In case you hadn’t noticed it, I’m a data geek: numbers, trends, dollars and kilowatts. I get a little uncomfortable around the important, but unmeasurable things like consumer education or social justice.
Don’t get me wrong, those things are even more critical than the easily metered energy consumption of a building. It’s just that it’s so much more complicated to measure “consumer understanding” or “fairness.” And if I can’t measure it, how do I know it’s getting better? Do the time and money I’m investing make any difference, or would another plan of action work better?
Uncertainty Hurts My Brain
If it were up to me, I’d retreat to my data-driven corner and just stop trying to put hard numbers on soft responses, but many in the environmental community follow a nobler sentiment:
Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so.
Well, that sounds fair, so where do we start?
Oh, heck, let’s just start by measuring “sustainability.” That’ll be pretty straightforward, right?
I jest, but this is exactly what the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) set out to do a few years ago. Given that their titled goal is to advance sustainability, it makes sense that they’d want to measure their progress!
The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS®) is a transparent, self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to gauge relative progress toward sustainability. STARS was developed by AASHE with broad participation from the higher education community.
STARS is designed to:
Provide a framework for understanding sustainability in all sectors of higher education.
Enable meaningful comparisons over time and across institutions using a common set of measurements developed with broad participation from the campus sustainability community.
Create incentives for continual improvement toward sustainability.
Facilitate information sharing about higher education sustainability practices and performance.
Build a stronger, more diverse campus sustainability community.
Depends on what your definition of is, is.
So exactly what does STARS measure?
The four broad categories encompassing “sustainability” are:
Education & Research, where an institution receives points for offering sustainability-related courses (good luck defining that one), having sustainability outreach programs for students, and engaging in sustainability research (good luck defining that one too).
Operations, with points for green building features, a climate change program (yay me!), using recycled napkins in the dining hall, using renewable energy and providing meter data, using safer cleaning products, reducing waste, and conserving water. This is the area where I live, and seems to be the easiest to measure and manage.
Planning, Administration, and Engagement, with points for diversity and affordability, socially conscious investment practices, and public engagement.
Innovation, where you can apparently receive 4 extra credit points for doing something innovative and sustainable that was not included in the assessment.
Participants earn points by answering a plethora of interesting and obscure questions about the organization, like:
Does the institution have programs in place to protect and/or create wildlife habitat on institution owned land?
Number of employees (including contractors) that the institution ensures earn sustainable compensation:
The number of sustainability-related courses offered :
The creators have done a fair job at asking for specific, consistent data, attempting to “make measurable what is not so,” but it’s still an extremely cumbersome reporting process, with documentation that ranks in the hundreds of pages. I seriously doubt that colleges or universities without dedicated sustainability staff will be able to crank this one out on a regular basis.
Go click around a bit and then tell me: is this system good, bad or indifferent? Do you think it will help them achieve their goals? How would you do it differently?
I know I’m biased, so I want some other opinions.