Schools are the perfect places for great sustainability programs. You have a motivated population, a mandate to teach, and relatively self-contained environment with a high amount of control over the way things are done. The following are five ways to take your campus sustainability initiative to the next level:

1.Get on Board with the Basics

If your school isn’t practically overrun with recycling and composting bins, if it doesn’t have a high-level policy with clear goals and timelines, or active student sustainability groups, ENERGY STAR scores for its buildings, a sustainable purchasing policy, a green cleaning program, a plan for achieving LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for all new and existing buildings – then start there. See where you land in comparison to other campuses using The College Sustainability Report Card, and then participate in The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) to self-report your college or university’s sustainability performance.

Once all of the basics are covered, consider the following approaches to bring life, awareness, and meaning to your programs and improve the overall sustainability performance of the campus. 

2. Be Transparent

Transparency is key in backing up any sustainability claim, and is a first step in getting people to care. Make information available so that students, faculty, alumni or even prospective students can evaluate your school’s level of commitment. Help students understand where the campus stands compared to other schools. Set an example by showing students policies like sustainable purchasing guidelines, and methods of tracking performance.  If you’ve got the data, don’t hide it away in the facility department, bring it out and let people see. Use building dashboards systems[1] that gather real-time data (on energy consumption, water use, and more) and display it on a user-friendly website and/or kiosks. Dashboards can even be used to host competitions between buildings, or building floors. Social networking tools can be used to inform students and faculty about the sustainability initiatives or events, and allow them to provide feedback on the building or even share opportunities for improvement. By giving students the vocabulary and access to information, you not only teach and engage them in the conversation – you keep the program honest.

3. Teach It! Use the Program to Develop Sustainability Skills

Information alone is never enough; any plan to get sustainability to stick will fail if nobody cares. Your students, faculty, and staff need to be engaged and invested in making it happen. A composting program is far more effective when students are the ones doing the composting. A LEED for Existing Buildings certification initiative will have far more benefit if the students can manage the effort and learn the skills of green facility operations along the way. So while you’re adding curriculum to convey the knowledge, make sure you teach the hands-on skills as well – have students calculate the ENERGY STAR score for buildings, analyze building performance data, grow food for the kitchens, conduct waste audits, or make biodiesel for the vehicles.

4. Experiment

We don’t really know what makes people tick when it comes to choosing to participate or ignore a sustainability program, and there is a huge opportunity to experiment with various strategies to see what works and what doesn’t. Surely the campus could be a test site for the impact of incentive programs, peer pressure tactics, competitions, marketing campaigns, labeling programs, or whatever you can think of. Then evaluate what is successful and tell the story.

5. Help People Make Better Choices

There are subtle ways to encourage students to make better, more sustainable choices by giving them a little nudge in the right direction.[2] Companies like Google and Facebook have taken on cafeteria choice making with their traffic light food labeling (green = eat all you want, yellow = slow down, red = put on the brakes). Others have created a display case of items that should and shouldn’t be recycled, or put signage near the staircase and elevators showing the calories burned by using the stairs as opposed to the fossil fuel from the use of the elevator. Subtle reminders and tidbits of non-intrusive information can be powerful levers of behavior change.

[1] Examples of building dashboard systems: Lucid Design Systems (www.luciddesigngroup.com/) or Noveda Technologies (www.noveda.com/)

[2] Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Thaler and Sunstein (2008)

About Joshua Radoff

Joshua Radoff, the co-founder and Principal of YR&G sustainability consultants, has a background in sustainable energy engineering and works at the intersection of the energy, climate, and green building fields. He is a regular speaker on sustainability issues and the LEED rating systems and has consulted on hundreds of sustainability projects for both public and private sector clients, nationally and internationally. Radoff brings a broad knowledge of waste reduction methods, water efficiency programs, green site and building exterior maintenance, recyclable products and renewable energy offsets.