Review: SanEco Sustainability Conference – making a sustainable world

Help a woman set up a business and you challenge social perceptions whilst benefiting her entire community


International Women’s Day was celebrated earlier this week. SanEco seek to empower female entrepreneurs to make changes in their communities through a variety of innovative sanitation-based projects.

On Saturday 5th March, the SanEco division of the student led Enactus Southampton, hosted a Sustainability Conference at the university. One thing made exceptionally clear in their opening address is that they don’t believe ‘traditional’ forms of aid are sustainable, valuing the proverb “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” as their founding principle. This focus on “helping others to help themselves” was present in many of the following talks and sessions.

As I signed in, I was offered a choice of three seminars which I could attend later in the day. I opted for UniHack’s workshop “Project Ideation”, the other options being Balloon Ventures (sustainable overseas volunteering) and an activism talk from Greenpeace.

Dr James Dyke’s lecture on ‘“Sustainability Science” – ‘What humans are doing to the Earth’ followed the opening address, comprehensively establishing the scientific basis to anthropogenic (human) climate change in a mere half-hour.

The next presentation came from Mark Shadrack, a Finance VP from Unilever, who set out to deliver “The Business Case For Sustainability”. One of the aims of this event was to explore whether corporations were ‘doing their bit’. Building on their “Make Cleanliness Commonplace” origin story, Mark Shadrack attempted to explain the challenges a publicly traded company faces when trying to simultaneously pursue sustainable objectives and please shareholders – namely, maintaining profit levels. This goal was to be achieved by a mixture of lowering material usage and wastage across the supply chain, thereby lowering costs and carbon, and working with governments to ensure sustainable goals are delivered in a functional timescale.

The students around me received this presentation with intense scepticism, more than one accusing it of being an ‘advertisement for Unilever’. Personally, I felt it was a fairly honest and pragmatic approach to the situation. Corporations have demonstrated for decades that the only way to make them change their practices is by making it cheaper for them to do so, either by cost-saving practices or making the alternative more expensive through reputational risk and taxation. It’s true that the presentation shone a golden light on Unilever, but if their brands gain an advantage by building a sustainable reputation, other corporations will be forced to follow in their footsteps.

Southampton Alumnus Dr Mark Santer followed with a presentation on his social enterprise venture “Blupoint”; a solar-powered wireless content delivery system used to provide greater access to information to communities in LEDC’s via their mobile phones. Whilst a “for-profit” company, Blupoint systems are free at the point of access, and provision is paid for by governments, NGO’s and corporations who stand to benefit from increased access to data in schools, rural health centres and other community functions. Certainly a novel approach to the UN’s fourth sustainable development goal: “Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning”.

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There was then a panel discussion that discussed more sustainable approaches to food, touching on improvements in the supply chain, less consumer-side waste from unnecessary multi-buy deals and eventually shifted to whether the consumer should be responsible for leading change.

The highlight (or point of sheer terror) of this session came when one of the panellists offered around a box of insect cookies, to make a point about the difficulty of changing customs and also to demonstrate a more carbon efficient form of protein. An enthusiastic friend informed me they were “great cookies” and the ground insects weren’t particularly noticeable. For me, a rather grim window into the future.

Unihack’s “Project Ideation” workshop was excellent. Split into groups of four or five, we were given a theoretical budget and timescale, and challenged with inventing a solution to the “Affordable and Clean Energy” sustainable development goal. Every five minutes, all but the “champion” of the team rotated, and we were encouraged to use our collective knowledge and concepts learned from other teams to improve our project.

The final session was given by Joe Gisbey, an animated, humorous and engaging speaker from Links International. The day ended as it had begun; discussing the ethics of aid and helping people to help themselves. An eye-opening talk about the problems of Western Paternalism and how to help the less fortunate whilst preserving their dignity was followed by the customary expressions of gratitude and closing remarks from SanEco’s president.

Congratulations to the SanEco team for hosting an incredible event, and if this has piqued your interest on the topic of sustainability, don’t forget that the University is hosting the first International Student Sustainability Research Symposium is on the 15th of April! Find the event on Facebook for more information and ways to get involved!