How to measure sustainability 

By Karen Herland

We hold the title of most energy-efficient university of the province for 11 years running, but just how sustainable are we?

Jasmine Stuart (at podium) outlines the highlights of the sustainability assessment at the Feb. 19 gala. Magnifying glass

Jasmine Stuart (at podium) outlines the highlights of the sustainability assessment at the Feb. 19 gala.

For the third time in seven years, Concordia has issued a sustainability assessment. The 96-page document provides a marker for where we are, and what we need to consider going forward.

The report’s data collection and reporting represent the dedicated efforts of six members of Sustainable Concordia. Some devoted their energies to a single chapter, others worked full-time over the summer and/or part-time during the term. Their reports depended on the cooperation of administration, staff and faculty from across the university.

“This assessment tool is able to bring the different members of Concordia’s community together in a dialogue about sustainability,” said Chief Editor Jasmine Stuart when she offered an overview of the report at a gala on Feb. 19.

This year, Concordia participated in a pilot project developed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education to test an indicator framework called the Sustainablity Tracking and Rating System (STARS). It is hoped STARS will become a standardized measure to compare universities across a variety of areas.

Concordia was approached for the pilot project because of our recognized leadership in energy and waste management. In addition, Sustainable Concordia provides a funded team of committed staff and volunteers to support initiatives on campus for students, faculty and staff.

However, participating in the pilot project pointed to gaps in the current structure. “This report does not actually assess what we’re doing, it assesses what we can measure,” says Stuart who has coordinated the project with Blake Saucier-Curtis since last May.

The report addresses curriculum and research, operations, health and well-being and governance. Each section is further divided into subsections outlining the context, what is happening at Concordia, future directions and examples of best practices from elsewhere.

Stuart stressed the importance of governance or, according to the report, “how incorporating sustainability into the decision-making process of the university is an essential part of institutionalizing a sustainability ethic.”

“A lot of engaged change happens at the departmental level and moves up,” says Stuart.

This kind of grassroots change is rarely formalized in policy and can be eroded by a change in personnel or a new set of priorities. For example, the university currently employs a cleaning company that uses environmentally friendly products, but there is no specification for that practice in the contract.

Another difficulty the team encountered was evaluating the level of sustainability in curriculum and research. With numerous research projects addressing ecological, social or economic concerns, there is no user-friendly way to catalogue those efforts.

The same is true for courses. The report acknowledges the need for “an evaluation framework that would distinguish between courses that develop students’ knowledge of key concepts and debates in the sustainability discourse versus those that develop highly technical skills or simply challenge orthodoxy.”

Stuart says a process is already underway to develop measures for this area. “Once we start to capture data, we can start understanding and tracking it.” Similarly, although we pride ourselves on our community engagement, there are currently no standardized ways to track the volunteer contributions of students, staff or faculty, or the opportunities we offer to make a difference here or abroad.

In addition to the need to develop new measures, Stuart has seen some other problems using the STARS U.S.-based model. We were exempted from many of the measures of employee health and well-being because of national programs for health care and parental leaves. Stuart says other measures may be developed to better understand university community members’ sense of health and well-being.

The STARS system also relies heavily on third-party rating systems in evaluating operations. “It is not always worth the planning and expense required. Sometimes it is too expensive to meet certification criteria,” Stuart says.

And the report emphasizes that improvement is always possible. The report combines waste management with purchasing in a section on consumption, suggesting that rethinking what is purchased is as critical as properly disposing of waste at the end of a use cycle.

The report will be available at


Concordia University