Survey Shows Students’ Sustainability Knowledge, Attitudes and Actions

October 19, 2020

Ohio State students’ behavior and knowledge regarding sustainability continues to grow, according to an annual survey.

The survey of undergraduates — which begins again via email this week and will continue for about a month — shows researchers and university sustainability leaders how students’ knowledge, attitudes and actions regarding sustainability change over time. The findings inform sustainability curriculum, marketing and research and illustrate how, in terms of the students, the university is progressing in some of its sustainability goals.

”We are excited to continue this work for a third year in a row,” says Kristina Slagle, postdoctoral scholar and manager of Ohio State’s Environmental and Social Sustainability Lab in the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, which oversees the survey. “The consistency of our data collection the past two years and continuing into this year has allowed us to monitor trends we might otherwise miss.”

The lab will send the 2020 survey via random email to 20,500 students. Students who complete the survey will be entered in a raffle to win $50 Target gift cards.

The 2019 survey results showed that undergraduate student engagement in sustainability-related behaviors such as carrying a reusable water bottle, turning off the lights in an empty room and utilizing public transportation remain quite high, and student knowledge of sustainability-related topics has increased by approximately 12% since 2014 (a continued upward trend from 2018).

New in the 2019 survey, students were also asked to choose three topics they would like to learn more about through taking sustainability-related courses at Ohio State; climate change, health and wellbeing, and clean and renewable energy ranked highest.

However, the students’ misperceptions present some opportunities to further promote the campus sustainability goals and provide more education around sustainable actions students can take. For example, 1 in 5 students mistakenly believed that recycling was more sustainable than reducing consumption. Likewise, roughly 1 in 5 students reported that they never or rarely purchased items secondhand or limited purchases of new items.

Given these and other findings, the Environmental and Social Sustainability Lab makes three suggestions to help improve sustainability efforts on campus:

  • Emphasize reduce, reuse and recycle.
  • Link diet with sustainable behavior.
  • Make water quality every Buckeye’s responsibility.

The survey also indicates how students’ concerns align with the university’s movement toward meeting its sustainability goals. For example, over half of the students indicated there should be more open space on campus; this spring, the university created the new Cannon Drive greenspace, which is open, habitat-friendly and publicly accessible. Toward the 2025 target of 21% of the campus covered by tree canopy, the university has achieved 14%. There are now 101.81 acres of wetlands or urban meadow areas; the 2025 target is 115 acres.

The survey also showed a trend of increasing interest in sustainability academics, research and professional development. This year, the Sustainability Education and Learning Committee (SELC), facilitated by the Sustainability Institute, collected information regarding Ohio State sustainability-related curriculum; 151 undergraduate programs, including 76 majors, 64 minors and 11 certificates, and 670 courses with sustainability content were reported by academic units across the university. Faculty are continually developing new sustainability courses.

In addition, the Sustainability Institute is working to develop a digital platform, Sustainability in Action, to highlight and elevate ways our faculty, students and staff are utilizing our campus to create sustainability innovations. The platform will contain a searchable map and directory with information about Living Lab projects, research, and community partnerships that are advancing our understanding of sustainability.

“While the SELC information gives us a clear understanding of the current offerings and undergraduate landscape for sustainability education, the student sustainability survey lets us see student interest in different topics and areas of study as faculty work on new courses and program development for the future,” says Gina Jaquet, director of sustainability education and learning at the Sustainability Institute at Ohio State.

In addition to supporting sustainability efforts on campus, the survey helps the work of Ohio State researchers. Using questions in the 2019 survey, Atar Herziger, post-doctoral scholar in the School of Environment and Natural Resources, examined how students dealt with a consumption choice that could either enhance their own well-being (purchasing an affordable product) or enhance the well-being of others (purchasing a more expensive product that was Fair Trade Certified).

“My hope is that this research will shed light on how consumers deal with conflict-inducing choices in the marketplace, especially when it comes to the sometimes inherent conflict between socially sustainable and unsustainable products,” Herziger says. “A key contribution of this study would be to identify whether and how consumer wisdom helps individuals navigate conflict-inducing choices that could promote social sustainability.”

The survey is a campuswide collaborative effort. Partners include the Sustainability Institute, the Office of Student Life, and Facilities Operations and Development. For more information, contact

By Joan Slattery Wall, editor, Sustainability Institute at Ohio State


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