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Our new sustainability report: How Unite Students is making a positive impact

11 April 2024

At Unite Students, we talk a lot about sustainability. But what do our actions mean in a wider context, what are we aiming for, and what have we achieved so far? 

We’ve laid it all out in our first annual sustainability report – available to download now. 


What is sustainability? 

Sustainability is much-discussed, but often misunderstood. While most commonly used as shorthand for environmental sustainability, in reality sustainability is a much wider umbrella. 

Since 2020, we’ve consulted with students, universities, employees and other stakeholders to determine which aspects of sustainability to focus on. Environmental issues featured strongly, such as creating sustainable buildings, reducing resource consumption and becoming a net zero organisation. In 2021, we announced our intention to become net zero by 2030, becoming the first purpose-built accommodation (PBSA) provider to make this commitment. 

But there’s so much more that falls under the remit of sustainability. Social impact, student and employee wellbeing, health and safety, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB) to name a few. 

We’re proud of the work we do across these areas, and we know how important it is that we demonstrate real change as a result of our sustainability commitments. A whole new category of terms has sprung up to describe how businesses can exaggerate their sustainable credentials, among them ‘greenwashing’ (misleading environmental claims) and ‘social washing’ (exaggerated claims of social responsibility). This can make people less likely to engage in sustainable behaviour. 

Transparency and real, sustained action are more important than ever. That’s why we’ve decided to take accountability for real progress across all forms of sustainability, by publishingan annual sustainability report – the first of which, Making a positive impact, is available to download now. 


Our sustainability report 

The report outlines how we’ve created a positive impact across four groups: employees, local communities, students and young people, and the environment. For each, it sets out our sustainability targets and commitments, how we’re performing against those targets and what we’ve done in 2023 to be a more sustainable organisation. 

Targets are aligned to external sustainability frameworks and programmes including the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and the Living Wage Employer scheme – holding us to account in our sustainability efforts. Case studies are included throughout to offer a deeper dive into some of our initiatives. 

There are plenty of positive stories. On the environmental front, we delivered a net 1.6% reduction in our energy consumption and invested £8.2 million in energy and water efficiency improvements, which we expect to deliver a reduction in energy and water consumption in the run-up to our 2030 net zero target. We also published our Sustainable Construction Framework and created a sustainable procurement policy to limit our supply chain emissions. 

When it comes to supporting students and young people, we’ve significantly increased the number of Resident Ambassadors in our properties, we’re funding more than 100 new Unite Foundation scholarships for the first time ever, and of course we’ve continued our sector-leading research and thought leadership programme – helping the sector to better understand the needs of students and applicants, and support positive initiatives and policy development within the sector.  

New publications for 2023 included our report on the needs of neurodivergent students (March 2023), annual Applicant Index (July 2023) and Living Black at University Commission report (November 2023), as well as hosting the Living Black at University Conference in Newcastle in March 2023. in Newcastle in March 2023. 

Elsewhere, our teams are better trained to deliver a great student living experience than ever, with an 80% increase in training events. They’re also getting an opportunity to get out into the community, with the number of community projects increasing from 3 to 29 and a sixteen fold increase in the number of volunteering hours. 

All of this isn’t just making us more sustainable; it’s also helping to build trust with our teams, residents and university partners. Our university Net Promoter Score (a metric through which customer satisfaction is measured, commonly shortened to NPS) was our highest ever, while our student NPS also improved from 2022. And not only did we see increased employee engagement –voluntary operational turnover also dropped by 17%. 


Becoming more sustainable in 2024 

However, there is still room for improvement. There was a small step backwards when it came to gender diversity in leadership; something that will need to be remedied to meet our target of 40% of women in senior roles by the end of 2024. So far in 2024, we’ve already seen some new appointments that support this – for example, with Lettie Hubbuck being named the new Head of Operations for Scotland and the North. 

While our net energy consumption dropped, an increase in demand for heating in our buildings has limited our progress. We are continually working to understand students’ energy needs and how we can encourage them to adopt sustainable habits and reduce consumption, which we’re also doing with our employees.  

There are also some initiatives that launched late in 2023 whose impact is yet to be seen. In December, we launched an internal Disability Network which, along with our other employee resource groups, feeds into our employee forum Culture Matters. The Disability Network advocates for employees with disabilities and aims to improve understanding and awareness of a range of disabilities and neurodiversities, with a view to better supporting employees and students who are disabled or neurodiverse. 

You’ll be able to follow developments in these areas next year and in years to come. “We aspire to lead the living sector on sustainability,” says Joe Lister – who became our new Chief Executive Officer in January, having worked for more than 20 years at Unite Students. “We’ve set ambitious environmental and social impact targets and set out the progress we’ve made so far. I’m committed to sustainability remaining a top priority for Unite Students through 2024 and beyond.” 

You can download our annual sustainability report here, and listen to our sustainability podcast mini-series below: 

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