What’s the best defense against charges of “greenwashing?” Its measurement, of course: accurate, verifiable assessments provide evidence that an institution is “walking the walk” in its efforts to operate more sustainably. While the business world might have the most to gain in terms of releasing concrete data regarding sustainability initiatives, higher education’s enthusiastic embrace of green initiatives has also drawn scrutiny from a variety of stakeholders: students, faculty, administrators, alumni and board members all want to know that a campus’ efforts to “go green” represent sound investments in both the institution’s, and the planet’s, well-being. While a number of reports have measured various aspects of college and university environmental programs, no single method for assessing campus sustainability exists… well, until now.
Last week, I ran across an article from the Washington University Record noting that it, along with 89 other institutions, was participating in the pilot stage of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS). The pilot represents the start of “a collaborative process to develop a campus sustainability rating system” with the following goals:
- Provide a guide for advancing sustainability in all sectors of higher education, from governance and operations to academics and community engagement.
- Enable meaningful comparisons over time and across institutions by establishing a common standard of measurement for sustainability in higher education.
- Create incentives for continuous improvement toward sustainability.
- Facilitate information sharing about higher education sustainability practices and performance.
- Build a stronger, more diverse campus sustainability community and promote a comprehensive understanding of sustainability that includes its social, economic and environmental dimensions.
STARS was created in response to a request for such a framework from the Higher Education Associations Sustainability Consortium, which noted that “It’s impossible to answer the frequently asked question, “Who are the leading campuses in sustainability?’ with any degree of accuracy or confidence.” The STARS rating systems will attempt to fill that void by creating a LEED-like voluntary measurement standard that assesses information provided by institutions.
A close reader might immediately raise the question “What? The institutions being rated are providing the information?” Yes, they are, but AASHE has included a requirement for transparency that it believes will undermine any attempts to “game” the system:
Completed checklist and supporting documentation will be posted on a central site open to the public, allowing for questions on an institution’s submitted data. AASHE will host and maintain the site. The entire system – weighting, scoring process, criteria for fulfilling credits – is designed to be transparent. STARS is a self-administered tool, not a 3rd party rating. An institution’s level of achievement will be apparent after completing the checklist.
Of course, all of this is a learning process, and AASHE notes it may give points to institutions that pursue some form of third-party certification.
I’m going to keep a close eye on the development of the STARS system, as I believe it has the potential to create a recognizable and valued indicator of a college’s or university’s sustainability efforts. Following the LEED model makes sense, as this standard has created a common language for understanding green building; STARS could do the same for higher education. As with any rating system, though, the value will come not only from the acceptance of a common perspective for evaluating campus sustainability, but also from the credibility that system conveys.
AASHE looks to be taking the right steps towards building such credibility: take a look at the documents it’s provided for the system, and see if you agree. It will be interesting to see if the program follows other LEED-like initiatives: certification for “accredited professionals,” or more specific standards for different kinds of institutions (should a multi-branch community college and a small liberal arts school, for instance, have separate goals and standards?). All of that will be a part of the discovery and discussion process, I’m sure… I look forward to the first release of data next year.