Every university wants to be seen to be 'acting green', but how many are sincerely willing to put in the work?

By: Chris Saltmarsh, People & Planet Sheffiled University
Paint brush making green mark with a $ in the paint.

As the global climate justice movement continues to grow and grow with an increasingly exciting energy, it manifests at its loudest, most colourful, creative, and radical on university campuses across the UK and the world. With a fresh wave of fossil fuel divestments announced alongside People & Planet's 2016 University League, universities across the country now know full well that sustainability is a core concern for their staff and students, and it is here to stay.

As the Higher Education sector is pushed deeper and deeper into a model defined by marketisation and competition, with students as consumers and education a for-profit commodity, it is little wonder that universities are seeking to capitalise on the growing popularity of sustainability among their members. This has led to grandiose statements across the board on how universities will lead us to renewable energy futures and a decarbonized economy, how they will set the sustainability agenda, and even conceding to powerful divestment campaigns by making that important commitment. Every university wants to be seen to be 'acting green', but how many are sincerely willing to put in the work?

While universities move to adopt the narrative of sustainability to enhance their reputation, the University League plays a vital part in holding our institutions to account by tracking and ranking the work they do to be more sustainable and ethical. This ranking isn't based on how resourced the universities' marketing departments are or how compelling their propaganda is, the League ranks based on information made available on university websites and uses public verified data sources. Putting the League together this way ensures maximum transparency for universities that thrive on opaque, impenetrable bureaucracy. It helps staff and students who care about sustainability to hold university managers to account on the commitments they make and their subsequent action.

The League enables sustainability and climate campaigners – staff and students – to understand what the university is succeeding on, and where it needs to do better. It helps us decide our goals and priorities, and helps us refine our campaign messaging. We can also use it as a lobbying tool to incentivise action by the university. Campaigning for our universities to take action on sustainability, to become more ethical and on the climate is an important part of our strategy in the movement for a more just and liveable world. Taking fossil fuel divestment as an example, we have successfully mobilised universities to use their good reputations as socially useful public institutions to challenge the power and influence of fossil fuel companies by disassociating with them. Universities need not be lethargic, reactive and behind the sustainability curve. We can use tools like the University League to make challenge them to become activist-institutions, and leaders in developing alternative systems, models and best practice. Universities can be sites of innovative new sustainability policy from committing to planning new buildings and infrastructure as zero-waste by design; as places that keep fossil fuels out of research and educate students to take action on sustainability; and situate climate justice as central the strategic direction of institutions, and to the fundamental purpose of Higher Education.

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