Steps to Improve Campus Sustainability

by | Oct 19, 2010

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On university campuses nationwide, the role of sustainability officers has grown in scope and urgency. The pressure is stronger than ever for schools to find new and innovative ways to lower emissions, reduce waste, recycle, and promote environmental awareness among student bodies.

Fueling this urgency is the proliferation of eight highly vocal independent rankings, including the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education/STARS Rating System (AASHE), the Princeton Review, the Green Report Card and the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC).
With schools vying in tight competition for research grants, top teaching talent, and the best incoming pool of freshman each year, scoring well in these rankings is critical. It’s simply more important than ever for universities to find the right sustainability solutions, and fast.

But as any campus sustainability officer will tell you, that’s not as easy as it sounds.

A relatively new role in higher education – and one that still does not exist on many a university campus – the campus sustainability officer faces several key challenges:

–Schools might not have the infrastructure to implement new programs

–Little to no support staff might make it difficult to execute new initiatives

–Political dynamics on campus and between other administrative departments can slow the process

–Overall resistance to change is a constant obstacle

–There is often a high degree of difficulty in economically justifying new initiatives or programs

So what can sustainability officers do to ensure they reach their objectives, increase their rankings, work within their resources and convince the critics to follow their lead?

As a frequent partner of campus sustainability programs, I’ve witnessed it all first-hand. I’ve seen schools that are willing to do whatever it takes to go green (rare) and I’ve also seen the kind of political in-fighting and/or limited resources that hold schools back (far more common).

From all my meetings and partnerships in this capacity, I’ve learned a few things that I hope will help people in this position succeed.

1) Build a support base
If you look carefully, you can find sustainability-minded compatriots currently working in almost every corner of your institution. Gather these individuals to the cause by forming a cross-campus committee or sustainability brainstorming group that meets at regular intervals. These champions will provide vital perspective and inroads to the operations of different university areas. They might even volunteer to run a project or two in their area, expanding the effect your office and generating more successes to catch the attention of the top leadership.

2) Don’t reinvent the wheel
Starting a program  from scratch is a noble desire, but more likely to cause distress than anything else. Just like your supporters already exist at your institution, so many great companies and services already exist to partner with colleges and provide support for almost every sustainability activity. Take advantage of them to accomplish as much as possible – you’ll save time and money by plugging in existing programs that can be up and running right away.

3) The numbers don’t lie
When it comes to convincing your harshest critics and silencing the opposition to your mandate, let the numbers — both metrics for success and actual dollars — speak for themselves. Be sure your colleagues understand the significance of those environmental ratings I mentioned, and that more and more prospective students are weighing the importance of campus sustainability when making their decision to attend one university over another.

More importantly, be sure your proposals impact the bottom line.  A tough crowd isn’t going to be easier to convince if you’re asking them to spend more money. Select sustainability partners who are going to save the school cash – or better yet, generate actual revenue for the institution. If it’s paying for itself and then some, you’ll suddenly find sustainability gets much more high-profile attention.

Better World Books provides used book collection bins for campuses to gather the thousands of books discarded on campuses every year. After they are sold on a consumer web site, the company gives a portion of the revenue back to the school where the books were collected.  Partner schools improve their waste reduction scores and see thousands in additional revenue each year — all for just setting out book collection bins in high traffic areas around campus. Needless to say, praise for their good work flows healthily.

You might sweeten the deal by partnering with organizations that offer positive by-products to their programs.  Better World Books’ partner schools, for example, are eligible to earn even more ratings credits because the program generates funds for global literacy initiatives such as Books for Africa and Room to Read.
Building a support base and finding partners who can score more ratings points with less work – and even earn the school some cash in the process – is the most efficient and effective path to success for sustainability officers.

Walter Sears is Director of On Campus Acquisitions at Better World Books. Better World Books collects and sells books online with each sale generating funds for literacy initiatives in the U.S. and around the world. It partners with U.S. and Canadian universities, collecting used books on campus to reduce waste, raise money for the school and contribute to non-profit literacy causes wordwide.

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