Sustainability Planning

Climate crisis. Ecological catastrophe. Environmental injustice.

However you parse it, climate change is a threat to our survival. Yet addressing it requires a monumental level of change—from individuals and institutions. Sustainability planning organizes these efforts so that your college or university can become part of the solution, not the problem.

Why do it? Why integrated? Who does it?
When is it done? How is it done? Learn how.

What is sustainability planning in higher education?

Sustainability planning in higher education is planning that outlines a college’s or university’s overall sustainability goals and how those goals will be met.

“Sustainability” is a broad concept. While sustainability planning nearly always addresses environmental and ecological health, it can also include human health and wellbeing, equity and social justice, and economic integrity.1 Each institution must determine what it means by “sustainability.”

A sustainability plan is broad, covering all aspects of a college’s or university’s “operations, education, administration, and stakeholders,” including:

  • Academics and Curriculum
  • Governance and Leadership
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • Investment, Resources, and Procurement
  • Campus Planning and/or Master Planning
  • Facilities and Landscape Maintenance
  • Communications and Engagement
  • Student Activities
  • Energy and Infrastructure
  • Residence Life and Food Services
  • Transportation
  • Waste Management2

More detailed, technical plans that focus on reducing greenhouse gasses, such as climate action plans, can be a component of a sustainability plan or are informed by a sustainability plan.

Featured Resources

Universities on Fire:
Higher Ed in the Age of Climate Crisis

Bryan Alexander, futurist, explores the impact of climate change on higher education and how academia may respond.
View the Recording

The Higher Education Associations Sustainability Consortium (HEASC) offers information and resources that can be helpful during sustainability planning.

Why do sustainability planning on campus?

Our very survival hinges on our ability to address climate change and mitigate its impacts. Assembling and implementing a campus-wide sustainability plan ensures that a college or university takes operational, financial, and environmental steps to prevent an environmental catastrophe. Further, sustainability planning in higher education trains students in the ways of sustainability and provides examples and best practices for other organizations.

Why is integrated planning important for sustainability planning?

Achieving sustainability requires change across the institution: from how and where resources are allocated to what is taught, researched, and learned, and how people get their day-to-day work completed. Sustainability planning must align and interact with other plans—strategic, academic, budget, campus—in order to achieve this scope of change.

Planning that focuses only on “traditional” sustainability areas (like energy use and waste management) misses opportunities to incorporate initiatives into campus functions and departments that are not traditionally associated with sustainability.

Who does sustainability planning on campus?

Sustainability planning is often led by a cross-functional committee with representatives from faculty, administration, staff, students, and the community.

The committee should include representatives from:

  • Sustainability
  • Campus Planning
  • Budget and Finance
  • Academics
  • Operations
  • Facilities
  • Physical Plant (landscape, engineering, infrastructure)
  • Human Resources4
  • Student Affairs

As with any type of planning, stakeholder involvement and input in the plan’s development is crucial for successful implementation.

When is sustainability planning done?

Because sustainability planning often includes initiatives that can be completed in a relatively short time (like updating procurement policies to include sustainability as a criteria used to vet potential suppliers) and projects that require years to finish (like retrofitting buildings to be more energy efficient), it can be helpful to have an overarching plan with a longer time horizon—5–10 years—that’s supplemented by yearly action plans and updates. This also allows your plan to adapt to technological changes and innovations.

How is sustainability planning done?

Many institutions use rating systems, like the AASHE STARS program, as a framework to determine how they should approach sustainability planning, including what their plan should address and who should be involved.

Generally, the steps you take for sustainability planning are:

  • Form a committee to guide planning
  • Determine what sustainability means for your institution and the topics or functional areas your plan will cover
  • Conduct research into different topics and areas for your plan: What are you doing well? How could you improve? How do you compare to similar institutions? (This also might be delegated to subcommittees—for example, a subcommittee on energy use.)
  • Seek stakeholder ideas and feedback for the plan
  • Draft goals and strategies
  • Seek feedback on the goals and strategies
  • Incorporate feedback to finalize the goals and strategies
  • Develop an implementation plan
  • Have the plan approved by leadership
  • Launch implementation3
1 “What Is Sustainability?,” The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, November 30, 2020).
2 Helen Cox, “A Model for Creating a Campus Sustainability Plan,” Planning for Higher Education 44, no. 1 (2015).
3 Cox.
4 Cox.

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