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5 sustainability lessons from Global Student Living Live 2022

24 October 2022

For the first time since 2019, Global Student Living Live returned to the conference circuit, with this year’s event focused on sustainability in purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA).

Unite Students were in attendance to hear about everything from smart tech to bug burgers – so here are our key takeaways from the event.


1. Generation Z sees corporations as responsible for stopping climate change, and are disillusioned about what they can do

A typical characterisation of Gen Z is that of a proactive, socially conscious generation with a passion for equality and the environment. But in our 2022 applicant index, we saw that university applicants’ concern for the environment didn’t necessarily translate into undertaking sustainable behaviours.

Olivia McCafferty, Associate Director at Red Brick Research, described a generation ground down by the perceived futility of individual efforts in the face of corporate pollution. Kings College London’s 2021 report Who cares about climate change? found Gen Z to be the generation who agreed the most with the statement ‘There is no point in changing my behaviour to tackle climate change because it won’t make any difference anyway’.

A student in a focus group undertaken for the new ASK4, Spike and Utopi report ‘Changing Behaviours’ was additionally quoted as saying: “The big changes aren’t anything we can do; it’s quite frustrating.” In the subsequent panel Drivers of change, Robbie Epsom – EMEA Head of ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) at CRBE IM – agreed: “Students can drive change, but they’re not the decision-makers. They’re not the ones who are in meetings or boardrooms right now, and by the time they are, it will be too late.”


2. Cost of living concerns are competing with concern for the environment

McCafferty also revealed in data from this year’s Global Student Living Index that 87% of students surveyed agreed that student accommodation should do more to reduce environmental impact. However, far fewer would commit to paying more for environmentally sustainable accommodation – just 8% said they were ‘very willing’ to pay. This tracked with the 2022 Deloitte Gen Z and Millennial Survey, which found that cost of living had overtaken climate change as Gen Z’s #1 priority.

The idea of a ‘green premium’ was discussed in Sarah Canning’s presentation, Marketing sustainability and ethical choices. The co-founder of the Property Marketing Strategists suggested that students were wary of corporate greenwashing attempts, and might be suspicious of being asked to pay extra for sustainable accommodation.

And it’s not just students who were having to make tough decisions. All-inclusive rents are the norm within the student accommodation sector, but the ethics of offering uncapped energy usage came under scrutiny in thought-provoking panel Student engagement and behavioural change. As panellists weighed up the pros and cons of a ‘fair use’ energy policy, there were questions about the logistics of monitoring fair use in common spaces and the potential for conflict with flatmates, while those in the room who remembered a time before all-inclusive rents were reluctant to see a return to ‘policing’ energy usage.

Amid spiralling energy prices, it’s likely that this is a question that will continue to be asked within the Higher Education sector. But technology may offer an alternative path: Unite Students uses smart thermostats in its buildings, not only keeping temperatures at a comfortable level, but sensing when no one is in the room and switching off the heating accordingly.


3. Data and education are critical for driving change

Andrew Dutton – CEO of the ASK4 Group – felt that a fair use policy supported an ethical responsibility by operators to educate students on energy usage, a theme consistent with his presentation A case for smarter buildings and illustrated with an anecdote about his student son not realising how thermostats worked.

While smart meters such as those used by Unite Students offer the potential to deliver significant reductions in energy use and associated cost, he proposed that this would be far more effective when paired with meaningful data – for example, visibility of the average energy use in a property. By having a point of comparison, students would better understand whether their energy usage was high or low, and know whether they needed to change their behaviours.

Data was also identified as a gap in the PBSA supply chain. Nicholas Gill, CEO of property furnishing business David Phillips, highlighted the challenges in finding out how much carbon is produced in the production of furniture. To combat this problem, his organisation is creating a data set for all their furniture so that future customers would be able to understand the impact of their purchases.


4. In the face of economic pressures, the sector needs creative solutions

There was no shortage of references to political and economic turmoil on the main stage, particularly after news of Prime Minister Liz Truss’s resignation filtered through at lunchtime. Several presentations touched on the financial challenges faced by the sector – but the good news is that there were some innovative, budget-friendly solutions.

Andrew Drummond, Director of R H Partnership Architects, showed how a dated room at the University of Warwick had been upcycled on a budget. Using the existing materials and the building’s location near a sports facility as inspiration, the space was reimagined as an inviting space with an American collegiate theme – with just a new paint scheme and some panelling behind the bed.

One surprising suggestion to save costs and carbon was to eat more insects instead of meat. Leo Taylor, CEO and founder of start-up Yum Bug, shared that the edible insect market was projected to grow sixteen-fold by 2030 – while insects are already on the menu in 80% of countries. With insects having been championed by celebrity foodies Prue Leith and the late Anthony Bourdain, it could be a culinary trend of the near future.


5. This is a sector that wants to do the right thing on sustainability

With approximately 300 delegates in attendance, representing universities, accommodation providers, charities, and Higher Education consultants, there was a clear will within the sector to learn and do more. In the opening address, John Kenny – Executive Vice President of Operations at Realstar and chair for the day – challenged delegates to expect to go beyond their existing plans for net zero: “It’s not what we will do – it’s what we are prepared to do. This is an emergency.”

Kenny also namechecked Unite Students as an organisation who could lead the way for the rest of the PBSA sector. Targeting net-zero operations by 2030 with our sustainability strategy and pathway to net-zero, we are already working towards this; recently, we have completed a sustainability-focused refurbishment of three of our Manchester buildings, in addition to sustainable features including solar panels, air source heat pumps and bike racks in our brand new buildings in London and Bristol.

Transparency and knowledge-sharing are crucial to a sustainable Higher Education sector – so we welcome Global Student Living carving out a dedicated opportunity to learn more about this important issue, and look forward to sharing more details of our journey to net-zero in the coming months.


You can learn more about Unite Students’ sustainability strategy from our website, and hear student insights from Global Student Living CEO Tim Daplyn on our Accommodation Matters episode, ‘Lessons from around the world’:

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