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Gabi levy / Columbia Daily Spectator

Take a look at that syllabus your teacher handed out at the start of this year. If your professor teaches at one of the 12 schools, departments, or locations that have been certified through the Sustainable Leaders Network’s Workplace Certification, that syllabus is most likely printed on 100 percent recycled paper. And that business card you got from a professor in the School of Nursing? It’s probably made up of at least 30 percent postconsumer waste content.

The Sustainable Leaders Network was created in 2016 alongside University President Lee Bollinger’s announcement of Columbia’s first set of sustainability principles. The group is composed of voluntary representatives from across Columbia’s schools and departments with the intention of being a metrics-driven tool to help accomplish the University’s sustainability goals.

The specific goals highlighted on the SLN’s website are filtered into eight categories that largely relate to the University-wide sustainability goals; they outline small changes to energy consumption, waste disposal, water use, and several other areas critical to a sustainable campus. As listed in the 2017-2020 Sustainability Plan, “The primary objective of the SLN is to engage a wide range of stakeholders from across the campus to collaborate in developing and endorsing a set of these actions that can serve to guide Columbia’s schools to foster a culture of sustainability.”

To understand what this culture of sustainably is, I sit down with the co-presidents of EcoReps. Within minutes of starting our conversation, Midori Sangiolo, co-president of Columbia EcoReps and a sophomore in SEAS says, “Honestly I hadn't even heard of the SLN until your email, and neither did most of the board of EcoReps.”

Beside her sits Kate Wegleitner, the other co-president and a junior in SEAS, nodding along. Wegleitner adds, “I think it just has to do a little bit with the fact that students aren't really aware of University big legislation that’s happening. They’re more aware of the things that impact them directly.”

The question of awareness and visibility is a valuable one to ask. If students aren’t aware of the actions of the SLN, is it engaging all of its stakeholders in its desired culture of sustainability?

All of the SLN’s actions thus far fall under the umbrella category set by the Office of Environmental Stewardship of “behavioral change.” In a interview with Spectator, Jason Smerdon, a Lamont research professor and an affiliate of the Earth Institute notes the importance of pushing for this level of change and how, while difficult, behavioral change is the path to long-term engagement.

“We can do lots of things to educate and create awareness, and all the ways in which we can help start informing behavior, but at the end of the day it has to come down to individuals making the decisions about these issues and participating,” Smerdon says. The SLN is one way to engage these changes and encourage participation.

Small changes at the individual and workplace level encourage behavioral change, according to Estrella Castillo, a School of General Studies student graduating next fall and an outgoing student representative of the SLN. She recalls a small anecdote with a smile creeping upon her face, “I’ve seen deans who will call me like: ‘Because of you, I’m using a refillable water bottle. I don’t buy water bottles anymore, thanks.’”

Reusable water bottles are a common example of a simple behavioral change among sustainability advocates. When a friend of Jenna Znak, a fifth-year student in GS and the incoming GS student representative for the SLN, stops to say hi, she serves as the perfect spokesperson, flashing her reusable water bottle. Znak explains how something like getting one person to switch from buying plastic water bottles to using reusable bottles is not going to solve a massive problem alone, but it has the potential to cause a ripple effect and get people to become more aware of their impact on the environment.

Gabi levy
Jenna Znak, a fifth-year student in General Studies, sits in the General Studies Lounge located in Lewisohn Hall. Znak is the incoming student representative for the Sustainable Leaders Network.

Jenna makes this clear with an example: “One day you’re changing your water bottle, just the next day you’re telling a friend to change their water bottle, and then the next day you start to realize that you really don’t need your air conditioning on 24 hours. You know, [those] things, they snowball.”

Right now, participation in the SLN begins with the representatives. Ideally, the SLN is composed of several schools and major departments who each send one student, one faculty member, and one administrator to serve as that school’s representatives. Alongside the representatives, several other teams from the Office of Environmental Stewardship are active in the SLN, including the waste team, energy team, and transportation team. Leading the SLN is Jessica Prata, assistant vice president of Environmental Stewardship and lecturer in continuing education, and Allie Schwartz, assistant director of planning and outreach in Environmental Stewardship.

The representatives meet as a whole about twice a semester to cover broad goals for the all of the member schools, as well as reflect and improve upon their main initiative: The Sustainable Columbia Workspace Certification Program.

Representatives then coordinate Green Teams, which are smaller groups composed of members from one school or department that implement the workplace certification, manage the project goals, and communicate with faculty staff and students within their workplace.

According to the 2018 Sustainable Columbia Annual Progress Report, there has been significant growth in administrative Green Teams, led by and for a group of administrators. In 2017, the SLN’s first year, the SLN had six administration Green Teams and 40 school Green Teams. In 2018, the SLN gained 20 administrative teams but one school team, totaling 67 Green Teams. That accounts for 170 active green leaders in the program currently and 13 certified schools or departments.

This reflects large growth across the SLN’s two-year existence. The nature of the program leaves it open to development and access to many people who volunteer directly with the SLN. “It is a voluntary program and that was by design,” Prata says in an interview with Spectator. She later adds, “And we’ve had a lot of enthusiasm and support from people.”

In engaging the community, so far most of its interest has been at the administrative and graduate school level. Fifteen of Columbia’s schools are listed as being involved with the network in some capacity. While GS has been involved in the SLN, Columbia College is not involved at all, and the School of Engineering and Applied Science student representative graduated in 2018 without a listed replacement.

The workplace certification takes a large selection of metrics as determined by school representatives and volunteers that helped develop the program. Each action has a point value that contribute to a school’s ranking—bronze, silver, gold, or platinum.

The scores and actions chosen by the Office of Environmental Stewardship are very deliberate, and reflect very deliberate evaluations of the impact and effect of each action. Prata says, “We took a lot of care in making sure that we put this program together in as fair and as well-thought-through way as possible.”

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A silver certificate on a General Studies Lounge wall, awarded to the school for completing the Sustainable Leaders Network Workplace Certification.

As of now, the SLN and the Workplace Certification program is intended to reflect small, feasible steps toward fulfilling the general and overarching goals outlined in the 2017-2020 Sustainability Plan.

“Taking something so vague like sustainability principles and trying to actually operationalize that on an institutional level was kind of a big task.” Castillo highlights the desire to use the SLN as a means of breaking down larger goals. She describes how the representatives and Green Teams are designed so that those who use the workspace complete the certification as a self-audit.

“It’s pretty easy,” Nicolas Burry, the student representative for the Columbia School of Nursing, says. We meet before just before his presentation to the SLN, but his demeanor doesn’t suggest any hint of nervousness. He describes how there is a checklist, where the Green Team evaluates each item and progresses through the list. He goes on to emphasize that it isn’t difficult to implement small changes—like changing what paper you choose to purchase, or what companies you cater from.

According to Castillo, the SLN is not intended to get Columbia to achieve its sustainability goals on its own, but instead seeks to engage people to be more conscious of the impact of their choices. She says, “Even if it’s not going to stop climate change, say, it’s still bringing in that consciousness into the workspace.” Prata reinforces this by describing a toolbox, with the SLN as one tool where “the goal is to really engage the community and influence sustainable change.”

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Estrella Castillo, a student in the School of General Studies graduating next fall, sits at a table in Lewisohn. Castillo is a current student representative on the Sustainable Leaders Network.

But at the student level, member schools don’t necessarily embody this level of engagement. At the Nursing School, one of the two certified platinum schools, Burry admits, “I didn’t really prioritize student engagement as much as getting through most of our checklist priorities that we want to accomplish.”

As Znak notes, it can be hard to get students invested in abstract sustainability initiatives like the SLN while they have to manage all the other responsibilities of being a student. After being asked about what she thinks about the current level of student engagement in the SLN, she replies, “I think that it’s hard to come on to an environment like we have here at Columbia and try to ask students for more.” However, Znak later emphasizes that it is important for students to be involved with SLN as they provide different perspectives on goals “that we can’t do only on that administrative side.”

Gabi Levy
Eco-friendly reminders from the Sustainable Leaders Network in the General Studies Lounge in Lewisohn Hall.

The implementation of a workplace certification is not unique to Columbia. Checklist-style certifications are also popular at Duke University because of their ease. Rebecca Hoeffler, communications coordinator and Sustainable Duke program coordinator explains that its checklist “really breaks it down easy for anyone to participate so that they can feel a part of the larger mission of carbon neutrality.”

Duke’s Green Workplace Certification is very similar to the SLN’s Workplace Certification, with nine different categories of sustainable initiatives. Just like the SLN, Duke’s Green Certification is focused on campus engagement. At Duke this means certifying more than just the workplace; Duke’s Certification program has expanded to include certifications for events, classrooms, dorms, labs, and even some Greek houses. “With the workplace and dorm certification generally we find that people want to be sustainable,” Hoeffler says. “It’s not because they don’t want to; it’s just because they don’t know how.”

Hoeffler reflects on this past year: “Now people are really invested which is really great because it takes a village, and it’s exciting to know that people feel like they have power to create change.”

Duke’s Certification Program is more visible, hosting events such as a competition between first-year resident halls to certify the most dorms. The event resulted in over 750 rooms certified—about a quarter of the first-year class. And with over 350 certified events that total more than 12,000 attendees, certifying events has further spread word about the program.

To a certain extent, Duke sustainability represents one extreme, with an emphasis on personalized engagement programs for different spaces. The University of Michigan offers a different perspective on the potential of workplace certifications.

Barbara Hagan, program manager in the Office of Campus Sustainability at the University of Michigan, describes its two-prong platform for engaging both staff and students. The Planet Blue Ambassador training program is one part, and the other is the lab and workplace certification, which provides measurable levels of sustainability for certain aspects around campus.

At the University of Michigan, the Workplace Certification program focuses only on administrators, whereas the Planet Blue Ambassador program operates as a separate training platform open to student, faculty, and general community members.

According to Hagan, this year has seen one of the most dramatic growths of the program, certifying 72 workplaces since June. Despite this success at the workplace level, the University of Michigan still faces challenges in the engaging students. She notes, “We certainly have a fair number of students that are working in departments who are influencing those departments. I don’t know that I would say that they are encouraging them to be [Certified] Sustainable Workplaces. But they are encouraging them to be more sustainable.”

EcoReps, which has initiatives like giving free water bottles and tote bags to first-year students during move in or coordinating the Green Sale, might be one example of this at Columbia. Its efforts encourage behavioral change, similarly to the Workplace Certification Program, but it engages differently with campus while serving the same broader goal of campus sustainability.

As the second year of the SLN’s existence comes to a close, the SLN is still very young. Duke’s Green Certification program has been active since 2011, and the University of Michigan’s since 2012.

“I think that we’re going to continue to look to grow it…” Prata says when asked about the future of the SLN moving past 2020. “We’re always looking for ways to improve it.”

What other university certification programs provide is a glimpse at a possible future for the SLN. No one structure works for every institution, but the structure of a university provides a sort of experimental playing field for understanding how to best instigate behavioral changes. As Smerdon says, “One of the things that’s exciting specifically about sustainability initiatives on universities is that it really is a living learning environment for thinking about these issues.”

Burry sums it up well. “Yeah we’re starting. It’s a start.”

Teddy Ajluni contributed reporting.

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