How students won the Zayed Sustainability Prize 2022

Manami (Japan / Class of 2022) and Mari (France-Portugal) were action-takers before entering UWC ISAK Japan. When they arrived on campus, they had already gained experience working with Fridays for Future Japan and Fridays for Future Portugal, respectively, and were eager to pursue their interest in environmentally sustainable initiatives. Years later, their hard work paid off when the Zayed Sustainability Prize 2022 went to UWC ISAK Japan.

In 2020, our then Science and Environmental Systems & Societies teacher, Dr. Mandy, came across the Zayed Sustainability Prize and flagged it for our students. Her initial thought was that the Prize’s extensive application would be a good experience for her students. Mari, who was in grade 10 at the time, enthusiastically jumped at the opportunity. 

“Students had this attitude; they were so fierce and intransigent,” recalls Dr. Mandy. “I had to convince Mari to show me the documents before she would send them. And as the deadline was approaching and it seemed impossible to gather all documents on time, I suggested reporting to the following year. But to my surprise, they had already sent everything out!”

Ideals vs. the Covid-19 pandemic

“After the incredible momentum of Fridays for Future and entering UWC ISAK Japan, they wanted to change everything, join so many international opportunities. They were restless.” recalls Dr. Mandy. 

UWC ISAK Japan Sustainability Initiative students farming near TAC

But 2020, with its new coronavirus, was soon around the corner. Planning things even right outside one’s house became a challenge. “People didn’t know what was happening, nor what could happen in the future. In a way, it was a chance: a chance to look at things right here, right now.” 

Thus UWC ISAK Japan environmental action-takers took some time to reflect on their school and what they could change in their direct surroundings. And it soon became apparent that UWC ISAK Japan itself, despite ongoing efforts, was not yet an ideal model of sustainability. Therefore, when choosing their goal for winning the Zayed Sustainability Prize, Mari wrote: “To become the most sustainable school in Japan.” Little did she know how this goal would influence UWC ISAK Japan for the years to come.

“Leadership from behind and below”

Manami, UWC ISAK Japan student (class of 2022) looking at the trees near campus

“At the beginning, we felt very alone and like no one was interested in helping us. It was pretty disheartening,” confided another early team member Mymy (Thailand / Class of 2022). 

So, what changed between early 2020 and the amazing news that a team from UWC ISAK Japan won this prestigious international prize? 

“The magic that occurred has a lot to do with Manami’s style of leadership,” thinks Dr. Mandy. “When she first came to school, she was the quiet one who gets things done. Her leadership style is super interesting to me. She was so dedicated and committed that it became contagious. Soon enough, she had motivated the whole group.” In the end, a whole club of around ten students worked on the final steps to the Zayed Sustainability Prize and are now the core of the Sustainability Initiative.

The here and now: Karuizawa community and the environment

UWC ISAK Japan students farming with the local community in Karuizawa

UWC ISAK’s Head of Facilities Roko-san (Hiroko Kobayashi), who grew up in Karuizawa, introduced Manami to some local community members involved in protecting the environment. “For them, it is more about protecting the forest,” says Manami. And indeed, about three-quarters of Karuizawa town is forest. Karuizawa’s work to preserve forest and wildlife won the Minister of the Environment Award for Contributions to Nature by the Ministry of the Environment in 2011. 

Thus it was the perfect place for Manami to try and get involved in a new type of environment-friendly community. So, she participated in some trash-picking events, joined a local miso-making event, and visited local houses built sustainably (e.g., one made of mud and straw). The people she met locally helped her a great deal throughout the Zayed Sustainability Prize process. They gave her tips and offered support, notably in video making for the application.

Putting words into action

Four UWC ISAK Japan Sustainability Initiative students in front of a whiteboard presenting the activities of the day On-campus, the small group of environmental action-takers organized activities to steer other students to fight for a sustainable school. “We wanted to make people understand that this is not about polar bears. It is an issue with where our society as a whole is at now. And everybody should feel concerned,” explains Manami. 

Encouraged by her experience in the local community, she wanted to use the UWC ISAK Japan treehouse built in 2021 as a place where people could gather and talk about the environment. The group thus organized local vegan meals and forest concerts in this beautiful green setting. While group member Aru (Kazakstan / Class of 2022) organized a composting workshop and a series of mind-opening and educational activities for Earth Day.

Environmental education

But what urged students to join en masse was a special lecture about climate change. Students asked Dr. Mandy to do a one-hour presentation about the environment for the whole school. “The students always told me they knew I was busy and only asked me when they could not do otherwise. Never had I worked with such polite students before,” she recalls. “All this hope in their eyes stressed me out. So I gave everything for this lecture. I think that was the lecture I stressed the most about in my life!” 

UWC ISAK Japan teacher Dr. Mandy explaining something to students outdoors

But Dr. Mandy’s presentation made a great impression on students. They would discuss it late into the night. One controversial point that came up especially steered a lot of reflection—the idea that the best thing for the environment would be to have one less child. 

“I was cautious in specifying that I was not telling anyone they should not have children. I just advised having one child less than originally planned. Yet some students had never even thought about this, so it spurred a lot of energetic discussions and shed light on other ways of family-making such as adoption.”

Mapping the way for a sustainable campus

UWC ISAK Japan student Manami working with her Economics teacher and club activity supervisor Mr. Boukaseff Once officially qualified to participate in the Zayed Sustainability Prize competition, the group met with Earth Company, a Japan-based sustainability-focused NGO. Inspired by our students’ project and vision for a sustainable school, Earth Company’s team kindly offered its help. Together with the students and Mr. Boukaseff (Economics), they ran a thorough “green audit” of UWC ISAK Japan and found that our school had plenty of room for improvement.

Measures to make UWC ISAK Japan sustainable

Helped by Earth Company and local NGOs and individuals, UWC ISAK Japan Sustainable Initiative crafted an 11-measures plan to be submitted to the Zayed Sustainability Prize, as follows:

  • switch to green heating alternatives through the implementation of a biomass boiler fueled by wood pellets;UWC ISAK Japan students presenting the physical Zayed Sustainability Prize 2022 award during an assembly
  • switching to 100% renewable energy by installing solar panels on the roof of the campus building;
  • composting food waste and educating the community on how to compost;
  • divest from banks investing in the fossil fuel industry;
  • reduce the carbon footprint of the community’s food production and educate about food systems by vegetable and herb farming as well as creating a seed bank;
  • increase the lighting efficiency in the dormitories by installing a motion or luminance sensor in the residencies;
  • educate the community about climate change and sustainable lifestyle through workshops;
  • reduce carbon emission from transportation through cycling;
  • promote local consumption through local farmers markets;
  • reduce the usage of water by collecting rainwater;
  • reduce the chemical pollution with natural insect repellants such as mint herbs.
After the Prize

UWC ISAK Japan students farming on campus

Thanks to Mari’s initial efforts to pursue the Zayed Sustainability Prize, Manami’s leadership to see the team through, and the incredible students, faculty, staff, NGOs, and the local community, UWC ISAK Japan is in a position to be a role model for sustainability in Japan. But, as key members graduate in 2022, it will need to be up to new members to carry the torch and take wise and innovative steps to become the most sustainable school in Japan. 


zayed sustainability prize logo 2022

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