Global student body leads sustainability on and off campuses

A global student body is supporting universities around the world to lead societal change that pushes behavioural norms towards more sustainable practices, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and advancing sustainable development. Tens of thousands of students are taking leadership of sustainability – and becoming leaders themselves in the process.

Students Organizing for Sustainability (SOS) International was launched in Denmark during 2019 and has since grown to be an alliance of 27 national and international organisations, working together to promote sustainability on campus, at home and at work.

Membership coordinator Tim Strasser said that SOS International members “collaborate on campaigns and programmes to make each other’s work more visible and amplify the voice of students worldwide”.


Active participation by students in sustainability programmes on and off campus is particularly important, Quinn Runkle, director of education for SOS International, told University World News: “We believe that students learn best when given the opportunity to lead.

“Through leadership opportunities around sustainability, they’re able to meaningfully understand the challenges we face – not be weighed down by the gravity of the challenges we face in society but be equipped with the skills and attributes to tackle them head on.”

SOS International Managing Director Meg Baker pointed out that “learning by doing is a very powerful thing and education has often been a lot about knowledge transfer”. With SOS programmes: “You put your knowledge and skills into practice, and see the impact. When that young person graduates, in a job interview, they can give tangible examples of how they implement change. It demonstrates the students can be change makers too.”

Quinn Runkle said it would help greatly if sustainability was “tailored and integrated into individual subjects”. It is taking considerable time for most universities to embed sustainability into their curricula and teaching and learning.

For instance, for architecture, understanding building materials, supply chains, green buildings and ‘passive house’ standards is key. Study urban planning, and knowledge on boosting active transport and inclusive communities that support urban diversity is important. Music, art and drama can inspire behavioural change promoting sustainability.

A big SOS International network

Members of SOS International include national student unions from Austria, Bangladesh, Denmark, Ecuador, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Romania, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as a regional body, the All-Africa Students Union.

Global partners include international sustainability-focused student network oikos; Sustainability Week International; Climate Students; What Can I Do About It? and Greener Academia.

Working with these partners, SOS International – currently hosted by administrators and staff at its UK-focused member, Students Organising for Sustainability United Kingdom – aims to build international campaigns at scale, lobbying for change, notably within universities and colleges.

It has developed sustainability programmes, projects and campaigns that can be implemented worldwide, adapted to suit local conditions.

These local campaigns can draw on support from member organisations, who can pool resources and funding. As of May 2023, African member organisation All-Africa Students Union and its secretary general, Peter Kwasi Kodjie, became SOS International president, heading its board, which makes strategic decisions on policy in consultation with members.

Global action to support national work

Managing Director Meg Baker told University World News: “SOS International aims to bring together students and national student organisations at an international level to scale up and mobilise work campaigns and advocacy focused on sustainability and climate that’s happening at national levels.”

Through the network, participants can “share learning, share knowledge” – an exchange “that wasn’t really happening prior to SOS International existing”. This is achieved by SOS International offering workshops, event facilitation and consultancy to organisations and student groups interested in sustainability.

The global body also undertakes research on students and sustainability, having staged a global student survey in 2020, the goal being to “leverage action to transform education and direct society to a more sustainable and fair future”, said an SOS note. This has helped inform the work of SOS International, with around 7,000 responses received from more than 100 organisations.

Survey analysis noted that: 92% of students agreed that all universities and colleges should actively incorporate and promote sustainable development; 40% reported low or no coverage of sustainable development concepts in their course curriculum; and 90% were willing to accept lower pay by choosing to work for a company with a good environmental and social record. Regarding their feelings about climate change and the future, 75% were “worried”.

Such concerns have motivated students to actively support SOS projects, said Baker.

Examples of SOS International work include participation in a three-day sustainability training session in Denmark earlier this month for students and their representatives, a majority from Africa. The meeting drafted a student statement calling for better ‘climate justice’, reflecting how many victims of climate change have received fewer benefits from industrialisation and its emissions.

This work was for the upcoming Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP28, which is being held in Dubai from 30 November to 12 December.

A key SOS International project is its Green Impact programme, designed to encourage environmentally and socially sustainable practices within universities, “on campus, in the office, in the lab, at home, in the homeworking environment and in student dorms”.

The programme has developed toolkits offering practical sustainability solutions, designed to be adapted for an organisation’s particular requirements – universities in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, the Netherlands and France have participated.

An SOS note said that the latest tranche of the programme saw 2,029 pro-sustainability actions completed by 43 supporter teams, such as waste reduction and drafting guidance on consuming less carbon.

There have been numerous successful initiatives, such as at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, whose library has shifted to providing fairtrade tea, more vegetarian catering and repurposing paper waste. Initiatives at Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands included encouraging students to grow their own vegetables and manage campus cigarette butt waste.

Sharing best practices

In June, SOS International staged a Green Impact Coordinators Exchange Call, where Green Impact coordinators at partner institutions discussed best practices.

These can include successful national sustainability programmes that SOS International would like adopted worldwide.

A good example is Belgium’s SustainaBul annual ranking of higher education institutions based on their overall sustainability performance. Another is the Future Proef Award, which awards Flanders students for novel sustainability-focused research, helping give their ideas more exposure.

Baker stressed how SOS International helps Green Impact staff groups within university departments, who take actions outlined in the toolkits within an institution or the wider community.

“It could be things that contribute towards better biodiversity on campus; it could be about recycling and turning lights off and turning computers off at the end of the working day; but it could also ... be integrating sustainability into teaching and learning,” she said.

One key element is training students to assist these departmental teams, who after one year’s experience could audit their work, assessing their progress against toolkit criteria.

Meanwhile, SOS International Director Zamzam Ibrahim attended an environmental event, the Terra Lenta Festival in Italy, on 23 September, where she spoke on how socio-economic reform might promote sustainability, and how social and economic change is intertwined. The event “highlighted the urgency of re-imagining our economic systems,” she said later.

SOS International is staging its next student sustainability summit from 14-16 March 2024 at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, where it will encourage member groups and students to share their good practices and experience of effective programmes, projects and campaigns.

Green Office programme

Another key work area is hosting a ‘Green Office’ programme, which develops student and staff hubs in higher education institutions, whose members develop plans to “better integrate sustainability into all areas”, Baker told University World News, and added: “It’s a whole institution approach. Students should be supported by staff, not working for staff.”

She explained: “There is a heavy focus on partnership and empowerment, so that students are part of the transformations that are needed in higher education. Students get training and support from SOS International project managers and their institutions should ideally provide even a small amount of budget and space in which that group of students can work and interact and engage with each other to put their projects or ideas into practice.”

This can include practical suggestions, such as improving recycling and energy conservation, but it can also involve developing proposals to weave sustainability considerations into courses and curricula.

A Green Office Movement Online Summit, staged in April 2023, encouraged progress by participants. The programme is an educational partner of the United Nations Environment Programme and an associate member of the Global Student Forum, the international union of school and university students.

A student’s sustainable action experience

Phoebe Hanson (22), a masters student in the United Kingdom, studying diplomacy and foreign policy at Lancaster University, who has been involved in SOS programmes, told University World News that the experience had improved her “understanding of climate change and all the ways it impacts work and my career path”.

SOS helped her become involved with COP-associated meetings, where she has gained active experience and understanding in skills such as public relations, team working and leadership: “What it is to be a leader in the 21st century that’s collaborative and the way we need to operate.” That includes not always using English in international sustainability work.

Hanson’s first work experience was with the Mock COP26, launched when COP26 was postponed in 2020 through COVID-19. Young delegates developed policy proposals and debates, developing critical thinking, and hard and soft skills.

She has also worked with the UK Department for Education to help establish its climate unit, again with SOS support, gaining confidence from being taken seriously in this process. Such work builds agency, which cannot be gained “if you are stuck in your room alone”. Experience of real sustainability work generated “proactivity [and] a complete mental shift”.

Never-ending change

Looking worldwide and ahead, Quinn Runkle said constant adaptation and flexibility are important. SOS UK had just launched a pilot programme for Responsible Futures, better integrating sustainability and learning, working with six universities worldwide.

The programme has operated in the UK for 10 years, she said, for instance pressing universities to disengage from industries with poor sustainability records, such as extractive sectors, maybe barring them from campus career fairs.

But different views from students from around the world has changed the SOS approach in some aspects, and, going forward, students can expect to have to continue to change as much as the change they wish to bring about.

The SOS approach to extractive sectors was challenged by a participating Australian institution, Murdoch University in Perth, which pointed out that “the extractive industry is one of the biggest employers of indigenous students” in Western Australia. A participant from the Women’s University in Africa, in Zimbabwe, had a similar view, saying “one of the best industries for our students to go into is largely extractive industries”.

So, said Quinn: “We’ve reframed that criteria to be about how do you engage proactively with extractive industries and engage students who may go on to careers in those industries to think about the wider impacts of those industries, so that they can go in with their eyes wide open and possibly add some more critical voices and change in those institutions.”