What can business learn about sustainability from higher ed?

You may think that universities and corporations don’t have much in common from a sustainability perspective. But a decent-size university manages the equivalent of office buildings, restaurants, hotels, laundry services, hospitals, auto repair, retailers, waste haulers, and even small energy utilities. As such, universities and companies have a lot to learn from each other.

There’s a good case to be made that higher education is showing the way. More than 665 U.S. colleges and universities have publicly committed to pursue net-zero carbon emissions. Dozens have green procurement policies for everything from carpets to carrots to computers. The country’s largest geothermal system is at Ball State University. Washington University in St. Louis built one of the world’s first Living Buildings.

Why are they doing this? For the same reasons companies are: to reduce costs, improve quality, foster innovation, attract talent, and generally demonstrate leadership in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Colleges also face many of the same challenges as companies. They need to make the business case, inspire behavior change, navigate bureaucracies, and keep sustainability top of mind. Sustainability professionals – and informal champions – on hundreds of campuses are taking on the hard but rewarding work of leading transformational change.

In doing so they are creating learning environments that will inspire the next generation of CEOs, politicians, technicians, cultural icons, and professionals of all kinds to create a sustainable society.

Second Nature supports hundreds of colleges and universities – and the higher ed sector as a whole – in accelerating progress towards sustainability. This new monthly series will explore these efforts in ways that will help sustainability leaders in business think differently about their own challenges and opportunities.

First up: Arizona State University’s zero-waste initiative.

ASU has 13,000 staff, 72,000 students (13,000 residential), 1,500 acres of campus lands, and $1.8 billion in revenues. Its zero-waste initiative covers five campuses and two research parks with gross square footage of 14.4 million and growing.

Next page: The toughest challenges