By: Elise Burgert
SFU has a reputation as a ‘green’ school, priding itself on its sustainability initiatives and goals. As someone studying sustainable business, I wanted to find out if SFU’s actions back up this claim. While there seems to be a strong student interest in having a positive environmental footprint, at times the interests of businesses seem more important to the university. Let’s take a look at programs the school has in place and how they function with the often conflicting interests of corporations and students.
Zero waste initiative
One of the most prominent sustainability initiatives at SFU is the zero waste initiative, which can be seen all around SFU with its four-stream waste sorting stations. The program claims to “divert 70% of waste from landfill[s] and double the amount recycled or composted.” According to the program manager of the zero waste initiative, Rachel Telling, this impressive figure puts SFU at “one of the highest recycling rates in North America.”
How is a 70% rate of diversion determined? Telling says it comes “directly from our waste haulers and processors, so [its] accuracy is high.” A small margin of materials are sorted incorrectly, but these materials are then sorted when they reach the recycling or composting facility.
Zero waste is an ambitious goal, and one might wonder whether it is possible for SFU to achieve. According to Telling, “’Zero Waste’ is more of an aspirational goal that is currently not possible to achieve given the economic and systemic environments at present[.]”
Even so, Telling states that the program is working to do the best it can. “[W]e are doing everything we can to get as close to Zero Waste as possible, including working with various partners across Canada to develop new and innovative ways of thinking about, and dealing with, resources that will allow us to get closer to that goal,” she says.
One such improvement is an initiative to recycle disposable coffee cups, which Telling says are a “huge part of the waste stream” at SFU. While these cups are notoriously difficult to recycle, screening out their plastic lining and composting the rest of the cup has allowed SFU to reduce this major source of waste.
Eliminating landfill waste at SFU has not only had a positive environmental effect, but has “achieved financial and greenhouse gas emission savings, increased operational efficiencies, and enhanced sustainability education,” according to its zero waste initiative. This demonstrates that the impacts of environmental initiatives can often have economic benefits and other positive externalities.
Energy and transportation
Another major contributor to SFU’s environmental footprint is its energy consumption. Of greatest concern is whether SFU’s energy comes from renewable sources or from non-renewable, carbon-emitting sources. Renewable energy sources available to SFU include hydroelectric energy and human-powered transportation, while non-renewable sources include oil and natural gas.
In terms of commuting, SFU students and staff generally take efficient, environmentally-friendly trips. A survey of 8000 people found that 91% of SFU students and 73% of SFU staff use efficient commuting options, such as walking, cycling, public transport, or carpooling. This culture of efficient commuting is perhaps an indicator of the values of SFU students and staff.
SFU has also introduced ten electric car charging stations at its Burnaby campus. While a move like this shows support for more environmentally-friendly forms of transportation, the net impact of removing only ten fossil fuel vehicles from the road is nominal. Small initiatives such as this do more to express a willingness to embrace environmentally-friendly options than they do to physically tackle the problem of climate change. Thus, while skeptics may see such moves as too small to make a difference, their value comes from changing the culture of the school.
Cultural change is more difficult to quantify, but that does not make it valueless. One group that exemplifies this kind of change is SFU 350, a club which aims to have SFU end its investment in fossil fuels. This group specifically aims to tackle SFU’s contributions to climate change. Raaj Chatterjee, from SFU 350, says that “divestment is key for SFU to reach its sustainability goals,” as were set in its 20-Year Sustainability Vision and Goals.
While Chatterjee accepts that changing investments may not cause too much “logistical” change, the most important aspect of divestment is that “it will contribute to removing social license from fossil fuel companies whose business plans do not line up with an under 2°C warming limit.” The 2°C warming limit was an international agreement to try and stop rising global temperatures.
By attempting to deny social licence (a term describing the social acceptability of practices carried out by governments) to unsustainable companies, SFU 350 aims to “influence government policy and financial policies of other institutions.” This goal, while seemingly intangible, could have a large impact on public policy.
When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was making the decision to approve the Line 3 and Trans Mountain pipelines, he cited “social license” as an important factor in determining whether it was appropriate to build the pipelines. Thus, if the prime minister really values social licence, divestment sends a clear message from SFU against the fossil fuel industry.
How much success has SFU 350 had in achieving its goals so far? According to Chatterjee, during the student-led DivestSFU campaign, “SFU’s board of governors voted to reduce the carbon footprint of SFU’s portfolio [by] 30% by 2030.” This “important first step” puts SFU in line with Canada’s overall emission targets. Perhaps more importantly, Chatterjee says, “The DivestSFU campaign has changed the culture on the board into one that is more open to taking a stance on climate change.”
However, these moves to change the school’s culture face challenges. These include the policies of the federal and provincial governments. Even if these initiatives succeed at changing public outlook on the environment, the major barrier to governments prioritizing social license, according to Chatterjee, is that “policies are friendly to fossil fuel companies and will not allow us to reach Canada’s desired climate change goals, or even diversify from oil which is very vulnerable to changes in market price.” From the university level up to the federal level, it seems corporations are often the culprit behind lagging sustainability action.
The impact of corporations interfering with sustainability is perhaps no better exemplified than by examining SFU’s progress in another aspect of sustainability: social sustainability. Social sustainability addresses issues of equity, diversity, and quality of life. SFU has made some effort to tackle social sustainability, such as becoming a fair trade campus. However, Craig Pavelich, director of communications at the Simon Fraser Public Research Interest Group (SFPRIG), is “concerned that the university is failing to live up to its commitment to sustainability.”
Pavelich points out that “SFU has done nothing to resist the Kinder Morgan pipeline that will be tunneling through the mountain, putting thousands of students, staff, faculty, and community members at risk.” Additionally, the controversial multinational corporation Sodexo has begun providing services to SFU, an organization Pavelich says has been “criticized for sustainability practices, labour issues, and human rights infractions.”
These are two examples of corporate involvement in SFU’s operations that don’t conform to the values expressed by the individual actions of SFU students, such as their choosing sustainable transportation. Other concerns expressed by Pavelich include the development of land “on Burnaby Mountain without local Indigenous nations’ involvement,” rising tuition, and a lack of a living wage on campus for all workers.
Pavelich refers to some of the sustainability initiatives at SFU as “greenwashing tactics that cover up its ongoing failures.” Clearly, in terms of economic and social sustainability, some of SFU’s practices better reflect the corporations in charge of them than the ideologies held by many students and staff.
In an issue as complex, large, and multifaceted as sustainability, it is difficult to determine whether many organizational efforts towards sustainability are having a tangible impact on society and the environment. Some efforts, like decreasing SFU’s contributions to landfill waste, can be easily quantified. Others are more complex, such as changing the social license our leaders feel when they make decisions.
What can we do to improve this uncertainty, and ultimately make sure we are on track towards achieving sustainability? There are a few important steps that can be taken. Transparency on these issues is crucial. Without proper and accessible data on SFU’s impacts, it is impossible to determine which endeavours are successful and which are not doing much to improve sustainability. This information needs to collected, reported openly, and discussed.
While it is a common strategy of corporations to brag of their successes in a few niche fields rather than looking at the big picture of sustainability, students and staff need to keep in mind where their largest impacts on the environment are coming from, and prioritize action in those fields.
It is clear that corporations are a major barrier in many grassroots initiatives seeking sustainability. Even when corporations seem to have a green agenda, they may be prone to greenwashing unsustainable practices to gain approval. Thus, it is important to change the culture of SFU to expect and demand sustainable practices, or else corporations feel no incentive to move towards true sustainability.
It is not until there is a change in what members of the SFU community expect and demand that corporations will be incentivized to operate sustainably. Without the social license to continue unsustainably, both politicians and corporations will be forced to change their practices.
Ultimately, the power lies with the people, and in the choices they make, to give this social licence to decision makers. It is only when people are willing to defend and act upon their values that SFU’s positive, sustainable culture is expressed.