A lot of sustainability programs are scrambling to find their schools on the next “green” ranking list. We want to be recognized for our good sustainability work, and often these lists serve as an incredible outreach opportunity to prospective students (indeed the kinds of students that a small, environmental liberal arts college may want to have on campus). These green rankings can serve as a great motivator for sustainability efforts as well, shedding light on shortcomings and celebrating campus successes. But it’s hard to apply a narrowly focused ranking survey to the diverse array of colleges out there. And the higher education community (and consumer) is becoming increasingly suspect of sustainability credentials in an age of greenwashing.
In response to the need for authentic sustainability assessment across and within institutions, AASHE (The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education), has developed its Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS). STARS has been developed over several years with extensive input from the sustainability and higher ed. communities. Modeled on the USGBC’s LEED certification system, STARS follows a checklist (PDF) and requires comprehensive documentation of sustainability efforts. AASHE has also recently developed an online discussion forum with topic threads mirroring the STARS guidelines. According to their website:
STARS is designed to:
- Provide a guide for advancing sustainability in all sectors of higher education, from education and research to operations and administration.
- Enable meaningful comparisons over time and across institutions by establishing a common standard of measurement for sustainability in higher education.
- Create incentives for continual improvement toward sustainability.
- Facilitate information sharing about higher education sustainability practices and performance.
- Build a stronger, more diverse campus sustainability community and promote a comprehensive understanding of sustainability that includes its social, economic and environmental dimensions.
Importantly, STARS is a rating system, not a “ranking” system. Transparent reporting certainly allows comparison between institutions, but it’s the STARS focus on institutional accountability and authentic assessment that will set it apart from so many green lists. The Sustainability Office at Unity College will lead our involvement with STARS over the coming years. Students interested in sustainability careers in higher ed. would do well to get involved early and often.