Explore MSM Network

Creating Sustainable Campuses In Higher Education

Sustainable campuses higher education.jpg

When one thinks of a sustainable university campus, one immediately thinks of an environmentally-friendly institution. While this is correct, building, maintaining, and promoting sustainability in higher education entails so much more.

Key Points at a Glance

  • The concept of sustainability was first introduced in 1987 through the report “Our Common Future” published by the United Nations through the Oxford University Press.
  • Former college president and seasoned environmentalist Mitchell Thomashow details nine elements that contribute to a sustainable campus.
  • According to AASHE, the top three performing Associate Colleges in 2020, in terms of sustainability, were all based in Canada (Nova Scotia, Ontario). 
  • Higher Education Institutions could use environmental learnings from COVID-19 to make their sustainability initiatives more relevant.


According to the Sustainable Campus Management Office of Hokkaido University in Japan, a sustainable campus “practically and multilaterally” supports “the well being of a society by expanding education and research that are rooted in social challenges as policies of the entire university and implementing campus development that harmonizes with surrounding areas.”

The idea of a sustainable university campus was formalized in the late ‘80s when the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development first proposed the concept of sustainable development. From there, educational institutions in the United States and the United Kingdom followed suit and soon thereafter, university sustainability initiatives were set out and practiced starting in the ‘90s moving towards present times.

Higher education institutions in the west came together and formed councils to monitor these developments on campus sustainability. Among these were the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC) of the United Kingdom and Ireland founded in 1996, and the International Sustainable Campus Network (ISCN) and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) in the United States and Canada, respectively, both founded in 2006. 

Elements of a Sustainable Campus

Unity College former president Mitchell Thomashow enumerates in his book “The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus,” which elements institutions need to focus on in order to create a sustainable university campus: energy, food, infrastructure, governance, investment, wellness, curriculum, interpretation, and aesthetics. Identifying these is one thing, while ensuring that all elements seamlessly integrate is another.

In a 2014 report submitted to the International Development Research Centre (Canada) entitled “Sustainable Campuses: Sharing our Knowledge for Social and Environmental Sustainability,” the author identifies three important drivers for campus sustainability: supportive administration, engaged faculty, and empowered students.

“An integrative approach to [sustainable campus] initiatives throughout North America have already identified the importance of working on all different aspects of campus life, curriculum, research, operations, and in some cases, community engagement,” stated the report. It further recommended that “campuses aim to integrate, make links between these different elements that make up campus life, and the reason for being of the institution.”

Sustainable Campuses in 2020

The AASHE published its 2020 Sustainable Campus Index recognizing the “top-performing colleges and universities overall by institution type and in 17 sustainability impact areas.” These 17 sustainability impact areas are: air and climate; buildings; campus engagement; coordination and planning; curriculum, diversity and affordability, energy, food and dining, grounds, investment and finance, public engagement, purchasing, research, transportation, waste, water, and wellbeing and work.

Overall, the top three performers among Associate Colleges were Nova Scotia Community College (Halifax, NS), Mohawk College (Hamilton, ON), Fleming College (Peterborough, ON). The top three performers among Baccalaureate Institutions: Colby College (Waterville, ME), Dickinson College (Carlisle, PA), Middlebury College (Middlebury, VP).

Associate college graph
Baccalaureate institute graph

AASHE has over 900 members across 48 U.S. states, one U.S. Territory, nine Canadian provinces and 20 countries. 

Impacts of sustainability in higher education

The seasoned environmentalist-educator Thomashow, in an entry published on Terrain.org, shared his thoughts on environmental learning opportunities during the pandemic. He identified seven:

  1. Learning habitat fragmentation and biodiversity loss contribute to pathogen spread
  2. Identifying the need for ecological and economic safety nets
  3. Promoting and supporting ecological expertise
  4. Supporting and investing in globally networked environmental change science
  5. Engaging in and supporting intercultural, interdisciplinary, and international cooperation
  6. Revitalizing bioregionalism for the 21st century
  7. Emphasizing the virtues of ecological mindfulness

“Let us celebrate the environmental community of scientists, intellectuals, policymakers, practitioners, artists, and poets, and rededicate ourselves to the necessity of promoting environmental learning,” said Thomashow.

Higher Education Institutions could use environmental learnings from COVID-19 to make their campus sustainability initiatives more relevant not only among administrators, faculty and students, but also the community and people they serve.

Source: Sustainable Campus Model by Dr. Maki Ikegami, associate professor, Sustainable Campus Management Office of Hokkaido University, Japan.

Integrating all of these scientific learnings into the operational framework of a higher education institution—especially in a challenging time due to the pandemic—could be a daunting task.

However, higher education institutions should recognize the important role they play in moving the rest of the world “to a more sustainable future, one that will provide prosperity today while ensuring that future generations have resources to meet their needs.” 

After all, higher education institutions have it upon themselves to educate students and provide research work vital to society.

Data sources:

What is a Sustainable Campus? Hokkaido University. Retrieved from https://www.osc.hokudai.ac.jp/en/what-sc

Thomashow, M. (2014) The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus. MIT Press. Retrieved from https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/nine-elements-sustainable-campus

Frias, G. (2014, February) Sustainable Campuses: Sharing our Knowledge for Social and Environmental Sustainability. International Development Research Centre. Retrieved from https://idl-bnc-idrc.dspacedirect.org/bitstream/handle/10625/52672/1/IDL-52672.pdf

2020 Sustainable Campus Index. AASHE. Retrieved from https://www.aashe.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/SCI_2020.pdf

Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). Stanislaus State. Retrieved from https://www.csustan.edu/sustainability/resources

Thomashow, M. (2020, April 7) Environmental Learning and COVID-19. Terrain.org. Retrieved from https://www.terrain.org/2020/currents/environmental-learning-and-covid-19/

Güneş, S. Gül (2014) The Importance of Creating Sustainable Campuses In Higher Education. Aksaray University. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/277457375_The_Importance_of_Creating_Sustainable_Campuses_In_Higher_Education/citation/download


Thank you for your interest in our services. Please fill out the form below and we will get in touch with you.

We keep your information private and confidential.