Campus Sustainability an Easy Sell

Warning, as an unabashed campus sustainability salesman, you should be cautious of my pitch. After all, higher education faces all sorts of challenges and this sustainability thing I want you to buy is an additional cost, right?

Well, just as the quality of the food you buy has a lousy ROI except for the health and growth of your family, sustainability is feeding smart campuses even in tough economic times.

Even at the height of the Great Recession, we saw studies and surveys declaring that large numbers of prospective freshman make buying decisions to attend a specific campus due, in part, to their sense of that school’s sustainability acumen. Princeton Review surveyed that question for the last five years or so and found upwards of 60 percent of students and their parents included sustainability somewhere in their campus-shopping calculus. Other scholarly research and at least one major corporate study I have seen reports 40 to 60 percent of student shoppers look for green campus brands when contemplating where to invest their college funds.

Despite these apparently bullish data points, even my sustainability sales-driven soul was hoping it was all really true.

Then last summer we polled our incoming freshman with similar questions and found over 41 percent of them chose our campus, in part, based on their view of our sustainability shine.

Affirmed. The decision to embrace sustainability front and center as a campus value — replete with a navigation button on the front page of our campus website — was rewarded.

Likewise, despite a down economy, other smart campuses are still investing in sustainability. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE, reports discretionary sustainability budgets are up over the last five years and growth in new campus sustainability staff remains strong, particularly since 2008.

At the same time, sustainability functions are beginning to seep into job duties across the campus org chart — not just in the sustainability office. From executive level to front line staff, more personnel are adding sustainability outcomes to activities ranging from purchasing to grounds to teaching to residence life to facilities to dining to outreach to research and even athletics.

In the corporate world, data show sustainability functions are being similarly distributed across organizational units but are trending away from discrete sustainability offices and budgets. Higher education’s more silo-oriented structure still requires the coordination and leadership sustainability offices bring, so nearly 80 percent of campuses in a recent AASHE survey of sustainability staff reported they have units solely assigned to this beat.

So, why have smart campuses found sustainability such an attractive value proposition? In short, because our customers are demanding sustainability, because it saves money, and because higher education’s ethical license to operate is at risk if we don’t respond to a society beset with myriad unsustainable ailments.

As a result, there are more courses, majors, schools, colleges, and certificates in sustainability than ever. AASHE found 1,335 sustainability-focused academic programs at 450 campuses spread across 62 states and provinces. Sustainability education search-term queries on Google are growing rapidly. AASHE reports sustainability education resources on its giant website are the hottest draw. Students are shopping for sustainability content.

On the operations side, green buildings are popping up all over campuses — because they draw students, save operating costs, and are the right thing to do. Zero-waste efforts are on the rise for similar reasons. Local food programs/campus gardens are taking root because students want guilt-free, good food. Renewable energy arrays are going up like billboards advertising sustainability — and because they have solid ROIs.

We are also getting better at assessing all these impacts with scorecards like the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS). Only three years old, STARS already counts among its many users the best and most prestigious campuses alongside those aspiring to excellence. With an enhanced version of STARS due out this year (v2.0), expect this platform to become the gold standard of campus sustainability assessment.

Likewise, many education-related magazines and organizations are using STARS to compile their own rankings of green campuses and touting them in special issues and reports. Going forward, the perceived sustainability performance of a given campus may count more heavily even in comprehensive ranking systems such as US News & World Report — just as it already counts with prospective students.

All this is not to ignore sustainability’s challenges. As an organizational paradigm, sustainability espouses the inter-dependency of environmental health, fiscal prudence, and social justice. Yet sustainability has fallen short as an effective social justice tool and has yet to prove its potential as a means to enhance campus diversity performance and community relations. Both these spheres present profound challenges to many campuses and a well-defined sustainability program could greatly assist with this work.

Yet in just the 20 years or so campus sustainability has been around, it has moved quickly through a maturation process. At first, calls for sustainability were heard from campus grassroots stakeholders such as students, faculty, and some staff. Quickly, campus leaders saw the business case for sustainability-inspired resource conservation activities and started effective energy and water efficiency that saved money.

Recently, in response to economic pressures and informed by visionary leadership, sustainability has begun to morph into the campus-wide presence discussed above. As this integration puts down roots, sustainability will become more efficient and its performance as a diversity and community relations tool will evolve. Coordination will improve. Campus staff will become more proficient at embedding sustainability outcomes. New emphasis on sustainability elements such as adaptation to climate change and resilience in a strained environment will emerge. And graduates from many majors will enter the workforce competent in their professions and conversant in sustainability’s principles and practices. Corporations are snapping them up already.

Happily, this also means you will suffer fewer pitches from sustainability salesmen like me — and I can retire hopeful of sustainability and society’s future. 

Dave Newport, LEED-AP, is director of the Environmental Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, a member of the Board of Directors of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, and one of three original co-creators of STARS. He may be reached at [email protected].