Students’ role in debate on a sustainable market economy

As everyone loves a great debate, this week’s event at the Hive welcomed representatives from a variety of fields to discuss an often controversial topic: is it possible to have leaders who push for a sustainable market economy?

As a recent graduate, I was interested in seeing how some of today’s leaders consider sustainability in their day-to-day jobs. It was very interesting to see what their opinion is on students’ role in influencing how sustainable our future will be, but also how our economy and business models will change under the influence of our generation.

Who is representing us?

The student perspective was put forward during the debate by the Worcester Students’ Union President Kynton Swingle and Mathematics student at the University of Warwick Dan Goss. Both Kynton and Dan did a terrific job in raising the key issues we think about as university students and later on, as young graduates.

Apathy vs activism

As a recent study by the Higher Education Academy showed, over 60% of students want to know more about sustainable development. Our generation is often seen as the self-centred and often ignorant to anything that’s going on outside a screen, but that view is proven to be just not in-depth enough to be supported. We’ve grown up in a world where activism and speaking up to authority has taken different forms. We no longer take to the streets as it once was the case, but instead we jump at our keyboards – through social media, blogs, online activism and citizen journalism.

We follow different leaders who don’t have authority from a traditional point of view. They might be bloggers, vloggers or just enthusiastic people with something to say and a Twitter feed. These are the opinion leaders of this generation and they are often ignored by mainstream businesses and not enough companies try to engage with young people by forming partnerships with them.

A very important point was raised by Lord Victor Adebowale when he asked Dan and Kyton why aren’t students trying to change things if we are angry, if we want a more sustainable market system, better environmental laws and a more inclusive society. It was a fair point, especially as the latest numbers from Hansard show that only one in four 18-24 year olds said they are certainly going to vote in the next general election (compared with 79% of over 65s).

This might suggest apathy for some and usually entails political leaders ignore our needs. But it does not mean young people are disengaged with politics. We now take action differently, as Lord Adebowale also mentioned. When we hear about a brand acting unethically, we don’t just stop buying it. We tell our friends on Facebook and we share it with the world on Twitter. Campaigns such as #notbuyingit, which highlight sexist ads, are also used to share information about unethical brands and companies. The power is then in the hands of the consumer and most of the people using it are representative of our age group: young people, buying according to their values and principles, wanting to support only businesses that don’t just talk the talk, but walk the walk.

The need for new business models

Young people don’t want to support businesses just because they have the label ‘green’ anymore. As we begin to understand more about sustainability (wittingly or not), we inherently judge all systems by a more complex set of principles. According to research from the Shelton Group, attitudes changed drastically in the last five years; it’s no longer enough to put a green product on the market – consumers are looking for responsible companies which need to show people they really care about their business plan being sustainable.

All in all, when looking towards the future and how our economy, politics and policies are going to change, leaders have to pay more attention to our generation. By having two members representing university students on the panel, presenting views at the same table as representatives of the NHS, House of Lords, Barclays and renowned professors, showed how input from young people can bring a new perspective.

As everyone on the panel agreed, sustainability in the market economy is not possible without innovation. Our generation has had the opportunity to be born in a completely different world where creativity is encouraged more than ever before by the open platforms we have available for us. I think the debate showed that as soon as we get a seat at the table, we are able to bring in new ideas and, quoting Lord Adebowale, “turn the pyramid upside down”.

Image (left to right): Dan Goss; Professor Carolyn Roberts; Siva Sabaratnam; John Newbury; Lesley Murphy; Katy Boom; Lord Victor Adebowale; Professor William ScottKynton Swingle

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Jack Carver
9 years ago

I completely agree that our generation will often take to their keyboards rather than the streets meaning they are engaging in economical and political issues but in a different way than previous generations. Perhaps the problem here is that the majority are only passively involved, making comments here and there but not necessarily pushing for any real change.

I think one of the major problems is that we as a generation have social media which has proven to be a great resource for propagating change but most of us probably don’t realise how much of a difference we can make as individuals with access to such large networks of people.

In my opinion there should be more focus on introducing young people to politics so that they have a better chance of taking an interest and becoming involved as they grow up. I think the reason people think our generation is disengaged with politics is because of the way we are introduced to it, they need to feel like they can make a difference.

Emily Thompson-Bell, NUS
Emily Thompson-Bell, NUS
9 years ago

It was great to hear strong voices on the panel from Kynton Swingle and Dan Goss, and – as you mentioned Andreea – the HEA research on attitudes towards sustainability shows that students do care about this issue. We’ve seen some particularly exciting projects germinating in students’ union over the past year through the Students’ Green Fund seed funding ( From Gloucestershire’s many student-led social enterprises (check out the Cheltenham Chilli Company to Exeter’s Students’ Green Unit (currently supporting 17 projects – partnering students with ideas and enthusiasm with academic mentors who are experts in their field: there are some fantastic examples of leadership on sustainability just within the student movement.