On September 25, students from five top French schools unveiled a manifesto titled “Wake up call on the environment.” Citing the recent UN report that warns of an impending climate catastrophe, the manifesto calls for students to capitalize on their collective power–as future employees–to compel French companies to embed sustainability deeply in all their activities.
Today, more than 23,000 students from over 300 French higher education institutions have signed this manifesto, making a de facto a pledge to not work for companies that heavily pollute. The manifesto has galvanized a student movement that is creating a lot of buzz in the French media and business circles.
The manifesto is the brainchild of Corentin Bisot, a student at Ecole Polytechnique, the top engineering school in France. Bisot points out the manifesto’s primarily goal is not to boycott polluting companies. Rather, it aims to raise students’ awareness about the ecological crisis we face and show them how they could make wise choices, including the choice of their employer, that can help build a sustainable world.
The manifesto’s creators believe individual commitments won’t be enough to change the existing economic system. “Does it mean anything to ride a bike when you work for a company whose activities contribute to increasing climate change or draining natural resources?” asks the manifesto, thus calling students to achieve congruence between their core values and their work.
By putting pressure on French companies to adopt sustainable business models sooner than later, the manifesto’s signatories want to avert the climate crisis. But they also see it as a stepping-stone to co-create a conscious society that eschews overconsumption and enhances the well-being of all citizens within our planetary boundaries.
The students who initiated and support the manifesto are mostly from the Grandes Écoles, the French equivalent of the Ivy League. These elite schools, which produce future leaders of French business and government, tend to be conservative and do not take a stance–at least publicly–on sociopolitical issues.
So the manifesto is really a “coming out”–in terms of civic engagement–of the students who represent the upper echelons of the French education system. But unlike the violent student protests of May 1968 that brought France to the brink of revolution, this new wave of non-violent student activism embodies new model, digitally enhanced and fluid. The French youth don’t want to disrupt the system from the outside as much as transform it from the inside and make it better. They are evolutionary leaders, rather than revolutionary ones.
These bright youngsters want to lead by example by investing time and energy in self-transformation. Indeed, the manifesto has a whole section that offers a lot of advice to students on how they could adopt a sustainable lifestyle.
The French manifesto should inspire U.S. students–especially at Ivy League schools–to take action. What if MBA students at top U.S. business schools took a pledge to not work for banks that contributed to the financial crisis of 2008, and commit their talent to promote social justice? And what if U.S. engineering students vowed to not offer their skills to the 100 most polluting U.S. companies, but rather work for 100 firms that develop the greenest products?
The fight against climate change has been neglected by our political leaders. American college students can pick up the fight.
Navi Radjou is a fellow at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School. He is the coauthor of Jugaad Innovation (2012), From Smart to Wise (2013), and Frugal Innovation (2015). His next book, Conscious Society: Reinventing How We Consume, Work, Relate and Live, will be published in 2019.