4 filters to consider when prioritizing sustainability initiatives on college campuses


4 filters to consider when prioritizing sustainability initiatives


The scope of sustainability is rapidly expanding. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, a global standard first established in 2012, delineates 17 diverse targets ranging from clean water and sanitation to gender equality. The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS), a popular framework for assessing sustainability performance in North America, outlines 70 unique opportunity areas for higher education institutions to improve their sustainability strategies. These overarching sustainability structures go beyond the physical environment to promote a healthier society overall.


of university students report that they’d like their school to actively promote sustainability

Simultaneously, higher education institutions face growing pressure to increase their sustainable commitments through transparent action. From vocal student and faculty concerns to increased government regulations, a consensus about the importance of investing in sustainable initiatives is growing. Even prospective high school students are cutting class to draw attention to the climate crisis. However, universities have limited resources and competing priorities, and therefore need to choose intentionally which sustainability initiatives to pursue.

As institutions revisit their sustainability plans and consider future investments, leaders may benefit from categorizing each initiative into one (or more) of the four strategic filters below. These filters represent the overarching results sustainability leaders should desire when allocating limited time and money.

  • 1

    Reduce Emissions and Environmental Footprint

    How much does an initiative reduce the campus’s environmental impact (e.g., carbon emissions, energy usage, and water usage)?

  • 2

    Advance Sustainability Research and Education

    Does an initiative integrate sustainability into faculty and student learning and research?    

  • 3

    Ensure Return on Investment

    Does an initiative pay for itself with cost savings? How much does the investment return?    

  • 4

    Enhance Community Visibility

    Is the initiative visible to the campus community and beyond? Does it generate PR and publicly demonstrate the institution’s commitment and progress towards sustainability?

Identify your top sustainability priorities

While some initiatives may clearly serve one purpose, others may result in more than one benefit. For example, recommissioning a building will reduce an institution’s environmental footprint (filter 1) while also earning a return from reduced energy use (filter 3).

The filters the initiative most significantly benefits, however, will influence which campus goals it will help achieve. Explore the four areas of impact below and find out which outcomes you should prioritize.

Business Impact

Initiatives that shrink campus environmental footprint and earn a return on investment

Social Impact

Initiatives that support education or research and are highly visible

Environmental Impact

Initiatives that improve the environment through education and research

Campus Impact

Rare initiatives that are both highly visible and also earn the institution a return on investment 

While it’s tempting to narrowly focus on financial gain through activities with a clear business impact, often these initiatives (like recommissioning or other infrastructure projects) occur behind the scenes. As a result, these initiatives alone will not change faculty and staff behavior or give the sustainability office public credit for progress. On the other hand, focusing solely on initiatives that have a social or educational impact is likely financially unsustainable and would not move the needle on more operational goals.

Ultimately, EAB recommends institutions prioritize and balance their sustainability initiatives using these filters and impacts within the context of their broader institutional goals. As a starting point and reference resource, EAB created the Compendium of Sustainability Initiatives in Higher Education. The compendium contains over 100 tactics to promote sustainability broadly on campus. Each tactic includes a description, rationale, higher ed case study, and a rating for each of the four filters. Reach out to your strategic leader with any questions as your team develops its sustainability strategy.

100+ strategies to advance campus sustainability goals

Explore our Compendium of Sustainability Initiatives in Higher Education with a menu of over 100 initiatives, complete with prioritization guidance and higher ed case studies.

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