Photo credit: UBC CM. Source:

As organizations undergo increasing scrutiny for their impact on the environment and the community, sustainability has become a key factor in corporate decision-making and performance measurement.

An Accenture-UN Global Compact survey of CEOs found that 97 per cent of CEOs view sustainability as important to the success of their company.

Research suggests that they are right.

Companies that embrace sustainability can realize multiple benefits, including improved overall corporate performance, reputation, talent retention and attraction, employee wellbeing, and better positioning in terms of millennial consumers and employees. Sustainability is also a number one driver of innovation, according to Tamar Milne, professor at the UBC Sauder School of Business.

However, tangible challenges remain when it comes to converting thought leadership into action.

Moving beyond aspiration to action is a long journey of sustainability adoption. The cross-cutting nature of sustainability priorities means that institutions have to break through silos, innovate business processes, and leverage the unique expertise of individuals throughout the organization.

Recently acknowledged as one of Canada’s Greenest Employers the University of British Columbia (UBC) has the following advice on how to institutionalize sustainability.

Secure executive commitment

Some 90 per cent of organizations that are seen as “walking-the-talk” have a defined sustainability strategy. UBC was Canada’s first university to create a Sustainable Development Policy (1997) and open a Campus Sustainability Office (1998). The university has appointed senior leadership to manage sustainability efforts and established multi-stakeholder advisory councils as a way to engage faculty, students, staff and partners, help steer the institution, and signal its commitment. Ultimately, sustainability was adopted as a core pillar in UBC’s overall strategic plan in 2010. Various thematic action plans and sustainability strategies guide on-the-ground efforts. In 2014, UBC released an aspirational 20-year Sustainability Strategy with a focus not just on damage reduction, but on creating improvements to human and environmental wellbeing. Throughout all of these efforts, community engagement was crucial in terms of obtaining wide and diverse input, informing decision-making and facilitating a sense of community.

Build a business case and seek innovative funding models

Early on, UBC championed several sustainability initiatives that achieved operational savings, which were used to fund core sustainability efforts. Several programs focused on energy and water conservation, including building retrofits. A sustainability revolving fund was also created. It provides loans to projects which have demonstrated operational sustainability benefits and which have a return on investment. The loan itself is repaid with money saved on energy, water or resources, resulting in essentially a positive return to the institution. Major capital investments included a district energy project that helped meet aggressive GHG reduction targets and will result in significant reductions in energy use and lead to operational cost-savings. As UBC works to update its Climate Action Plan with an aim to advance toward its 67% reduction target, it continues to do so with a clear business case behind its efforts.

Set targets, track performance, and communicate results

UBC set aggressive climate action goals and recently reached its 2015 target of reducing GHG emissions 33 per cent from 2007 levels. Now the university is focussing on its 2020 target of 67 per cent reduction. Likewise, hard and soft goals are in place for a range of other initiatives, including green buildings, transportation, waste, and learning opportunities for students. As a way to engage the community, support accountability and manage performance, UBC regularly communicates progress and various initiatives to the campus and wider community, and the executive. Branding ensures a unique and recognizable visual element for sustainability efforts and programs, as well.

Engage the whole institution

UBC adopted an institution-wide approach to integrate operational and academic sustainability efforts under the concept of the “campus as a living lab.” Applying UBC’s teaching, learning and research capacity to address operational sustainability challenges has resulted in innovations and solutions to campus challenges at both a large and small scale.

A variety of engagement programs enable all members of the university—students, faculty, staff and other partners—to contribute to the university’s sustainability efforts. Collaborative development of unit-level frameworks help identify opportunities, track actions and monitor progress across departments. Staff programs have received endorsement from senior management, and staff are given resources, training, and limited work hours to champion initiatives within their units resulting in measurable savings.

Students have numerous opportunities through formal involvement programs and clubs, to foster a culture of sustainability, develop sustainable behaviours and advance sustainability on and off campus (including through research and coursework).

Funding schemes facilitate peer-to-peer campaigns and are in place to support employee and student-led initiatives. Recognition efforts provide a mechanism to acknowledge community members' contributions and reinforce a sense of community.

By Marko Pajalic 25 May 2017