David Schatsky of Green Research just released the results of an interesting survey of senior business executives with corporate sustainability responsibility. After some 30+ interviews, what he came up with is the unsurprising conclusion that different businesses define sustainability in different ways, that they attempt to achieve it by different methods, and that they exhibit quite a range of underlying motivations.
What makes the survey interesting is the list of emphases which Schatsky suggests factor into corporate sustainability plans. Universities and colleges aren't typical corporations (at least, most of us aren't), but the factor list still hits some points of interest for campuses, as they design and implement sustainability plans.
Some listed considerations (customer attitudes and behaviors, employee attitudes and behaviors, competitors and industry leaders) play into the competitive nature of the higher ed market space. I know lots of schools which don't emphasize sustainability specifically to attract a 'better' pool of applicants, but I don't know a single one which doesn't see that sort of thing as a likely side benefit. On the other side of the coin, a number of private institutions are holding back on signing the ACUPCC, but most of them (if pressed) will admit that if enough of their peers sign on, they'll have little choice. The recent incidence of green ratings in college admissions guidebooks certainly has everyone's attention.
Two factors (greatest environmental impacts and principal environmental threats) seem less likely to drive sustainability strategies in higher ed than in other industrial sectors. Campuses aren't major consumers (in economic terms) of any particular finite natural resource. Dramatic shifts in environmental and social sustainability seem likely only to increase the demand for post-secondary education. Only a major hit to worldwide economic sustainability poses much of a threat to colleges and universities, and I'm not aware of a single institution at which that particular threat has engendered serious strategizing.
"Promising environmental opportunities" are at the heart of a few (very few) institutional sustainability strategies. Looking at sustainability (primarily, environmental sustainability) as an emerging market opportunity, these schools are focusing their research and new curricular activities to help them take leadership positions within at least some segments of emerging technologies. As Cal Tech to aerospace, [your school name here] to clean energy or efficient communities or green transit or sustainable food production.
The last two factors in Schatsky's list (what you control and link to mission) could get to the root of higher ed sustainability, but seem to have been relegated more to concerns about campus (operational) sustainability. Read "energy efficiency". Read "cost avoidance". Given that colleges and universities have a huge collective impact on the expectations and culture of the next generation (albeit an impact which is largely unmanaged), it seems unfortunate that "what you control" (what is taught, how it is taught, who teaches, who is taught) and mission (role of the institution within the community and society at large) don't figure larger in college and university sustainability plans. A few plans that I've seen give nodding acknowledgment to these factors. But, with the exception of a couple of small liberal arts colleges, no plan I've seen puts a lot of meat on these particular bones. Or, if you prefer, a lot of tofu in this organic beans and rice.
At the moment, at least, "doing the right thing" seems to be the overwhelming favorite motivation for colleges and universities to constitute sustainability efforts. Not that I have any objection to institutions or individuals doing any right thing, of course. But the truth of the matter is that simple virtue doesn't do much to help shape strategy. As goals go, it's too abstract to be useful (even if it's its own reward). A little more worldly consideration, a little more conscious thought about where an institutions long-term interests lie, a little more intentional strategizing about market positioning and (yes) the potential future impact to endowment funds of patents on enabling technologies might just prove far more useful.
Even if it does mean thinking more like a business than like a university.