EdDesign Mag talked with the Founder and Chairman of TASS and renewable energy and sustainability expert, Anthony Dixon, on the importance of The Alliance for Sustainable Schools in the region.
This year Anthony Dixon is the Speaker of the leading education conference & exhibition in the Middle East region: GESS Dubai (30 October – 1 November 2023). Extensive conference programme together with the exhibition provides educators access to the products and solutions that meet the needs of the modern classroom and transform the way students learn. Sustainability is one of the event’s important themes.
Photo: Anthony Dixon and the Head of School at French International School of Hong Kong, Dr. Emmanuel Bonin, speaking with students at the school’s signing ceremony of the Sustainable Schools Charter
Anthony Dixon is the founder and Chairman of The Alliance for Sustainable Schools (TASS), a non-profit network of schools working together to address and resolve system-level sustainability challenges. He is also the CEO of Metanoia, a consultancy working with schools to make a difference in the sustainability of their campus and community through practical, accessible and effective solutions that also educate and empower students, and Helios Renewable Energy Ltd. – a solar energy company.
Anthony’s diverse career has included being Chief Executive Officer of ASB Biodiesel, Managing Director of Citigroup, Director of China Hydroelectric Corporation, Chief Operating Officer of ZEDFactory (a zero-carbon housing company), and Director of the Solar Electric Light Company. He holds an undergraduate degree in physics, a master’s in renewable energy engineering from Imperial College, and an MBA from Harvard Business School.
Where did the idea for The Alliance for Sustainable Schools come from?
In 2018, I was installing solar energy in some schools in Hong Kong and a group of students said to me: “We are going to organise the very first school strike for Fridays” (the first in Hong Kong). The Greta Thunberg Fridays For Future movement was just taking off at the time and they wanted to join the hundreds of thousands of other students around the world in organising a coordinated worldwide strike to protest the lack of action on climate change. The implicit message is “What is the point of attending school when the planet is burning and no one’s acting with the appropriate urgency”.
The students asked me to provide a technical review of the manifesto they planned to present to the government of Hong Kong outlining their recommendations for more renewable energy and so on.
Thousands of people, including parents and students and other members of the school community, gathered in the town centre and marched to government offices to present government officials with that manifesto. It was at that moment that I realised that there was a huge opportunity to effect change here within schools. It dawned on me that if students presented their school principals with ideas for more sustainable practices, they were more likely to see them acted on than if they waited for government officials.
How do you think The Alliance will impact sustainability in schools?
Schools’ impact on the environment mostly comes from four things – school buses, school food, school uniforms and school buildings. But historically at least, these have not been the things that most schools focus their sustainability initiatives on because the impacts of those things are not very visible – they are mostly in the supply chains rather than on campus.
And also they are harder to change because they involve third-party suppliers who have established ways of providing a service to hundreds of clients and are not likely to change based on a request from just one school.
So what this means is that the things most schools focus on when it comes to sustainability don’t make a big difference, and the things that would make a big difference don’t get focussed on because they are difficult for individual schools to influence on their own.
But that’s no longer the case if schools come together to act collectively in these areas. Schools acting together can have a significant influence on suppliers, and we think that’s, even more, the case when we get students involved. What one school can’t achieve in a discussion with its bus company, its uniform supplier, its catering company or its architect, 20 schools and their 15,000 students almost certainly can.
That’s one way TASS will impact sustainability in schools.
Another way is through the Charter. When schools join TASS, the head of the school signs the Sustainable Schools Charter. The Charter is a promise to their students and the other members of the Alliance to operate the school according to a set of sustainability principles. They sign it in front of the students and it's very public – we post these photos on social media and our website and the school does too. At the end of each year, we ask the students to assess how the school has done in living up to this promise so there’s accountability there.
As our membership grows, more and more schools sign the charter and we get a magnetic field-like effect. Where once we may have had 100 schools all pointing in different directions in terms of their sustainability efforts, now they’re all aligned with the Charter and I believe the simple fact of this alignment will contribute to our impact over time. From a systems change point of view, I just think it’s much better to have 100 schools doing four similar things than 100 schools doing 100 different things.
Photo: Students at Al Bayan Bilingual School in Kuwait celebrating their school’s membership to The Alliance for Sustainable Schools
Why did you start in Hong Kong and when did you decide to go global?
We wanted to start locally to really test the appetite and test our proposition. We started by approaching schools we already knew. And we got a great response from everybody we talked to.
And then, through word of mouth, we started getting inquiries from schools in Singapore, Malaysia, India, Dubai and all over. That’s when we realised we needed to think bigger. We are organised as a network because large highly connected networks of like-minded people with a shared focus are among the conditions conducive to transformational change in systems.
What are the benefits of joining TASS?
Many people ask a similar question: what do we get for our membership? I like to quote President Kennedy’s inauguration speech where he said “Ask not what your nation can do for you, but what you can do for your nation.” As an Alliance, it is each school’s contribution that will make us effective and that’s how schools will derive value in the long term.
Having said that, I think there are at least two big benefits: the knowledge-sharing and collective learning that comes from the community, and the opportunity for students to be engaged in authentic civic action and change-making.
First, the members of TASS will serve as valuable resources themselves. Many of the members have a lot of expertise in various areas like food waste composting or solar energy, or using biodiesel, and by sharing their knowledge and their successes and failures along the way, over time the network becomes the resource. With a pool of shared information, schools don’t need to keep re-inventing the wheel and they can quickly and efficiently navigate their way to sustainable solutions whether they are in Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai, or anywhere in the world.
Second, each school that joins the network is asked to appoint at least two student ambassadors, who get involved with us in advocacy work. Here’s an example: after 20 years of biodiesel manufacturing in Hong Kong, with it never being used in buses here, together with our student ambassadors we were able to persuade three bus companies to start using biodiesel in just 7 months. Our job is to educate and demonstrate feasible, viable alternatives to unsustainable practices like these within the school system.
Photo: TASS Student Ambassadors attend a meeting with their secondary school Principal and school bus company executives as a result of their letters making the case for biodiesel
How will your website aid members of TASS in communication?
We’re still working on developing a full-fledged platform for members to communicate, share knowledge and ideas, and network. The website will be a part of that but not the whole picture. Right now, it’s more of a directory of members and their suppliers, but in the coming months, we plan to launch a kind of social networking platform for members to communicate through and easily access a wealth of information.
Do you think the size of the community is proportional to the impact it has?
Yes, but TASS is more than a community. We are a community of practice which is a group of people who share a common passion or interest, and who get together regularly but informally to learn from each other, share their expertise, and develop their thinking. So, TASS is all the people in schools who are interested in sustainability, sharing their knowledge for everybody’s benefit, in order to get better at becoming sustainable in schools. We are a community of practice for sustainability in schools.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from launching TASS?
At the beginning of this journey I was at a place where I really lost patience with the government. In my previous role, I ran a biodiesel manufacturing company, and we lobbied, we advocated, we pushed, we kept hoping, we did everything to try to get the government here in Hong Kong to introduce regulations that would require the use of biodiesel in vehicles, and they never did. In Europe, if you fill up your diesel engine in a gas station, you automatically get 7% biodiesel, and you don’t have a choice.
I realised that if we wait for the government, time will run out. There’s nothing to stop school bus companies from switching to biodiesel even in the absence of regulations; maybe they just haven’t thought about it. So I thought, let’s just get on and do it. There are a lot of things that we could be doing right now to improve sustainability in schools, that don’t take that much effort and aren’t that complicated. And if everybody everywhere in the world had this mindset, we would make much faster progress towards a sustainable future.
I’ll never forget the expressions on the faces of our student ambassadors in the meeting that we had recently with their bus company. One of the students had written a letter to the bus company, requesting a meeting to discuss biodiesel in our school buses, and the CEO wrote back and said “Okay, let’s have a meeting”.
The student was like: “Oh my god, the head of the bus company came to school to meet with me and my other ambassador and the headmaster of the school was there, and senior people in the leadership team, and we talked about how to change the fuel in the bus tank and reduce our carbon emissions”. Even if this only leads to a 1 per cent carbon dioxide reduction, what’s important is that she realized that she had leverage, that she had power, and it wasn’t that hard to get someone to listen to her request and actually make a change. And now she’s going to do it again and again. That’s the impact that I'm really interested in seeing.
Photo: Chinese International School student refuels her bus with low-carbon biodiesel for the very first time at a Shell fuel station in Hong Kong
What advice would you give a school that has never done anything even remotely related to sustainability before?
That’s what a community of practice is for. If a school has never done anything but is ready to start, join the TASS community and start engaging with other schools about their journey. The Charter is also a good guide. Whether it’s setting targets to reduce water and energy consumption or something as simple as putting together a three-year action plan, the point is that you’ve made a commitment and that’s a start.
One of the pledges in the Charter suggests that we (the schools) have a “social obligation to work collaboratively with all global stakeholders to achieve the aims of this Charter”. In your opinion, what value does TASS add when it comes to collaboration versus competition between schools? Especially schools in the same city or the same country?
Naturally, schools compete. They compete for enrolments, for university places, and they compete on the sports field. But, sustainability isn’t a competition. Quite the opposite – sustainability is a community activity, it requires us to work together rather than compete. I hate the idea of schools winning awards for sustainability. Our house is on fire, as Greta would say. Who cares if one school is better than the other? At TASS, we want every school to be sustainable, and if you’ve figured out how to make something sustainable at your particular school, we want to you to tell everybody else how to do it. TASS facilitates this by providing a platform for this knowledge to be shared and by bringing people together to work on solving shared problems that make a difference to the sustainability of their schools and communities in the five key areas – buses, buildings, food, uniforms and education for sustainability.
What is the biggest challenge you’re facing right now?
Well, right now our biggest challenge as an organisation is how can we scale quickly and how can we manage that scale-up effectively. The problems we are addressing are really urgent and we need scale to make a difference. I don't want to be sitting here a year from now and telling you we’re a hundred and fifty schools. A year from now, I want to say we’re five hundred schools.
For schools, what is their biggest challenge? I think it's too early to tell. I think all the schools that have joined TASS are enthusiastic about this opportunity because it offers the students a different experience, specific actions, specific engagements, and a social change angle in the real world. It's not just, “Let's come up with an idea in the classroom and have a competition to see which idea is the best”. It's real-world change, it's talking to businesses, getting businesses to come into the school boardroom. Recently, we held a summit on sustainable school food and we had all the school caterers on stage being questioned by students: “Why don't we have more sustainable food in the canteen? We need to be eating a different diet in twenty years' time in order to save the planet. What are you doing about that now in our school canteen?”.
Bringing schools together is novel, I think. It's not so novel to get students from different schools together, but, I think the biodiesel workshop in October, was the first time that the sustainability people from seven schools had met together in the same room, talking about the same subject with a common intention to problem solve and to act.
Student-led Sustainable School Food Summit. Photo: Chef Michael Smith from Moxie introduces his dish; Students get a sneak peek at their low-carbon lunch options; Anthony Dixon and TASS Student Ambassadors delivering the TASS introduction
It’s truly inspiring how TASS encourages project-based learning and hands-on experience amongst members of The Alliance and their ambassadors.
You know, when the students wrote those letters to the bus companies to persuade them to switch to biodiesel, they had to be able to do two things: they had to be able to write a professional business-like letter, and it had to be grounded in facts and it had to be persuasive. And in order to do that, they had to do research and construct a solid argument. They had to understand what biodiesel is and why it is better, what are the economics and what are the challenges of using it in Hong Kong, Berlin or wherever. And I tell you, most students don't know how to do that. They may be good at researching but they don’t have experience applying it in the real world. They don't get taught the fundamental skill of writing letters at school.
So this is what we’ve taught them - letter writing 101 the basics: I'm addressing this letter to this person who’s the CEO, then comes the company name and address, followed by the date. I'm telling them in a heading that this is what the letter is about. Next is: Dear Mr or Ms. CEO, I am a student at XYZ school, I am writing to you on behalf of my fellow students about the carbon emissions from the buses we travel to school in every day. This issue is important to me because… Here’s what I want you to change. Here’s what I know is possible. Can we please have a meeting to discuss what you’re willing to do about it and when? Respectfully yours, Concerned student.
And it's not just the students who are learning something new about sustainability, it's the people in the operations and facilities team and even the people who run the bus company. So this process is also about capacity building for sustainability. The school has to come up to speed on what the bus contract says (if anything) about sustainability. And now rather than just awarding contracts the next time, business as usual, now they are called on to really understand what the sustainability impact of the bus service is. Often, it’s something they’ve never considered before and they may not know how to think about it, which is where we can really help.
Imagine this: what if every neighbourhood had a school that began to think sustainably, act sustainably, and operate sustainably because the principal joined TASS and signed the Charter? Then they talk about it within their circle of friends and family and in their community, off campus, and it starts to have a ripple effect. The teachers go home and talk to their partner or their friends about it, the students go home and talk to their mom and dad and their grandparents, and then gradually the whole community starts to talk about sustainability differently, because the school is like a pond, and we’ve dropped a stone in it and the ripples are having an impact.
And just down the road, around the corner, there’s another school with the same things happening, and the ripple starts spreading out from there, too. So now imagine the combined ripple effect from three million schools all over the world. At that point, you’re influencing hundreds of millions of people in thousands of communities in this individually-very-small but collectively-very-significant way.
Photo: ‘Leading for Change’ Conference at Arbor School Dubai, March 2023. Left to right: Ben Hren, Director of the Centre of Abundance at The Arbor School Dubai, Melisa Pubil, Service Learning Coordinator at American Community School of Abu Dhabi, Anthony Dixon, Chairman of TASS, and Edward Pearce, Director at Fairgreen International School