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How the Field Museum accelerated sustainability

Looking to the future became key to preserving the past. Plus, three holistic actions your organization can take.

If you’ve traveled to Chicago, you likely are familiar with the Field Museum, a grand building from 1893 filled with world-class artifacts and active research on one of the world’s top natural history collections. While this building houses relics from millions of years of life on Earth, including antiquities, it also uses new approaches to sustainability.

The Field's core mission is to explore, protect and celebrate nature and culture, serving the public as educator for greater understanding of environments and people. Its leadership realized that to engage and educate the public credibly on environmental issues, its facilities should exemplify best practices and serve as an experiential education tool for visitors. Today, the Field works to reduce its ecological footprint using renewable energy, internal conservation, preservation, waste reduction and visitor-engagement initiatives. For a complex 1.3 million square-foot building held to strict indoor environmental conditions that accommodate highly sensitive artifacts, this is a substantial undertaking.

A crucial partnership

In 2012, the Field accelerated its sustainability initiatives after partnering with Delta Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit that works with communities to solve complex environmental challenges across the Midwest. Delta Institute brought experience working with existing buildings and operations, with a particular fondness for older, complicated buildings that can be difficult to transition to modern infrastructure and sustainable practices.

This more holistic approach made it easy for all leaders to participate in decision-making and see how sustainable strategies could help them achieve their goals.
Delta Institute’s initial challenge was to understand the goals and priorities of diverse museum stakeholders, including the C-suite, facilities and exhibitions teams, and general employees — while building connection among these separate implementation groups. Informed by these varied perspectives, sustainable facility and operations improvement projects achieving multiple institutional objectives could be effectively proposed to leadership.

To drive broader buy-in and reduce bias, Delta Institute and the Field’s sustainability team recognized sustainability as one of many valid priorities. This approach disarmed skeptics and cleared the way for proponents to be included in more conversations related to institutional initiatives and budgets. Inclusion in these discussions allowed for relationship-building between operations, finance, procurement and other institutional leaders, while breaking up siloed departments. Once trust was built and decision-makers saw sustainability strategies as a valuable tool with co-benefits for their own goals, initiative traction rose quickly.

Rather than create a new sustainability-specific series of meetings that leadership and employees could perceive with negativity or as unwanted job burden, the Field Museum’s existing capital planning and budget process provided a viable vehicle to have these conversations naturally. Sustainability analysis was layered alongside financial, safety, visitor experience, capital planning and budgeting criteria to provide leadership more complete information when allocating capital.

A critical tool

Below is the Capital Project Scoring Tool data from a 2015 planning study at the Field Museum, which analyzed which capital and operations projects had the most holistic value for the organization:

Presenting a capital and operations project analysis in this method provided a comprehensive comparison of dissimilar projects including energy, water, outreach and waste. Projects including aesthetic improvements, building systems upgrades, sustainability certifications and recycling can be reviewed side-by-side on one list, and those with the highest aggregate score (bars extending furthest in the chart) are clearly visible to all. For instance, while a rainwater capture cistern sounds like a worthwhile project, it scored lower than LEED Certification, pipe insulation and roof maintenance — so it wasn’t pursued.

Unless your institution is already well underway in sustainability efforts, don’t mandate hard targets, such as a certain percent-level reduction in energy, waste or water usage.
By avoiding cumbersome detail, high-level findings were presented to streamline information and encourage decision-making eliminating over-analysis and churn. Scoring criteria used by the Field included cost, visitor experience, sustainability impact, ROI and staff efficiency.

The Capital Project Scoring Tool also facilitated analysis of frequently overlooked qualitative parts of sustainability, such as thermal comfort and visitor engagement. This helped leadership see qualitative sustainability data as a valid part of the discussion. The desired outcome of the entire initiative was to neutralize arbitrary and subjective decision-making, and build consensus around projects with the greatest actual impact so they are pushed to the forefront.

Waste not

Improvement in the Field’s waste reduction illustrates how this approach drove results. Starting in 2009, the Field had a successful effort using Beyond Green Sustainable Food Partners to increase the healthful food options served and reduce waste in its two restaurants. In 2013, proponents sought to expand efforts institution-wide and leveraged the Capital Project Scoring Tool, with complementary efforts. In 2014, composting extended from the restaurants into staff and volunteer areas. Additionally, the museum conducted waste audits, observations and experimentation with signage in the Siragusa school group cafeteria, which serves up to 80,000 student visitors annually.

The result was the creation of a custom waste diversion system, including educational materials for teachers and chaperones. Overall, the Field tripled its rate of waste diverted from landfill from 2013 to 2016, a reduction from 800 to 250 tons a year. The Field composts more than 100 tons of materials every year, and was awarded a Food Recovery Challenge award by the EPA in 2017.

Getting the sustainable food and waste project to be seen as a priority was step one. Similar results can be seen in other areas of the Field. Some key achievements from 2013 to 2016 include:

  • 15 percent increase in energy efficiency
  • 67 percent decrease in overall waste to landfill
  • 10 percent reduction in water use
  • 100 percent renewable energy via on-site solar and renewable energy purchases
  • LEED Gold certification
  • 28,000 square feet of native landscaping planted (with 53,000 additional square feet installed in 2018)
  • 2016 Illinois Governor's Sustainability Award

This more holistic approach made it easy for all leaders to participate in decision-making and see how sustainable strategies could help them achieve their goals. As a result, the institution met previously unthinkable environmental goals, while reducing operational pain points across multiple departments.

3 takeaways for your organization

1. Canvas existing initiatives, committees and leaders who don’t have an explicit sustainability alignment. Ask what their goals are — not sustainability-specific ones, but core needs, business mission and focus, and personal drivers. Offer solutions that achieve their goals first and are also sustainable, but as a co-benefit. 

2. Consider employing tools that make it easy for others to consider sustainability as a factor among competing institutional priorities. The key is making the process simple and convenient — otherwise, those who aren’t already sustainability proponents won’t be motivated.

3.  Unless your institution is already well underway in sustainability efforts, don’t mandate hard targets, such as a certain percent-level reduction in energy, waste or water usage. Instead, advocate for relationship-based goals. For example, the Field's director of sustainability meets with the director of finance, transportation or procurement once a month. This approach builds trust and turns others into your advocates, who will help your initiatives to be approved when the time comes.

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