Universities must help secure a sustainable future for our planet

Dave Gorman

Director of Social Responsibility and Sustainability
University of Edinburgh

The concept of sustainability may not be on the minds of every university staff member or student, but in light of significant global challenges, universities must do all they can to help protect our planet and those that depend on it for survival.

In an era when students and the public are more likely than ever to challenge universities on where their capital is invested, the concept of sustainability has outgrown its roots. Far more than simple operational concerns when constructing a new building or tendering for new suppliers, today ‘sustainability’ ranges from combatting carbon emissions and eliminating single-use plastics, to investing in the local community and targeting procurement at small- and medium-sized enterprises.

These are just some of the commitments made by the University of Edinburgh as part of our approach to social responsibility and sustainability. Our mission is to deliver impact for society through our research, our teaching and our operations, to make a significant, sustainable and socially responsible contribution to the world.

We take a whole-institution approach and look at the global picture. What’s the point of teaching students about the benefits of renewable technology if we aren’t using it ourselves? Why fund research into biodegradable alternatives to plastics if we only serve coffee in disposable cups? Why celebrate successful community projects in the developing world if we aren’t able to say we’ve done the same in our own city?

It’s for these reasons that we have committed to becoming a zero-waste university by prioritising the circular economy. We aim to eliminate single-use plastics where possible by 2030, and are committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2040. We will also transition out of fossil fuel investment by 2021. 

We also believe that our research should inform our teaching and operations. Students should get opportunities to learn about – and suggest improvements to – our operations as part of their education, and we must ask the local community how we can best support them through our research and student outreach, rather than through philanthropy alone.

Results so far show that our approach is working. Over 99% of waste from our academic estate is now diverted from landfill, and we were the first university to adopt a formal conflict minerals policy. We’ve also invested strongly in the local community – our £1.5 million social investments include local social enterprises and £150,000 to community-led projects proposed by local residents.

It is these achievements and our whole-institution ambition that led to Edinburgh being named Sustainability Institution of the Year at the EAUC Green Gown Awards, which recognise exceptional sustainability initiatives being undertaken by Universities and Colleges in the UK and Ireland, and we were honoured to work subsequently with EAUC to produce a guide to persuade other institutions to follow suit.

To make further progress, universities must provide opportunities for individuals to learn more about sustainability. At their core, universities are networks of people. By improving the links between students, staff and the local community, together we can build a strong foundation from which to tackle the challenges we face.

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andy penaluna
andy penaluna says:
4 April 2019 at 11:34

A great read, and let's not forget that learning to be enterprising sits at the core of such work. All too often the links between the sustainability agenda and the the enterprising mind agenda are overlooked, as noted here: https://www.eauc.org.uk/sustainability_and_enterprise_distant_cousins_o

Andy Nolan
Andy Nolan says:
4 April 2019 at 11:50

Nice succinct piece Dave - well done. Edinburgh have shown great leadership in this space and the broader interpretation and scope of sustainability is absolutely right. This is playing out with the SDGs in particular. 

Kim says:
4 April 2019 at 14:33

A great example of integrated leadership.  Edinburgh also do integrated reporting and this natural progression puts them front and centre of responding to a step change in terms of articulating the value that they create and better telling that story.  Advance HE looks at SDGs and in its report Lets Talk Value. 

Bruce Welt
Bruce Welt says:
10 April 2019 at 15:40

Too often, institutions such as Universities and Businesses hire people into administrative sustainability positions with very biased and limited views of sustainability. There are two diverging lines of thinking about sustainability. One promotes a notion that humans have no right to impact the otherwise perfect, natural earth.  The other is concerned with sustaining human well-being. Those trained in "sustainability" more often come from the "no impact" view, which is contrary to human flourishing. Universities would do well to use their institutions as living laboraties, open to all ideas. Unfortunately, ideas are too often stifled by the biased unilateral actions of the one charged with implimenting sustainability policy for the institution.


Nathan Goode
Nathan Goode says:
12 April 2019 at 08:54

Great pitch for a system-led approach to sustainability. Universities, of course (and Edinburgh is no exception, sitting at the heart of a City Region Deal) are economic powerhouses in their own right and they can make positive choices about the impact that spend has. This year we are seeing the university sector as a whole starting to get to grips with these issues and move on to Sustainability V2.0 in the way Dave describes.

James Longhurst
James Longhurst says:
9 April 2020 at 10:44

Well said Dave. Edinburgh is a very worthy winner of the Green Gown for Sustainability Institution of the Year. Keep up the excellent work.