Why higher education is a bright green market

Speaking Sustainably

Why higher education is a bright green market

Chalkboard image by KuKanDo via Shutterstock.

Academia long has been in the vanguard of the sustainability movement. Although we cannot credit students alone for its origins, it is to their interest and enthusiasm that we can, at least in part, attribute the steady growth in environmental and sustainability curricula, degree programs and maybe even careers.

Today, academia is a veritable hotbed of sustainability. From student-driven water bottle reuse campaigns to institutional renewable energy projects, schools across the country are demonstrating an ever-greater commitment to sustainability.

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education boasts more than 1,000 members, and more than 600 schools have registered to use its Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System. The American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment has 684 signatories; 2,151 schools have submitted greenhouse gas inventories, and 533 have submitted climate action plans.

Even considering there are close to 4,500 colleges and universities in the U.S., these numbers are not insignificant, and they continue to grow.

Image and reputation help drive campus sustainability

So what is motivating school administrators to sign commitments and support sustainability efforts at their institutions? Certainly "because it's the right thing to do" comes into play, as does the solid business case for sustainability projects. However, institutional image turns out to be a practical motivator for schools to undertake sustainability initiatives.

Recent declines in college enrollments, particularly at private institutions, mean schools must compete for fewer students, so potential enrollees' perceptions of a particular school — including perceptions of its greenness — very well can play into their decision to attend. According to the Princeton Review (PDF), 61 percent of likely applicants say a school's commitment to sustainability would affect their decision to apply or attend. Supporting that point, Shelton Group's Eco Pulse 2014 study found that more than 60 percent of millennials believe climate change is occurring and is caused primarily by human activities, and nearly 75 percent actively seek greener products.

Colleges and universities compete not only for students and on the athletic field, but also for all manner of accolades, including myriad lists of Top (name your number) Schools for everything from landscaping to Fortune 500 alumni. Among these lists are the EPA Green Power Partnership's Top 30 College and University list, Princeton Review's Guide to Green Colleges and the Sierra Club's "Coolest Schools" list. Finding their institution on such lists gives administrators and alumni bragging rights and encourages donations. The way onto these lists is the active and public pursuit of energy efficiency, renewable energy and sustainability initiatives.

All this points to academia being a ripe — and very large — market for all things sustainable. Colleges and universities spend many billions of dollars each year on a wide range of products, projects and services, many if not all of which have green options.

Green is an academic procurement priority

Today, more higher education procurement offices are operating with a mandate to prioritize green purchasing. A 2013 study (PDF) by the National Association of Educational Procurement and SciQuest found that 65 percent of survey respondents (procurement professionals in higher education) report green procurement as an official component of their campus's official sustainability plan (up from 62 percent in 2009); 47 percent report their departments are working under a formal green procurement policy — a number that has doubled during the past five years.

Paper products, general office supplies and equipment, janitorial supplies, appliances and computers most often were reported (more than 50 percent) as commodity focal points of green procurement; however, construction materials, renewable energy and local and organic food also were reported at respectable levels.

If your company provides green products or services, you would be well advised to make sure you're on the radar of educational procurement offices, and that you become noted as a green vendor in whatever procurement system they use. There are a plethora of such systems, some internal, some external, some sophisticated and some fairly basic. Many states, such as North Carolina and Maryland, have their own procurement systems, so if you want to do business with a state college or university or a community college, you'll need to register in the state system.

For some schools, you will have to be invited by someone at the school to register as a vendor, which may not happen until they actually want to make a purchase from you. If your reach is local, getting your foot in the door by establishing personal contact with the appropriate campus purchasing agents is probably the best approach. If you want to cast your net broadly, a direct mail intro to your company might be worthwhile. E-mail and snail mail lists of academic procurement and purchasing managers and directors are readily available for rental or purchase.

However you make contact, make sure your pitch highlights the green aspects of your products or services and try to cast it so you give the school a way to make your sustainability story part of theirs.

This article originally appeared at the Shelton Group blog. Chalkboard image by KuKanDo via Shutterstock.