Green entrepreneurship is a win-win for students and the planet

Helping students create climate-conscious start-ups would enhance campus learning and universities’ green credentials, says Robert Phillips

December 29, 2022
climate change
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In the past year, the world has certainly been given some jolting stimuli to push on with green reforms.

Most dramatically, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed Europe’s reliance on Russian oil and gas, prompting an acceleration of interest in green energy. Food security has been highlighted by the grain stuck in Ukraine's ports, while record temperatures in the UK this year have turned thoughts towards climate change.

Planet Earth has also just reached 8 billion in population, with experts suggesting that it can’t support more than 10 billion. With Greta Thunberg and Just Stop Oil protests also regularly in the news, political leaders’ statements seemed to carry more urgency ahead of Novermber’s COP 27 in Egypt.

There are also new high-profile competitions to support the push towards sustainability. These include the recent £1 million Earthshot Prize awarded by the Prince and Princess of Wales, with winners including Notpia, a company making biodegradable plastics from seaweed; SeaForester from Portugal that creates “green gravel”, small stones containing seaweed that can absorb CO2 from the ocean; and Desert Agricultural Transformation from China, which revives desert areas.

There are also high-profile prizes to be won by universities. The UN Sustainable Development Goals have been shown to be a good way to call people to action – and are used as a benchmark for the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings, with Western Sydney University heading the table in 2022. Students themselves also rank universities with the People and Planet Student Society, ordering institutions by a range of environmental and social factors, with the 2022-23 winner being Cardiff Metropolitan University. The Positive Impact Ratings for business schools, backed by Oxfam and WWF, has students rating their own business schools, and there is also an award for sustainability initiatives at universities, including teaching activities, The Green Gown Awards.

Most universities now seem to have “sustainability charters” declaring decarbonisation, aiming to end use of single use plastic, and boosting recycling on campus. Whilst the first MSc in Europe in Environmental Entrepreneurship at Strathclyde University has been running since 2008, increased awareness of green issues is now filtering into university initiatives such as attempts to embed sustainability in all subject areas and industry leaders are pushing to ensure their future employees will have the skills to address green issues profitably. For example, Audencia has set up a school dedicated to social and ecological transition to train business leaders of the future, and many MBA programmes are now actively equipping students with skills for corporate social responsibility.

Students themselves are already addressing some of the issues by commercialising research. Global issues such as sustainable energy and storage, especially the need for complementary methods such as solar and wind, give plenty of scope for research, as do energy-saving devices. For example, CATALight 2D Technologies from the University of Manchester uses graphene to reduce energy usage during treatment of waste water, and Knowaste from the University of Bristol uses data to reduce food wastage. Other businesses are being created by students linking their subject area to environmental issues, such as IGOLO, founded by University of Manchester architecture graduate Sophia Major, which sells sustainable furniture and materials for interior design. Collectively, students have gathered together to create SOS-UK – an education charity focusing on sustainability.

What else can be done to help?

Much like entrepreneurship in general, giving students the skills and confidence to take an idea forward is key – in the UK (and much of the developed world) highly educated student entrepreneurs are more likely to be opportunity-driven rather than necessity-driven as might be more common in less developed nations, therefore exposure to opportunities and developing entrepreneurship skills to address them are most important.

Like regular entrepreneurship programmes, courses should focus on learning by doing as far as possible, which will hopefully increase the self-efficacy of students, giving them confidence to put their ideas into practice. However, as well as fostering an awareness of green entrepreneurship, there is a need to understand how to evaluate green commercial opportunities effectively and include discussion of additional challenges of green entrepreneurship – such as the need to compete with existing products that are cheap but not green.

More courses with consultancy-style projects with a green outcome could be offered. Many university courses, from biotechnology to theatre studies, now offering “with enterprise”, can ensure green entrepreneurship is highlighted, and more exposure to students from other subject areas to cross-fertilise ideas and develop networks via open elective units would also help.

Extracurricular activities have been shown to be a great opportunity to gain entrepreneurship skills with the option to do more practical skill-building without the constraints of assessment. Ideas can be safely explored at university using dedicated green accelerators with cohorts of entrepreneurs with mutual interest. They can provide a network and links to finance – with many funders increasingly looking at environmental impact and long-term potential rather than just profit.

Students will benefit from their ability to address green commercial opportunities, not just as entrepreneurs but as intrapreneurs. Many young people are beginning to choose their workplace based on more factors than simply money – a recent survey of graduates by Prospects found that more than 75 per cent of graduates would be more likely to apply to a company with strong positive environmental practices and 91 per cent said they wanted to work for a company that made a difference to people’s lives.

So for budding entrepreneurs there is opportunity, market and funding – giving a great chance for students to take ownership of their future, and every incentive for universities to support them.

Robert A. Phillips is senior lecturer at Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester.

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