“Education is transformative. We must build learning societies around the concept of sustainable development and get people to transition from the brown economy to the green economy. And to change their practices and attitudes – that can only happen through education, both formal and informal.”
—Elizabeth Thompson, executive coordinator of the Rio+20 conference on global sustainability
In progressive countries and industries across the world, sustainable development is not only in vogue but is fundamental to business strategy and the bottom line. This is increasingly the case in the education sector where an institution’s commitment to “going green” is a drawing card increasingly demanded by stakeholders as well as a necessary strategy to build the institutional brand and attract students.
The United Nation’s Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development just wrapped up last week. Its programming emphasised strategies for universities and schools to reduce their ecological footprint by such means as:
- Greening their campuses, buildings, and procurement and supply chains;
- Developing strategies around water, energy, and waste management;
- Setting good examples for the local economies in which they are situated;
- Developing literature and research around sustainable development and green economy.
Elizabeth Thompson, executive coordinator of the conference, provided an exclusive interview to University World News in which she noted the importance of higher education institutions “developing a body of case studies for the business sector and teaching sustainable development … across all disciplines, so that every graduate understands what sustainable development means in terms of their area of enterprise and activity – so that you build practitioners of sustainability.”
The sustainability movement is growing in the higher education sector for a number of reasons:
- It creates efficiencies and cost savings;
- It builds reputation and exemplifies social responsibility;
- It gives students a platform for research.
Prior to Rio+20, some 129 universities and 29 networks, associations and student organisations in 43 countries signed a declaration to promote development through both research and teaching, disseminate new knowledge and insights to their students and build their capabilities.
Asked about ways to implement the declaration on the ground, Martin Hall, vice-chancellor of the University of Salford in the UK, explained: “If sustainable development is to be achieved, we have to establish… practical applications, such as sustainable housing solutions, retrofit of existing buildings, environmental management for sustainable futures and sustainable practices in the oil and gas industries.”
The key to going the green mile, is to integrate sustainability in all that you do with the active participation of all the stakeholders on campus – teachers, students, local partners (suppliers, businesses and so forth) – and teaching sustainable development across all disciplines.
Riding the green wave
There are examples of universities that are actively using “green” as a branding differentiator. For example, UNBC (Canada’s University of Northern BC) trumpets on its home page that it has been named one of Canada’s greenest employers, a distinction claimed by only 50 companies across Canada every year. In the UK, the University of Greenwich has just topped the People and Planet Green League 2012, and has “cut carbon emissions by 22 percent compared with 2005 and plans to reduce them by a further 40 percent over 10 years.”
In the cluttered competitive environment of higher education these days, Universities like UNBC and Greenwich are clearly using sustainability as a differentiator, and their efforts are being noticed by the media. What other examples are out there?
The sustainability movement has certainly caught on among US high schools, too. “By turning off lights, powering down computers, and optimising heating and cooling systems, schools can drop their average utility bills by as much as 25 percent,” says Rachel Gutter, director of the Center for Green Schools, part of the US Green Building Council, a nonprofit group.
Installing motion sensors on light fixtures and swapping out light bulbs for more energy-efficient models, as well as other green enhancements, helped Loveland High School in Ohio save US$350,000 in one year, according to the US Department of Education. Gladstone High School in Oregon created a Green School Club, which helped shave US$250 per month off the school’s electrical costs by conducting energy audits.
These schools were among 26 US high schools recognised as Green Ribbon Schools by the Department of Education and the Center for Green Schools. Some clever schools even negotiate with their boards to retain a portion of the savings generated by their green teams.
Gutter noted how catching the green movement can be among students: “These kids become militant about encouraging teachers and students to turn off the lights when they leave classrooms, [and] to power down devices when they check out for the day.”
Is the future green?
Is “green” performance an area your institution should be leveraging further in its recruitment efforts? Renowned thinkers Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and special advisor to UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, and Professor Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen micro-finance bank, certainly think green action is the way of the future. At Rio+20, Sachs said to loud applause: “This has to be the generation of sustainable development – you have no other choice.” He called for today’s youth to “embrace the challenge” of sustainability and to use imagination and innovation to create a “new way of doing things.”
Yunus added: “Technology has made today’s youth the most powerful generation ever.”
The realisation that the move towards sustainable development must come from business, the education system and civil society is a radical shift that has occurred since the Earth Summit in 1992. Sachs was keen to stress that this move was what Rio+20 will be remembered for.
What are your thoughts on sustainability and recruitment? What is your institution doing to reduce its carbon footprint? Is it easier to go green if you are part of a small school because change is easier to initiate? Or is it more difficult due to financing issues? Do you showcase your sustainability efforts in your marketing efforts? Do you think green efforts influence a student’s decision to choose one school over another?
Send us your thoughts on Twitter @icefmonitor or via the Comments box below.