What Does It Mean To Be A Socially Responsible University?

A guest blog by Dave Gorman, Edinburgh University’s first Director of Social Responsibility and Sustainability.

“I’ve got principles….and if you don’t like them well I’ve got other principles”
Groucho Marx

I love Groucho Marx, but he did once say that he wouldn’t want to be a member of a club that would allow him as a member, so we continue to work to improve our approach to make sure we stick to our principles, and I wanted to share some emerging thoughts on where we are heading.

The University’s own Strategic Plan calls for us all to help make a significant, sustainable and social contribution to Scotland, the UK and the world. We have been trying to do just that, publishing a Social Responsibility Strategy in 2010, a Climate Action Plan in 2010 and more recently undertaking a review of the University’s approach to socially responsible investment. We’ve also been thinking hard about how these issues should feed into the University’s approach to learning and teaching.

Supply Chains

We are now reviewing our overall approach, and unwrapping/attempting to define/clarifying what it actually means to be a socially responsible university. One area of consideration is the real world impacts of the decisions we make in Edinburgh on people and ecosystems around the world. This extends to the products we buy, the operations we undertake and the terms of trade we accept.

The University already has a long and proud history as a FairTrade University, and recently celebrated 10 years with a short video explaining our approach. We continue to work to ensure purchase of fairly traded products, from coffee, to our buying of Malawian rice. We are also members of the Worker Rights Coalition, tracking working conditions and human rights in the supply chain for clothing. We recognise that fair trade is a commitment that extends beyond our purchasing habits. We have a Fair trade academic network dedicated to exploring ideas of justice and how we can improve on our current understanding.

We recognise that electronics, whilst vital to our modern lives, brings with it a bundle of contentious issues, from factory working conditions and conflicts over rare metals that make up some products, to illegal exports of waste electronics. We became the first University to sign up to a European project to track impacts and apply pressure to improve standards and conditions via becoming a founding member of Electronics Watch.

I can, and will go on. Our accommodation services colleagues have won a clutch of awards for the fresh, sustainable food they both procure and produce- see here for more. Our commitment to climate action recognises the moral imperative that is climate change- best summarised in the concept of climate justice– those who did not benefit from the wealth created by fossil fuel emissions should not bear the biggest burden.

So, we try to be a responsible, active and engaged purchaser of goods and services. But what more should we be doing? If we want our supply chains to both avoid doing harm, and try to do good, where should we be placing further effort? And are there limits on how far we should go without either risking the public value of the pounds we spend, or straying into a form of cultural imperialism by imposing our values inappropriately?

Should we focus on medical products, or laundry products, or even more effort on our food procurement? What are the key impacts we should be considering, or the right frameworks to assess priorities against?

I would be very interested to hear more about where people feel our next round of focus should lie…

Where Next?

Our ambition is to be a socially responsible university, and I have focussed on supply chains in this post. Going forward I envisage our future strategies will want to put 4 elements in place:-

-Getting our global supply chains in order as discussed above

– Ensuring our research and our approaches to teaching, learning and coursework/placements make the maximum contribution to the big global challenges we face, so as to pass on a better, fairer and more sustainable world

– Ensuring our overall learning and teaching strategy both uses modern pedagogic techniques to reflect the sorts of citizens we want to create (future –oriented, reflexive, resourceful) and the issues they need to understand and wrestle with (global citizenship, sustainability, human rights, justice..)

– Making a contribution to our local City and communities, going beyond the economic benefits we bring from creating jobs and income, and considering how we can support local socially beneficial projects, embed local engagement in our courses, direct some of our endowment funds towards projects beneficial to the local area and particularly the disadvantaged and more visibly and effectively give back to the people of Edinburgh.

In addition, we will be reviewing and updating our climate action plan to widen and deepen the involvement of the staff and student community and to broaden our thinking about what form our action should take. Finally, we will be publishing a new responsible investment policy later in 2014, and beginning to adjust our investment strategy to fit the new approach.

I hope this gives a flavour of our thinking- as always views are welcome…


Dave Gorman is the University’s first Director of Social Responsibility and Sustainability

Email: dave.gorman@ed.ac.uk

Twitter: @DaveGormanUoE