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USC builds sustainability commitment by joining national tracking system on environmental progress

The university’s commitment to the respected Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Ratings System will include a full review of its environmental footprint, including water use and energy consumption.

USC sustainability environmental progress
Since arriving at USC, President Carol L. Folt has championed sustainability and environmental action. (Illustration/iStock)

Sustainability work at USC is about to get real — real enough to measure, monitor and manage most every aspect of the university’s environmental progress.

That’s because USC has decided to participate in the national Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Ratings System (STARS) for the first time. The program is the benchmark by which more than 1,000 American colleges and universities track and disclose progress toward green goals.

It’s an important step for the university’s nascent sustainability program because it commits USC to a standardized method to inventory all its environmental actions, set baselines and measure progress. All the data is publicly reported and ranked against peer institutions, potentially inspiring universities to outperform each other.

This effort aligns nicely with President Folt’s strategic vision for sustainability at USC.

David W. Wright

Among the universities that participate in the program are Columbia University, Cornell University,  Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York University, Stanford University and the University of California. The program is run by the Philadelphia-based Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).

“We will be able to benchmark our sustainability program and initiatives versus our peers to identify areas for improvement, and to monitor our progress over time,” said David Wright, senior vice president for administration at USC. “The STARS reports and ratings are made available for public view, which will promote accountability and responsibility for our university community. This effort aligns nicely with President Carol L. Folt’s strategic vision for sustainability at USC.”

Wright announced the new partnership on Nov. 2, and a university workshop occurred Nov. 13. Data collection begins in earnest over the next six months. USC will submit information to STARS in June and a public report is scheduled for July.

USC to monitor its environmental progress, create a ‘culture of sustainability’

Since her arrival at USC last year, Folt has championed environmental action, from research to curriculum to operations. The ambitious-yet-achievable initiatives call for phasing out single-use, nonessential plastics; attaining a zero waste campus; achieving carbon-neutrality; installing solar energy on buildings; and developing a 2028 Sustainability Plan to guide efforts for the coming decade. STARS is key for measuring the success of that effort.

“You can only manage what you measure,” said Ellen Dux of the USC Office of Sustainability. “It’s about creating a culture of sustainability and upping our game, so STARS is going to be an important step forward for USC.”

Reporting for the program is all-encompassing. There are scoring criteria for nearly all aspects of a university’s operations, including academics, research, civic engagement, innovation, leadership, investment and finance, operations and facilities.

Because the rankings are public, peer institutions can compare their progress, which helps spur innovation. Schools are ranked in tiers, with platinum being tops. For these reasons, participating in STARS has been a priority for USC’s sustainability leaders among faculty, staff and students.

Trojans embrace improving the university’s environmental footprint

Alyssa Caravas is one of three USC students working on the project. She’s an environmental studies major at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. When she heard about the effort, she attended an AASHE online workshop and volunteered to help the Office of Sustainability. She wants to study waste and food management.

“I’ve always been interested in trash, what’s recyclable and compostable. USC is so awesome for providing this opportunity for students,” Cavaras said.

USC is building its sustainability muscle.

Ellen Dux

She grew up in Indio, about 130 miles east of Los Angeles, and says she’s had a concern about making the world better from a young age.

“Change starts with ourselves and with leadership, and the university is a leader now that President Folt has done so much to advance sustainability. Everyone talks about how she’s done such a great job pressing for environmental initiatives,” Cavaras said.

In the coming months, USC staff and some students will undertake a top-to-bottom inventory of the university’s environmental footprint. Among the operations to be assessed are water use, opportunities for reducing waste, fuel use, energy consumption, vehicle trips, supply chains and procurement practices. The task will be especially challenging because it is launching at the same time the university is building its sustainability program — all while the university is substantially closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s going to be a big lift this coming year, so we just need to dive in and start,” Dux said. “We need to understand our metrics. USC is building its sustainability muscle.”

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