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How does Erasmus University encourage sustainability?

Anyone who has visited the Erasmus University Campus in the past few years knows by now that change is happening loudly and visibly every day. Work on a green campus has brought many transformations here, at EUR and it will continue to do so, at least for the upcoming years. Besides upgrading the infrastructure and the green areas, a significant number of new and sustainable initiatives are taking place. To find out more about what is happening, when and how, I went for a chat with Eva Rood, Project Leader Sustainability Hub at EUR.

Her role means that she is responsible for discovering how the university can transform research and education, in a way that includes more sustainability topics. Awareness is also a focus in her activity and she is responsible for setting up the Erasmus Sustainability Hub: a team of 8 student assistants and 80 volunteers who are tirelessly developing and implementing a wide variety of projects. One of them is the Erasmug, a lovely mug you can buy for 9 euros and that adds a very welcome discount on coffee or tea, at any caterer on campus. A fun project, as she says, because it involved design, but also talking to all caterers and seeing how they could collaborate.

What do you do at the Erasmus Sustainability Hub?

We organize lecture cycles, other awareness campaigns, we do movie nights, we do sustainability reports, we are trying to set up an impact investment fund, but that is still in the ‘idea’ stage. We’re exploring social entrepreneurship and that is a big focus for us. 

As a university, we are engaged in the Clinton Global Initiative Universities. We’re actually one of the few European universities that got asked to be a part of this elite network. They are looking for innovative ideas that can change the world for the better, so as a member, you have to encourage your students to explore social entrepreneurship. To reach this goal, we had an internal competition here and six students got elected to follow a “Get started” training at the Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship, so they got coaching, they got help in thinking thoroughly about the steps and developing their idea. They submitted to the CGI and three of them got elected and went to Berkeley this spring, got training, got to pitch their ideas to investors etc. This is a great opportunity that all students can compete for.

What about the future?

We’re launching a Sustainable Food Lab, to teach students how to cook more plant-based food. We will offer cooking classes to small groups, where they can do some tasting and have a good time cooking together. They can get inspired, taste different stuff than they cook in their normal routine. You know, eating meat is maybe not the best for your health, for your wallet, for the environment and for the animal. These are just some of the things we’d like to teach. Erasmus University is also on the way to becoming a fair-trade university, so all tea, coffee, cocoa, bananas and other important foods will have to be fair-trade.

Somewhere in the fall, we’ll start with a crowdfunding action to fund a bee palace on campus. On the other side of the campus we will have a park with berry bushes and fruit trees and we think bees have a perfect spot there, pollinating all the fruit that will grow, they’re not dangerous and they are good for the environment.

Also, we’re about to start a research that will investigate how the Social Development Goals are included in our education, as a university, so that’s a big project. The team will have the first meeting in a week. Our idea is just to see where are the focus points of EUR or of the different schools, if you look at the SDGs. This is also helpful in making the students aware that if they choose a certain master programme, they can focus on a certain goal or if they take a course on econometrics and think it’s boring, connecting it to a goal on the global agenda can make it more relevant and motivate the student. Every school can focus on certain SDGs and eventually, we can connect and cover all of them.

How are you helping research?

For now, we intend to link research to what we’re doing and give researchers the opportunity to use the campus as a playground. A concrete experiment is that we’re working with researchers with a social and psychology track. We are designing a number of nudging actions and measuring results. Nudging is a very interesting technique, where you seduce people to make a more sustainable choice, for example by offering a weekly special at the food facilities and making it a healthy special, instead of the Dutch croquette or a hamburger. People look at the healthy special because it’s like 20 cents cheaper than the unsustainable alternative and that’s how you encourage them to choose the more healthy instead of telling them that “eating meat is bad for you!”, because then they get a bit defensive and focus on the negative.

You can use this technique with food choices, but also recycling or waste sorting or using less materials etc. Therefore, the students will set up the design for an experiment, the sustainability hub will do a campaign, we will measure afterwards, and then they will use the inputs in their theses. In addition, this is exciting, it will help the campus, the environment here, but it will also help their research. We will start this in September and hopefully other people will be inspired to do the same and test their own ideas.

How would you sum up what the Erasmus Sustainability Hub does?

I think that every little thing counts and there’s this saying I think summarizes also what the Erasmus Sustainability Hub does: “Attitude follows action”. If you just start with actions, the attitude change will follow. You create a new normal, a new standard, by adjusting actions. At the ESH, we’re action oriented, we try a million things, so we’re open to all new suggestions from people who want to contribute. It doesn’t matter if they have one hour spare time or 10 or 1 hour a month or they just want to give us the idea and we see how we develop it, that’s alright.

Publication date: 14 December 2016