Students want their universities to “act green”, and are the driving force therebehind. And incidentally:
Once you start going green, the great thing is that it is impossible to go backward, as students will continuously challenge their universities to “go even greener.”
Likewise, students will demand that their campus life and student societies engage in sustainable behavior, supported and encouraged by their institutions. A welcomed initiative of any university and business school is the establishment of a green office, i.e., an entity funded by the institution, managed by students and staff together, to connect, inform, and support the university and its stakeholders to act sustainably in all dimensions and operations.
Some parts of walking the talk will definitely be easier than others. While introducing recycling on campus is a relatively easy endeavor, offering sustainable lunch options and canteen food only, i.e., removing beef or meat altogether from the menus, will most likely result in complaints and discontent from some parts of students, faculty, and professional service personnel. But it is exactly at this moment when the university administration needs to take a strong stand and make the right choice, as at stake are credibility and accountability.
Leading by Example
Students will challenge not only their professors, but also their deans, presidents, rectors, and alike. In short, they will have a close and scrutinizing look at how their university’s top management behaves in terms of sustainability. Administrators thus need to constantly keep in mind that students are watching them, and accordingly, that it is incumbent to take the choice of leading by example.
They will need to take responsibility on such decisions and questions. Is there a member of the university’s Board of Directors in charge of sustainability? Is sustainability part of the institution’s master plan and of its official mission? Are you providing a sustainability report monitoring progress and clearly stating where you want to go and what you want to achieve in the next five, ten, and twenty years?
Leading by example can also take small steps. I was personally challenged on how I can support sustainability while I choose to prepare coffee every day using a capsule coffee maker that leaves behind hundreds of non-degradable aluminum capsules each year. I have to admit that although it was staring me in the face, I didn’t even notice this and was not aware of the existence of degradable or recyclable pods. Due to their doing so, I can proudly say that my personal lifestyle has become more sustainable over recent years (with lots of room for improvement, of course).
ESCP, Europe, Elsewhere
Several sustainability initiatives and activities were launched and implemented over the last couple of years at ESCP Business School: e.g., two programs entirely dedicated to sustainability: the MSc in International Sustainability Management and the MSc in Sustainability Entrepreneurship and Innovation (delivered iteratively across Berlin and Paris); several corporate and academic chairs in sustainability and the circular economy; or our ESCP SDG conference, annually organized right in the heart of Berlin next to the Brandenburg Gate.
Just recently, on December 11th, 2020, EU leaders agreed to raise Europe’s emission reduction target to 55 percent by 2030. This is only one of the European Green Deal initiatives set by the European Commission with the overarching aim of making Europe climate neutral by 2050, at the latest. Such an ambitious objective puts Europe clearly in pole position to lead the world’s green transition and serve as a role model elsewhere.
Consequently, many jobs will be created in the sector with increasing demand for students educated in sustainability matters. For current employees, up- and re-skilling will be needed to reap the benefits of this ecological transition. European universities and business schools will be expected to provide such courses and training to support the EU in launching this new growth strategy and strengthening its competitive advantage in this highly future-oriented domain.