Declared as the ‘International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development’, 2021 has also seen the creative and cultural industries facing the devastating economic impact of CV19. As they rebuild and refocus, it’s key that sustainability goals are core to business development plans. Undoubtedly higher education has a very significant responsibility here in contributing to economic recovery and creating graduates who are empowered with the appropriate skills and knowledge to harness sustainability mindsets and contribute to long terms goals of protecting and restoring the environment.

The ‘circular economy’ is a phrase that has become increasingly well known in recent years, with both consumers and businesses hoping to show the world that they care about it. It refers to the model that focuses on defining growth as adding value to society, eliminating waste and feeding resource back into the economy - and therefore breaking the cycle of new products being created, used and eventually ending up as waste, as part of a linear process.

But how do we achieve this gargantuan shift in approach, attitude and business practice? Already big brands are acknowledging the attractiveness of appealing to the conscience of their consumers. ‘Social signalling’ - when what we buy and how we behave sends out key messages - now extends to sustainability, and environmental consciousness influences both intrinsic and extrinsic messaging. Organisations and businesses seek to be ‘green’ at their core, with many acknowledging and addressing the climate crisis in their strategies.

It’s clear that sustainability in behaviours, in lifestyle and in business models has to be accessible and core. And Higher Education undoubtedly has an essential role to play in this agenda. So many students already embrace environmentally protective attitudes and understand the importance of resisting the lure of price premium when a more sustainable option is available. It’s vital to ensure that they graduate with a sustainability mindset and leadership qualities that ensure their creative ideas shape a sustainable future. Research into the area highlights the massive capacity and responsibility of education to achieve a more sustainable society for the future, and to ensure that today’s graduates are up to the job.

Taking a joined-up approach is key. For example, fashion is one industry that has come under pressure for putting profit before people and planet. Producing even a simple garment involves complex logistics, processes and resources. Through joining up fashion management, fashion design and computing curricula, we see the green credentials of fashion being fulfilled. For example, teaching the use of 3D computer visualisation helps students to understand how to reduce waste in the garment development stage; and through using augmented reality apps to provide virtual try-on services, they can realise the potential for reducing online orders and returns.

New immersive technologies help to engage customers more fully with how and where their clothes are made and think about the human and environmental impact of fast fashion. Fashion design and fashion business graduates have the challenge of addressing a huge shift in outlook. Moving away from throwaway fast fashion is a difficult transition for both industry and consumers to make but provides real potential for Scottish fashion and textile businesses who cannot compete with cheap imports but can produce items of high quality that are made to last, using renewable resources such as wool and cashmere, crafted by workers who are fairly treated. Graduates being able to influence customers to make better, slow fashion purchases is vital for a sustainable fashion future, described as a shift from a consumer ethos to a citizen ethos.

A focus on sustainability has also long been acknowledged as a key dimension of events, tourism and hospitality graduates. Whilst many economies are dependent on these industries, the role of ethical and responsible tourism is key to ensuring that three key pillars of sustainable tourism, namely the environment, the economy and society, are valued. The ethics of social responsibility in tourism, leaving the world explored while respectfully minimising negative impacts and maximising positive impact, as well as encouraging alternatives to mass tourism, are cornerstones of responsible tourism.

Again, the embedding of new technologies is key. Through the use of digital marketing and social media, sustainable practice is more visible and accessible than ever before, with campaigns promoting the importance of responsible holidaymaking and treating visited areas with respect.

Festivals and hotels are back on the agenda too. It’s incumbent here on graduates to work hand-in-hand with their industries to ensure that not only is the environment protected, through reducing water use, going plastic-free and choosing responsible venues, but that social and economic growth after the event is a key legacy. Equally the hospitality industry must consider the whole supply chain too, including their linen and their food, and choose locally sourced options that are kinder to the environment and cut transportation emissions.

In this countdown to COP26, it useful to reflect on creative and cultural graduates of the future carrying a significant ethical responsibility. Sustainability mindsets that combine creativity with new technologies are crucial for rebuilding these industries, in order to both maximise their contribution to the economy and protect the environment in a post-CV19 world.