Sustainability at a Canadian College

But first… take a… guess! 💡

What is sustainability?

Sustainability focuses on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This is the United Nations most commonly accepted definition. It involves three dimensions: economic, environmental, and social. This is also known as the “triple bottom line”: profits, planet, people.

Educational institutions have allocated a significant amount of budget and efforts on sustainability advancements for all major stakeholders in Canada.

Despite the increasing awareness that sustainability is a pressing issue needing ongoing attention, research has found that college students have primarily a unidimensional understanding of what sustainability encompasses. My amazing colleague Trang N Guyen and I led a business research project and our results aligned with this hypothesis: sustainability is conceived by students mainly as an environmental issue.

When we asked students to define sustainability using buzzwords, concepts about the environment heavily prevailed. Other dimensions, such as the social and economic dimensions, were rarely brought up.

However, despite the unidimensional conception of sustainability, we dug deeper into that sole dimension. Humber College has taken a lead on this matter and it has been renowned for being one of the greenest employers in Canada. Yet, the question posed in this project, which ultimately prompted our motivation to further investigate on this issue, becoming our main objective, encloses how Humber College – Lakeshore Campus’ students perceive in reality such efforts, and to what extent they are aware, interested and committed to that environmentally side of sustainability, at least on campus. This served as our major research question.

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Theoretical framework

Our descriptive research was based on a deductive strategy, using primary and tertiary data as our data type and source, conducting a survey through an online and in-person questionnaire. To align with the logic of framework, findings and conclusions, the results showed that when it comes to daily individual sustainable practices, namely the sorting waste, auto water taps, amongst others, around three-quarters of students reported being somewhat familiar with them, showing little significant gap between their knowledge and interest. However, for the sustainability-related involvement, such as signing up for a sustainability workshop, participating in sustainable initiatives or events, or buying fair trade products, there appears to be an existing significant gap between interest and involvement.

In other words: students are, on one side, concerned and interested about being sustainable, but on the other side, consistently exhibiting a dissimilar amount of knowledge and effort in their actual engagement, leading to an existing gap in their involvement, regardless of the well-respected green reputation held by Humber.

While knowledge of such does not lead directly to a more sustainable behaviour, it must be considered the first step stone needed to get on that path. Rationally, proactive sustainable behaviours cannot be expected from students if they are not aware of what sustainability resources on campus are available. The majority of students stressing the utmost importance of students’ involvement in on-campus sustainability indicates that there is great concern among the respondents, positioning them as major stakeholders for creating a sustainable campus. Therefore, Humber’s focus is still placed on turning such willingness to actual habits and impactful actions, making it possible to leave a remarkable, long-lasting imprint. But how? I have thought about some ideas:

  1. More sustainability ambassadors🙋🏾‍♂️: we need more leaders from the student community itself that serve as role models to share their lifestyle on how to become more sustainable. The peer influence and pressure has been known to bring about significant changes in behaviours within the community.
  2. More plant-based advocacy🌱: it is no secret that, after being raised in a meat-normative culture, students wanting to decrease their meat intake have little or no knowledge about how to substitute animal products or even cook plant-based.
  3. Going digital👨🏾‍💻: Millennials and Centennials are known to be a generation cohort with an active presence on social media. We can always leverage it by building an interactive app where students build green teams, allow them to set their own sustainability goals and track their progress, and reward them with points they can later redeem for benefits on campus.
  4. Reimbursements for going green♻️: aligned with the third one, this aims to encourage students to take individual responsibility in environmental matters and go the extra mile.
  5. Sustainable curricula🤓: incorporating more sustainability-related courses and electives is critical if we aim to tackle the unidimensional conception of it.

Humber’s Office of Sustainability has accomplished a lot since its creation and as the old saying goes, there is always room for improvement. As a student myself, although technically an alumni very soon, I am more than happy and pleased to have put my two cents as Sustainability Ambassador for the academic year 2019-2020, truly hoping that a lot of new students take over and make the most of this leadership experience to genuinely be the change we all want to see in the world.

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