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How important is student behaviour to net-zero student accommodation?

2 June 2023

Generation Z is often seen as the generation of climate activists. In this month’s subscriber-only blog, we explore some of the reasons why this doesn’t always translate into sustainable behaviours – including ‘climate fatigue’, cost of living, and cultural differences – and how important student behaviours are within the context of Net-Zero Carbon (NZC) student accommodation.


A generation of climate activists?

Born between 1996 and 2010, the vast majority of current students are part of Generation Z. As the first generation that have always had access to the internet, Gen Z is typically defined as a generation of ‘digital natives’ who are highly engaged by social justice issues.

Climate activism is a particular area of interest. Millions of students across more than 100 countries participated in school climate strikes from 2019 to 2021, including hundreds of thousands within the UK – many of whom are now at university. In May, more than 500 current and recent students pledged a ‘career boycott’ of major insurance companies that support fossil fuel projects. And in a 2021 survey commissioned by Unite Students, students said they were more concerned about climate change than any other issue.

But in student accommodation, it’s not uncommon to find examples of behaviours that are less than eco-friendly: rooms with the heating turned up and the window open, or mountains of belongings left behind at check-out time. The enormous and growing number of parcels being delivered to properties is a challenge for universities and accommodation providers to grapple with, buoyed by the popularity of unsustainably cheap e-commerce – in particular ‘ultra-fast fashion’ brands, which produce thousands of new items per year and sell them for a pittance.

So why is there sometimes a gap between students’ sustainable values and their behaviours?


Understanding the green gap

There are several factors that may be contributing to, or exacerbating, this gap.

‘Climate fatigue’ – described by as “the exhaustion of having to make endless moral choices when they don’t seem to make a difference” – may be causing a sustainability burnout of sorts. Against the backdrop of news stories about corporate waste, such as ‘ghost flights’ – flights with extremely few or no passengers, 14,000 of which were operated during the pandemic – and celebrities’ frivolous use of resources, students may feel that their individual actions are pointless in comparison to waste created by corporations and high-wealth individuals with access to amenities like private jets.

Cost of living is another challenge that might sway students to make unsustainable choices, especially when it comes to clothing. The fashion industry is responsible for somewhere between two and eight percent of global carbon emissions, with fast fashion a major (and well-documented) contributor – but according to a 2022 study by researchers at Sheffield Business School, 9 in 10 students buy fast fashion. Sustainable athleisure brand Starseeds has suggested that sustainable fabrics are on average two and a half to four times more expensive than more commonly used fabrics, and indeed the students in the Sheffield study unanimously cited price as the main barrier to sustainable clothing. Ultra-fast fashion retailers can sell clothes for as little as £5 – appealing for students on tight budgets.

Then there are cultural challenges and differences around sustainability. International students may be used to warmer climes – and therefore more inclined to increase the heating so they feel more at home in their accommodation. Alternatively, sustainable behaviours may not be the norm in other countries. The 2018 research article ‘China-to-UK Student Migration and ‘Green’ Behaviour Change: A Social Practice Perspective’, found that behaviours like recycling were less engrained in Chinese students than their British counterparts: “British students reported having far more experience of the ‘skill’ to recycle for many years compared to the Chinese students.”

This was due to a combination of a lack of education about the importance of recycling and the lack of facilities at home to properly sort recycling. However, one positive finding from the report was that Chinese students who studied in the UK “had become far more likely to recycle and turn off lights, and less likely to litter or waste energy… [these behaviours] were now present in their daily lives.” Researchers found that this was due to them wanting to fit in with home students, rather than sustainability being the key motivator.


How important is student behaviour to reaching Net-Zero?

In 2021, Unite Students announced plans to become a Net-Zero Carbon (NZC) business by 2030. There is widespread scepticism about businesses’ sustainability efforts – 63% of those surveyed last year for KPMG’s report ‘Next Gen Retail: The end of greenwashing?’ agreed with the statement “Brands talk about doing positive things for the environment, but this does not always reflect the reality of their products”, rising to 70% among 18-24 year olds – but since 2019, our Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions have more than halved: the result of decarbonising our energy supply.

“How students behave does have an impact on emissions –  things like turning off lights and appliances, closing the window when heating is running, or wearing warmer clothes in winter can all meaningfully reduce energy consumption – but arguably more significant and consistent carbon savings can be achieved through investments to improve building fabric and services.” says James Tiernan, Head Of Sustainability. 

However, as we make changes to reduce our operational and developmental emissions, students’ water and energy consumption has a greater proportional impact on our overall emissions. Our Net-Zero Carbon Pathway, published in 2021, outlines our intention of supporting students “to adopt lasting responsible living and working habits including reductions in energy use.” This will not only encourage more sustainable behaviours in our buildings, but after students move out as well – benefiting the environment in the long-run.


Changing student behaviour

But – for some of the reasons outlined above – encouraging students to take up more sustainable habits is easier said than done and, judging by our conversations with universities, this is a shared challenge across the Higher Education sector.

So far in 2023, we’ve undertaken two trials to explore how we can encourage sustainable behaviour change. In May, we ran a small trial in Loughborough to encourage students to sign up to Do Nation, a website through which users pledge to adjust specific behaviours, and then report on their progress over time; take-up was very low, with students not wanting to sign up to another website or platform.

From January to May, we also ran an energy behaviour trial in London’s Station Court, looking at whether a flat’s energy consumption could be influenced by different styles of push notification from our app. Four different approaches were trialled, including a ‘social norm’ style of notification which shared how a flat’s energy consumption compared to the average of other flats in the building. But surprisingly – and for reasons that we’re still digging into – the control group consistently performed best in the last two months.

Although the outcomes have been disappointing so far, we’re continuing to explore new ways forward. In the 2023/24 academic year, we plan to trial new approaches for recycling across eight of our buildings, rethinking what recycling facilities are available in the flats and what messaging we use, so that it’s easier for students to recycle. Each approach will be under monthly review to look out for success stories and key learnings.

Maybe the greatest challenge for combatting climate change is that there are no silver bullets: it’s a gradual process which involves lots of small adjustments. But we’re under no illusions about the challenge, and while it will take time, the outcomes of lasting behaviour change will be worth it.

To support university partners with their Scope 3 sustainability reporting, we’re happy to share our building emissions data – please email for this information.

You can also listen to James on our Accommodation Matters podcast episode on sustainability:

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