Why sustainability is fundamental for schools?

Sustainability is a nice-to-have for independent schools? Think again. It’s fundamental, and here are 3 reasons why, based on the latest business thinking.

“Many people anticipate that sustainability might be an additional cost to their businesses (necessary or otherwise), but in fact it makes excellent economic sense. Every project that I oversaw had payback in both spheres.” Richard Carter, former Financial Director of Adnams – award-winning sustainable beverages company.

We share three reasons Carter and other business leaders have used sustainability to grow their organisations, and why it makes sense for schools.


1. Go fast? Go alone. Go far? Go together


The 2020 pandemic gave businesses the experience of what it feels like to be unprepared for shocks to a system. A school, just like any other company, needs to think about making its business model resilient and prepared to face risks coming down the pipeline. One risk could be another pandemic, but it’s much more likely to be climate change related. Basic resource costs including water and energy are already increasing as natural resources come under environmental pressure. Climate change is fuelling economic uncertainty, a challenge that lies ahead for many individuals and parents. Schools need to manage these risks.

Collective action has shown itself to be effective in managing climate risk. In the business sector, many big corporations have come together in roundtables and coalitions in order to improve long-term resilience and sustainability for a whole sector. Working ‘pre-competitively’ takes opportunities for advancement out of the competitive market arena and focuses instead on improving the context in which individual businesses operate; outcomes and opportunities for all. One example is the food sector. The world’s largest food companies, from Tesco to McDonalds, are collaborating to improve the resilience in the global food systems, such as tackling deforestation caused by the beef production industry. This is an issue which affects everyone; working together makes the playing field more secure for all.

There are lots of opportunities for schools in the UAE to collaborate pre-competitively for a sustainable future, particularly if there is less regulation in certain areas. Defining and aligning around certain quality standards for children’s wellbeing and development could be a good place to start. These might be in the realms of nutrition standards, commitments to health and safety benchmarks for school uniforms, or enhancing the biodiversity of school environments. There is a huge opportunity for the school sector to co-operate in creating workable, affordable ‘circular’ waste streams for key materials, from up-cycling text books, school furniture, sports equipment and uniforms, shifting away from buying brand new. Collaborating as a sector reduces the costs of transitioning to these more sustainable (and often higher quality) models and reduces the burden on the environment.


2. Invest in your eco-system: find opportunities for shared value


Covid-19 reminded us that companies create a social and economic eco-system. They feed, clothe and revive us with life-giving essentials, from food to pharmaceuticals. However, beyond the core product, businesses bring positive outcomes for society. Companies employ individuals; they train and develop them. They provide health insurance and financial security. In this sense the value-gains are more than economic. Research shows that those companies which invest in their people, society and in their environments demonstrate greater return on investment than companies that do not.

Sustainability experts in the business world talk about delivering shared, long-term value to their ‘stakeholders’ in order to increase long-term growth and resilience. A stakeholder is anyone or living thing whose wellbeing and quality of life is impacted by the organisation. They could be a customer, investor, local community member, even local wildlife or environments, who comprise the ecosystem influenced by the school. When a company brings value to stakeholders (not just to financial shareholders) it builds a stronger social, environmental and economic ecosystem around it.

Schools striving for long-term success will create shared value for their stakeholders. One approach is to choose local suppliers and businesses which supports local economic development and security. Another avenue for creating shared value could be identifying opportunities that develop both the students and local communities or businesses. This might be as simple as starting an educational composting patch which creates fertiliser for growing vegetables (for donation to local causes?), which gives students the opportunity to learn about reducing food waste and sustainable food production. Carrying out local environmental clean-ups and offering school facilities for local health and wellbeing initiatives are other ideas. The more value the school brings to its stakeholders – the people and environments impacted by its activities, the more it brings growth and security to the wider community (and by implication, to itself).


3. Build your brand whilst boosting your bottom-line


It’s not all about the long-term.

Taking a sustainable approach can bring immediate economic benefits. The first principle of being sustainable is to reduce waste, which simply represents unused value and cost. The World Economic Forum has calculated that 95% of the economic value of a disposable plastic cup is lost when it is only used once. Increasing resource efficiency is the easiest first step a business can take towards sustainability with immediate economic benefits.

How could you reduce your school’s energy and water costs? How can you reduce, reuse, recycle or recover? It often costs less to repair than buy brand new. With a little research, you may find that local businesses charge less to repair furniture or school uniforms than it costs to buy new. This concept is fuelling a massive second-hand or ‘resale’ industry in clothing in the US and Europe. Thinking more creatively, who might see your waste as a resource? The growing UAE recycling sector might be interested in buying waste plastic and paper. Being sustainable can mean trimming down on cost and even finding new revenue opportunities.

As the world and our communities focus more and more on the state of the planet and society, many of these suggested changes represent opportunities to develop a school’s brand reputation and trust with parents and local communities. Schools which communicate their investment in their local communities, people and environments will be the ones which show they really do care about the future, and the world their students will inherit.