I started my week speaking at the University of Pittsburgh’s annual Engineering Sustainability event and one of the students asked me, “You talked about what people expect of big companies … what do they expect of universities?” Here’s the answer:
According to a 2019 Princeton Review survey
of nearly 12,000 college applicants, approximately 64 percent consider a school’s environmental commitment when deciding where to attend.
In the past decade or so, a number of organizations have sprouted up with the sole purpose of measuring universities’ commitments to sustainability. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE)
has become a hub for colleges to self-report, compare and boast about their accomplishments ever since the founding of the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System™ (STARS)
in 2011. The program encourages healthy competition amongst universities and gives out ratings ranging from Platinum and Gold to Bronze and “Reporter” status. Environment America Research and Policy Center
also regularly reports on universities’ renewable energy commitments (see their most recent report here
In some cases, strong sustainability commitments attract students to universities, whereas in other cases, the students spark universities to adapt. Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, became the top-most ranked school for renewable energy in large part thanks to students and university leaders who lobbied the university nearly a decade ago
to commit to wind-power electricity and renewable energy credits. Student demand for sustainability has also led to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (my alma mater) creating a dedicated sustainability major and Office of Sustainability.
The university now recognizes sustainability as “a rapidly growing interdisciplinary field with practical applications across all sectors of the global workforce.” They also offer a certificate in Sustainability Science and an interdisciplinary sustainability Ph.D. program.
The bottom line is this: Gen Z not only values sustainability; they expect it, and colleges and universities are responding. As the best and brightest come out of a college environment where they’ve been immersed in opportunities, visible actions, messaging, etc. about sustainability, they will expect the same of their employers, and the brands they buy from. Hiring and retaining the best talent is and will continue to be one of the greatest challenges for all companies and organizations. Without strong commitments, actions and communications on sustainability – both to recruits, employees and the outside world – you’re at risk of being passed over.