Go green for planet, not publicity

LEED certification and other green measures are about administrative PR.

by Seth Anthony

In Colorado, and in Fort Collins particularly, green is chic, and nowhere is that more obvious than Colorado State University’s campaign to brand itself the “green university.” While I firmly believe we should be taking substantial action to help sustain our environment and our planet, some of our university’s actions in that direction have left me a little jaded, so I thought I’d offer CSU some helpful pieces of green-related advice. First: Don’t be so concerned with “green cred,” instead, be concerned about actually being green. Some projects are better for the university PR department than the environment, and that needs to change. If a project fosters the ability of CSU researchers to pioneer new renewable technologies or techniques, if it means that waste is diverted from landfills or that energy costs will be lower, it should be a no-brainer. But spending money strictly so that we can brag about how green we are doesn’t make sense. One example of this is LEED certification. LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is verification from the U.S. Green Building Council that a building meets certain standards in terms of sustainable design, construction, and energy use. The transit center expansion on the north end of Lory Student Center was certified at the LEED “Gold” level, as was the Indoor Practice Facility that CSU’s Athletics Department opened earlier this month. However, CSU spent money not only to construct these buildings to a higher standard, but also to get a pat on the back for doing so. Obtaining LEED certification costs thousands of dollars in fees, not counting the staff time and other resources used to complete the applications and related work. That money that doesn’t make the campus one iota more sustainable, but does give bragging rights to administrators. I know which of those I care about more. Let’s drop the PR hype around LEED certification and spend the money on actually making our campus greener. My second piece of advice: Don’t take credit for “green” advances for which you are not responsible. A few weeks ago, CSU announced that its carbon emissions were down three percent from the previous year. Although new green buildings and renovations on campus undoubtedly contributed to this improvement, there’s no way of knowing for sure how much, especially when CSU staff had to qualify, as they did in a Collegian article, that “the fiscal year’s relatively benign weather, which caused lower heating and air conditioning use” may have been a major factor. When you further admit that half of the estimated reduction in emissions comes from decreased airplane travel, it also starts to look like budget cutbacks were also a major factor. While university Senior Vice President Tom Gorell bragged about making progress “especially in these hard economic times,” it looks like CSU is becoming greener not in spite of the tough economy, but as a result of it. The lesson for the university’s PR department should be this: when you title a press release “Colorado State University Reduces Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” you make it sound an awful lot like the university did something. We shouldn’t find out in the fine print that this isn’t necessarily the case. Really ­­­­­­­– and I could write a whole column on my third piece of advice — it’s the little things that make a “green culture” on campus, not the big things that you boast about in press releases. It’s things like getting the restaurants in the student center food court to use biodegradable packaging, like auditing and reducing the copious electricity and water use in research labs, like sealing drafty windows in academic buildings to keep heating and air conditioning costs low. These and dozens of other small projects would alter not only our environmental impact, but our campus culture, sending a green ripple effect over generations and across our state and nation. As a famous frog once told us, it’s not easy being green. There are no shortcuts to preserving the planet or to making our campus more sustainable. And while it’s fine to tell the world about the good things happening at CSU, publicity should never be the motivating factor behind environmentally-friendly changes on campus. This column, accessed via UWire, was originally published in the Rocky Mountain Collegian at Colorado State University. Please send comments to [email protected].