Just as the benefits of corporate sustainability initiatives go beyond simply doing "what's right" or saving money, colleges and universities are finding wide-ranging benefits from making sustainability core to their school brand.
"The most powerful component of a brand is the experience it provides for those who come in contact with it," said Boi-Yeanoh Adams, Waste Management's education program manager for public sector solutions, during a GreenBiz.com webcast Wednesday.
For companies, that mainly means the products and services they provide. For colleges and universities, that means everything about the student experience, from what classes are available to how waste at sporting events is handled.
"More and more college applicants are using a college's commitment to the environment as part of their decision-making process," Adams said.
Along with bringing in prospective students, a school can use its sustainability branding to position itself as an environmental thought leader, tap into engaged students and staff, and improve the quality of life on campus with natural lighting, better air quality and organic food, she said.
One major effort by the University of Notre Dame has been to make its football games more sustainable. Erin Hafner, programs manager for the university’s Office of Sustainability, said that includes not just the game itself, but everything surrounding the game, such as pep rallies and concerts. One big target: garbage.
"When 150,000 visitors come to campus on a game day weekend, waste becomes an issue," Hafner said.
Before each game, student volunteers distribute recycling bags to tailgaters in campus parking lots, and those bags are later picked up by the school's recycling provider. Last year, 124 tons of waste were recycled through that bag service. Numerous recycling containers are elsewhere, Hafner said, and concession stands provide reusable cups to reduce waste.
"Fans are making sustainable choices and they don't even know it," she said.
While a school can implement any number of sustainability projects, it still will want to know the impact of those efforts, and what kind of effect they're having on the school's branding.
"Measuring brand value is notoriously difficult to achieve," Adams said.
Still, she said, colleges and universities can determine the brand value of sustainability by looking at national recognition they receive from their actions, recruiting advantages, campus quality of life, increased productivity, student and faculty retention, lower carbon emissions, reduced operational costs and environmental compliance.
Notre Dame, for example, already has enough student volunteers to handle recycling duties for its football games this year, showing just how many want to be involved.
Arizona State University, meanwhile, has attracted sustainability-minded students with both its environmental commitments -- it has climate neutrality and zero waste goals -- as well as its educational offerings.
A couple of years after ASU President Michael Crow joined the school, he helped create the Global Institute of Sustainability, which houses the School of Sustainability.
"We're trying to find the right balance of theory and practical implementation," said Nicholas Brown, senior sustainability scientist at ASU's Global Institute of Sustainability.
The university’s ambitious goals, meanwhile, show ASU's dedication to its green branding. ASU aims to be a zero waste school by 2015 and be climate neutral (without using offsets) by 2035.
"These commitments make our team credible," he said.
Arizona Statue University campus image by kevin dooley via Flickr