The much-anticipated new version of STARS—Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System—has launched, and there are some new opportunities for points by reviewing the data before submitting to AASHE. A panel discussion at the AASHE conference in Spokane that GreenerU moderated helped participants figure out how to tackle one of the most important tools available for measuring sustainability on college campuses.
As anyone who’s collected and reported STARS data knows, it is never too early to get started. And it is always helpful to have support.
This campus sustainability reporting and assessment tool is terrific for an apples-to-apples comparison of progress on multiple fronts, both in terms of rating against peer institutions and comparing one’s own institutional progress over time.
But there’s no denying that the process can be a beast. It can be project management at its finest: requesting quality data and information from multiple departments across campus—utility data from facilities managers, supply chain and sourcing from dining and procurement, curriculum information from academic staff, even health and wellbeing data from human resources. It can take a lot of persistence and diligence, and it always takes time.
A successful outcome—high-quality data that can be used as a baseline for celebration and a road map for improving campus sustainability—requires thoughtful engagement with campus stakeholders as well as help with reviewing the data.
Our AASHE panel in Spokane, hosted by GreenerU’s Senior Manager of Change Management Lisa Bjerke, featured sage STARS reporting and reviewing advice from Austin Sutherland of the University of South Carolina; Mark Klapatch-Mathias of University of Wisconsin-River Falls; Linda Kogan of University of Colorado-Colorado Springs; Deborah Steinberg of Knox College; and Alex Davis of Arizona State University.
Presentations were kept brief to allow for 30 minutes of time to gather in small groups so participants and panelists could share their experiences and get advice from each other. There were six breakout groups organized by key topics with the following takeaways.
Did you know that completing STARS can also be your sustainability engagement strategy? This group reported back that one high-impact method of engaging the campus community around sustainability is to engage them in the STARS data collection and review process. It is a great way to clearly connect the dots on how each department plays an important role in your campus’s sustainability efforts. It is also a great time to thank them for their current efforts—it is always important to acknowledge the role that everyone plays in creating a more sustainable campus.
How do I make STARS an event? You can set up a lunch or coffee breaks with department employees to introduce them to how the data you have that relates to their office. Use this time to learn from your stakeholders: ask them for feedback! Find out what challenges each department is facing, what advice they may have for you or other departments, what’s working well, and what support they might need from you. As Chad Carwein of ECU likes to say, “sustainability is a team sport.”
Finally, don’t forget to feed them—the way to people’s smarts and hearts is through their stomachs.
Sharing is caring. It is important to share the STARS reporting results back to the community so they are well aware of the baseline data and impact they are making. No need to find space on packed calendars to do this. Find an already established event on campus to get your message out and celebrate the efforts within the community. Successful examples include presenting at a faculty meeting, creating a sustainability award for a staff appreciation event—and making sure to communicate how sustainability is a fun and important aspect of the institution.
Students who may receive course credit or gain educational experience and/or student interns who are paid for their time are certainly good avenues for STARS reporting. The main takeaways here are to clearly communicate deadlines and allow for enough time for students to juggle their busy academic workloads. This is a terrific learning opportunity for students to gain insights on how sustainability is measured and how their campuses operate.
The primary takeaway here relates back to engaging the campus community—that sharing data enables departments to own the results, and by owning the results, departments have an opportunity to improve their habits.
Another key takeaway was to pull together an internal or third-party data review to double-check your work before submitting your report to AASHE. It can make a huge difference in terms of accuracy and, in some cases, even increasing your final STARS score. Which brings us to the next point…
There’s no way around it: just as collecting and organizing your initial data, organizing an internal review team to check your report is a ton of work. The important things are to plan ahead—way ahead—and to be very clear about AASHE’s STARS requirements. You will want to make your reviewers aware of the STARS technical manual so everyone doing the review is well aware of what AASHE is asking for.
Note that there is a new STARS credit available for institutions that perform an internal review or, for another half point, you can hire a third-party reviewer, such as GreenerU, AASHE, or a peer institution. So not only is your final report likely to be more accurate, you can get up to 1.5 more points for this step!
This group also recommended using the STARS technical manual, but they also suggested looking at existing reports—particularly from Platinum-ranked schools—for examples of how successful schools have entered their data.
Finally, institutions can opt to work with a peer institution for a review. One panelist said this was an excellent opportunity to become more deeply familiar with STARS, as you are able to find common mistakes and view the credits from another perspective.
The key takeaway here is for institutions to be very clear about institutional differences—for example, one might be a large campus in a rural setting with a small student body and the other is in an urban environment with a large student body. These differences can impact STARS ratings and program implementations differently, so it’s important to have open communication between peer reviewers.
We applaud any school’s willingness to take on STARS reporting. The amount of effort it takes is nothing to sneeze at!
But ultimately, most institutions that are using STARS for their baseline sustainability reporting find that the effort is worth all the benefits—to have all sustainability data in one place, the ability to clearly communicate campus sustainability efforts, for example, and benchmarking their data to compare from year to year, as well as having an opportunity to engage departments across campus to get involved.
So plan ahead, get an early start, make sure to have fun, and reach out for help—there are plenty of resources available.
Looking for a third-party STARS reviewer, or even help gathering data and developing a report? GreenerU has been involved in more than a dozen STARS review processes with multiple clients. We are here to help whether you’re in a pinch or just have better things to do with your time! Reach out via Talk to Us—we’re more than happy to chat.