Flying High for Sustainable Development

Ethical Dilemmas and the Sustainable Development Goals

Darren Axe, Environmental Projects Coordinator, Lancaster University Students’ Union talks about balancing the ethical dilemmas that sustainability alerts us to and a trip to a council member meeting at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) in Mexico City.

An on-going dilemma of working on the sustainability in education agenda is defining the balance between the environmental impact or externalities of your work and the wider educational benefit of engaging or inspiring more young people into an Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) pathway.

This has always featured prominently in my decision-making process as to whether to progress a project idea as part of the Green Lancaster initiative at Lancaster University. Take, for example, the topical discussion of re-usable cups, recyclable cups and disposable cups. As an active sustainability project at Lancaster, branded ‘Green Lancaster’ re-usable cups are sold. The manufacture of all consumables has impact and whilst the hierarchy of waste has been applied in developing the re-usable cup solution, it is important not to forget the top priority in this hierarchy; waste ‘reduction’.

This would encourage us to ask why all portable cups, re-usable, recyclable or disposable might not simply be eliminated altogether? The answer is a complex result of modern social practice and if the University were to remove the opportunity for students and staff to purchase hot drinks ‘to go’, business would likely be displaced to other outlets that continue to offer this option.

The branded re-usable cup, despite its manufacturing environmental impact, is an agent for inspiring simple behaviour change that has the potential, if used effectively, to be part of a wider ESD pathway leading to wider social-practice changes for the individual or University community. Whether we accept this paradigm, requires a deeper discussion around ecological values and the philosophy or our approach as a collective towards achieving sustainable development.
Lancaster University has a prominent internationalisation agenda. This creates a fascinatingly diverse campus with students from over 100 countries represented and wide-ranging opportunities for our students to explore the world. As a geographer and keen adventure traveller, it was these opportunities that influenced my application to study at Lancaster between 2005-2009.

In 2017, an opportunity arose for me to assist with the delivery of an international student field trip as part of a module within the Department of Organisation Work and Technology (Lancaster University Management School). The trip was a week in Mexico City, with the students being invited to experience and work at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) Council Member meeting. The module title is Management and Sustainability – WBCSD Student Bootcamp, led by Dr Alison Stowell.

Prior to departure, the students participate (module participation is competitive) in an intensive week of teaching where they are introduced to environmental concepts and 21st century challenges. The field trip element gives further context to this learning through the students taking an active role as session hosts and being able to observe the discussions at the WBCSD conference.

The conference content highlights member-company contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals. After 3-days at the conference, the group undertook a sustainability in action excursion to an ecological lifestyles and community education centre on the periphery of Mexico City as well as a one-day cultural tour to visit the pre-Aztec Teotihuacán monuments including the Sun and Moon temples. It was an eye-opening and enriching experience for the students and staff involved.
But what about the environmental impact of all this? Of course, Mexico City involves flying half way around the world and back, corresponding with a proportionately high level of greenhouse gas emissions (CO2e).

In order to address this dilemma, I have to ask whether the excursion achieved tokenistic or transformational change for those involved? For me, it significantly changed my outlook on the role of business and sustainability, in a positive sense.

The commitment to ESD type learning and collaborative problem solving within the workshops was inspiring. For the students, the module is assessed through continuous self-reflection; the writing of blogs (published online at the module website), and an essay. The diversity of issues, level of detail and attention to the global-scale complexities of sustainable development displayed in the content of the student blogs is incredible.

It is clear that this experience has been more than just another module but something that has transformed their learning pathway at University. This impact is demonstrated by student quotes in articles on the Lancaster University Management School and Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business websites; Nevena Stoyanova, BSc Business Studies, said “Meeting influential and inspirational people and exploring their stories and their current effort to drive change went through me like a tornado full of emotions. It was a mind-opening experience”; Tor-Elesh Albrighsten, BSc Business Studies, said “The level of open-mindedness inspired by the WBCSD is the key for perfect collaboration and inclusion of existing and new partnering organisation to help further achieve sustainable goals, and is something we the students strive to achieve”.
In summary, and to refer back to the earlier point, whether we are happy with building international collaborations for the Sustainable Development Goals as part of our sustainability work is a critical yet philosophical question that must be addressed. There are no easy answers and the reality is we live in a multi-dimensional and increasingly connected world whether we agree with it or not. For me the purpose for international travel needs to be clear and the educational and developmental outcomes need to be robust. Critique and further discussion of these standards can only be positive and is exactly within the nature and remit of Education for Sustainable Development.


Lancaster University Students’ Union delivers a range of environmental outreach, volunteering and education work as part of its contributions to the Green Lancaster, a collaborative initiative of Lancaster University and Lancaster University Students’ Union.

Dr Alison Stowell is a lecturer in the Department of Organisation Work and Technology, part of the Lancaster University Management School. Alison’s research interests focus on social and organisational responses to the challenges of waste. Alison is also the Teaching Liaison for the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business.

Darren Axe is the Environmental Projects Coordinator at Lancaster University Students’ Union. Darren also provides Education for Sustainable Development field excursion opportunities in the U.K. and France for student groups; 
Delivered by EAUC