How many schools can say that they are on the Sierra Club’s radar for excellence in sustainability initiatives? Only 164 in the nation, and College of Charleston ranked 157th this year. “We’re not ranked very high,” Jen Jones, Facilities Coordinator in the Office of Sustainability, said, “but even to be on that list is a pretty big accomplishment, especially considering our political environment.”
Despite the honor, the last thing the Office wants to become is a collection of paper-pushers chasing points for sustainability assessments. For example, although they keep a STARS report from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, they do not submit the report for a STARS ranking. (STARS is an online, self-reporting system to track sustainability in areas such as education, buildings, investment and public engagement.)
Even if a school is a non-submitting AASHE member, their STARS reports are used by outside organizations, including the Sierra Club, to rank schools based on sustainability. The Office of Sustainability then uses these reports to gauge their progress and areas that need improvement. According to Jones, the rankings are more relevant on a national scale; their focus in Charleston is on day-to-day issues and goals.
The College’s Office of Sustainability is still in the process of developing a sustainability action plan that will outline those goals. Some long-term considerations as of now include zero waste and carbon neutrality initiatives. However, representatives from both the Office and Green CofC, the organization that aims to be a student-run parallel to the Office, stressed that their work will continue even after those goals are met.
Meeting those goals will take time and patience. According to Jen, misconceptions that sustainability is about going green and saving the environment have led to “some resistance and tensions” from certain groups. A major goal of the Office of Sustainability and Green CofC is to increase awareness of what sustainability really is in order to better facilitate change.
Adrian Barry, a founding member and executive committee member of Green CofC, explained sustainability as a lens through which every decision in every field can be made. “We often run into the problem of people thinking of a bunch of tree-hugging hippie environmentalists that don’t shower and just sit in drum circles—which is all well and good, I love a good drum circle—but it’s so much more.”
Cara Lauria, another Green CofC committee member, elaborated upon Barry’s point. “What is sustaining? “ she said. “It’s trying to create these communities and relationships and societies that are going to last.” Over the past few years, Green CofC has undertaken initiatives such as the CofC bike share, a contract with GrowFood Carolina, personal auditing for waste management, a green roof pilot program and socially responsible investment of College endowments.
Interns in the Office come from fields as disparate as religion and philosophy, communications, biology and public health. “Sustainability isn’t a discipline, it isn’t a major—it’s something that’s pervasive across everything,” Jones said.
Although honored by the Sierra Club’s award, the Office does not see their goals as checkpoints on a to-do list. “It’s not a linear movement with a set goal and target,” Barry said. “It’s more of a cyclical way of life and making decisions.”