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How important is sustainability to students and university applicants?

27 July 2023

Our latest research findings suggested that this year’s university applicants are less likely to make sacrifices to live sustainably than last year’s cohort. But why is this?

We explore some of the reasons why sustainability may be a challenge area for students and applicants – and whether student behaviour really does matter in creating more sustainable student accommodation.

Generation Z’ – those young people who were born between 1996 and 2010, who comprise the majority of current students – are often characterised by two things: their love of social media, and their concern for the environment. Millions of Gen Z students around the world took part in school strikes from 2019 to 2021, and student-led campaigns have resulted in dozens of universities pledging to divest from fossil fuels. In a 2021 survey commissioned by Unite Students, students said they were more concerned about climate change than any other issue.

But in our recent 2023 Applicant Index report, when we surveyed more than 2,000 university applicants, sustainability was the only one of eight themes to see a decrease in overall score from last year. While this year’s applicants are more careful about using electricity and water, they are  less likely to think that it is ‘extremely’ important to address climate change, less likely to recycle, and less likely to have made sacrifices in order to live sustainably.

So, are students and applicants less interested in sustainability than they previously seemed – or is something else going on?


‘Climate fatigue’ and cost of living pressures

Only 58% of applicants agreed that their actions had an impact on tackling climate change, while 15% actively disagreed – rising to one in five of all male applicants. So it may be that the drop in sustainable behaviour from applicants comes from a place of disillusionment and/or scepticism about their ability to make a difference.

Anecdotally, it’s common to see despair on social media about the impact that individuals can have compared to corporations and high-wealth individuals with access to amenities like private jets, and ‘climate fatigue’ – described by as “the exhaustion of having to make endless moral choices when they don’t seem to make a difference” – is a known phenomenon.

While many businesses are responding to consumer pressure by promoting their green credentials, there is widespread scepticism about how impactful or truthful these really are, and this is particularly prevalent among young people. 70% of 18-24 year olds 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.”

Cost is another challenge that may take precedence for young people over sustainability, particularly during the cost of living crisis. Data from the 2022 Global Student Living Index showed that while 87% of students agreed that student accommodation should do more to reduce environmental impact, far fewer would commit to paying more for environmentally sustainable accommodation – just 8% said they were ‘very willing’ to pay.

This tension trickles down into smaller investments too. According to a 2022 study by researchers at Sheffield Business School, 9 in 10 students buy fast fashion, despite it being a major contributor to global emission – but, with sustainable fabrics costing on average two and a half to four times more than more commonly-used fabrics, it’s easy to see the appeal of ultra-fast fashion retailers to students on tight budgets. Indeed, the students in the Sheffield study unanimously cited price as the main barrier to sustainable clothing.


Cultural differences on sustainability

Another consideration is that, with international student numbers having grown substantially in recent years, cultural challenges and differences around sustainability may be having more of an impact within student accommodation. Students  from warmer countries may be more inclined to increase the heating so they feel more at home in their accommodation, for example, while sustainable behaviours aren’t always the norm around the world.

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 – but it all counts.


How important is student behaviour to reaching Net-Zero?

So, there are a variety of reasons why sustainability may not always be the top priority for students and applicants, even if they are passionate about tackling the climate crisis. But do those who feel that their actions don’t matter have a point? How important is it really for students to undertake sustainable behaviours?

At Unite Students, it’s true that more significant and consistent carbon savings can be achieved through investments to improve building fabric and services. In 2021, we announced plans to become a Net-Zero Carbon (NZC) business by 2030 – and, since 2019, our Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions have more than halved: the result of decarbonising our energy supply.

However, as we’ve made these changes to reduce our operational and developmental emissions, students’ water and energy consumption has a greater proportional impact on our overall emissions. Small acts  like turning off lights and appliances, closing the window when the heating is on, or wearing warmer clothes in winter can all meaningfully reduce energy consumption. For example, turning down the thermostat by one degree can save 310kg for one person’s carbon footprint per year – and this would soon add up across the 70,000 students living in our buildings.


How can we support student behaviour change?

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.

This isn’t always easy, and there’s no silver bullet – but we’re continuing to explore new ways forward. In the 2023/24 academic year, we plan to trial new approaches for recycling across 23 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.

But perhaps another takeaway from these findings is that organisations such as ours need to highlight what we are doing to genuinely and substantially reduce our impact on the environment, to make young people feel that their individual efforts aren’t a waste of time. Building trust on sustainability may take time, but perhaps students are more likely to adopt more sustainable behaviours if they feel like we’re walking the walk as well as talking the talk.

You can download our 2023 Applicant Index report here, and read more about our sustainability work here.

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