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Sustainable but Invisible

University Business, June 2011

It is becoming more and more fashionable to claim a greener identity, and it seems college students everywhere are excited to help the environment, particularly when their actions are visible to others. When questioned about reducing the carbon footprint at Bentley University (Mass.), for instance, I’ve been asked, “When are we going to install wind turbines?”

We’ve had our share of highly visible sustainability projects, such as the installation of a solar wall in the athletic center, placing sleek new recycling bins all over campus, and doling out countless free colorful reusable grocery totes. But the more invisible initiatives--implementing heating and cooling control systems in the dorms, or asking students to reduce their personal electricity consumption--can sometimes make the greatest impact on energy and cost savings. The challenge is not simply getting students excited to “go green,” but getting them to buy in to less exciting initiatives that may involve more sacrifice on their part, unplugging their beloved gadgets or perhaps experiencing a bit of discomfort at seasonal transitions.

Coming from an environmental field, I wish everyone would support sustainability because it is the right thing to do; we should be conserving energy, we should be protecting ecosystems, we should be preserving the planet for the next generation. Unfortunately, I know that, to some, this is unbridled idealism. I have learned that the most effective sustainability campaigns come from developing the most effective marketing campaigns that drive consumers (in my case, students) to join the cause because it works for them--whether they’re majoring in business, science, or liberal arts.

Sustainability from the Inside Out

When I came to higher education, I knew I could not affect change all on my own (like at many schools, our Office of Sustainability is an army of one). So I looked to students to help create a buzz. Peer-to-peer marketing seems to be the best way to accomplish any goal. I hold weekly meetings with three groups representing very different parts of the student body: the Green Society, Eco Reps, and the Student Government Association (SGA) Sustainability Project Group. The meetings provide a forum for collaboration while allowing students to put their own stamp on sustainability work. Here’s how these relationships were formed:

First, I worked with the SGA Sustainability Project Group to focus on policy issues. When we announced we were upgrading our energy management system to use occupancy sensors, allowing us better control over most heating and cooling systems on campus (which contributed to a 10 percent reduction in energy usage and a 7 percent reduction of the overall carbon footprint), SGA senators came to me with concerns from students who were experiencing discomfort due to temperature issues in their rooms. I have learned that frustration and anger are often due to confusion and uncertainty. The SGA and I created heating and cooling instructional videos for every dormitory on campus, which have been instrumental in building student support for energy reduction and reducing student temperature complaints.

I partnered with the Residence Hall Association to start the Eco Rep program, which enlists students to become peer leaders on sustainability. It gives students from every living space a voice, providing a distinctive learning opportunity and fostering a connection to issues affecting daily life on campus.

As part of their “Anti-Bottled Water Campaign,” the Eco Reps recently organized a water taste. They encouraged passersby to compare the taste of tap water to bottled water in a blind taste test. Seventy percent of respondents could not detect a difference. The Eco Reps went on to educate water tasters about the benefits of tap water compared to bottled, and encouraged their peers to use reusable bottles at campus drinking fountains instead of purchasing plastic bottles of water.

Working together with the Green Society, we also came up with The Blackout Challenge, an annual contest that harnesses students’ competitiveness toward reducing energy usage in residence halls over a four-week period. To promote the competition, Green Society members strategically positioned themselves around campus to encourage students to sign an energy conservation pledge and, in return, receive sunglasses engraved with “Go green to blackout.” The “shades of green” were spotted throughout campus and word about contest participation spread quickly. The month-long contest resulted in electricity savings of 56,670 kilowatt hours--enough electricity to power about five single-family homes for a year.

Since Bentley is a business university at its core, the Green Society also has effectively positioned itself to appeal to the business side of sustainability. Among their new initiatives are tours and discussion panels with local green businesses, including a visit to National Grid’s new corporate center at Reservoir Woods in Waltham, Mass., a building that has earned Platinum-level LEED certification for its state-of-the-art green design, construction, and amenities. This type of programming appeals to students looking for connections to the real world.

Don’t Just Hear, Listen

Often we hear what our student body is saying, but don’t always listen. By truly listening to the concerns of students, you can turn an environmental problem into a sustainable solution without breaking the bank--while increasing environmental awareness at the same time.

“Give ‘N Go,” our sustainable move-out project, is a case in point. This initiative was started by impassioned students who approached me about reducing the amount of dumpster overflow at semester’s end. Instead of adding more dumpsters, we placed drop boxes in the lobby of each residence hall for donations of non-perishable food, usable clothing, electronics, furniture, and books. A one-day “Swop & Shop” event was also held in the Student Center to display and exchange donated items. At the conclusion of the program, remaining items were donated to local organizations. It was a simple idea with amazing results.

The bottom line: If you want to create measurable sustainability momentum, you must do whatever it takes to increase student participation in the less “sexy” green initiatives. Give students ownership since they often have the most innovative ideas. Harnessing the power of our greatest resource, our students, can make seemingly small efforts more successful. We know that small steps can lead to big change on any campus, but this notion is also relevant for the corporate world and the global community at large. It is my hope that students will take this perspective with them when they graduate and continue to make an environmental difference wherever they may go.

Amanda King is the manager of sustainability at Bentley University (Mass.). Her prior role was consulting for Environmental Resources Management, where she assisted Fortune 500 companies in solving complex environmental problems within their operations.

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