This month Western Washington University hosted the Washington Higher Education Sustainability Conference, which focused on how educational institutions can create sustainable practices. The topics covered a broad range from sharing best practices in teaching sustainability to how to ban bottled water on campuses. With this diversity of topics, it really made me wonder: what is sustainability and how do we as a community benefit?
SAVE THE PLANET
I come from a generation that has a conventional understanding of sustainability, based on the ecological definition as it relates specifically to Earth's environmental systems. However, the opening talk at the student summit at the sustainability conference questioned the general interpretation of sustainability. They suggest it is not merely an isolated "green" or environmental concern and broadened it into a much larger system, where economic vitality and social justice are seen as equal components of a sustainable system. This interpretation suggests sustainable systems contain many components such as environmental, health, political and economics that support one another. Their suggestion challenges that conventional views of sustainability of being only about environmental impacts and says they are actually just one component of the entire (Earth and human) system.
In addition to the conventional view of sustainability for the Earth, there are the business practices of "buy local" campaigns, zero impact and the "planet, people, profit" model that are designed to be highly sustainable. They certainly create the most immediate benefits to any community, in economic, social, ecological and environmental impacts. These kinds of practices in local Bellingham-based businesses have been seen for decades and the programs that encourage it have created models for other communities to follow.
Taking into account the environmental and business interpretations of sustainability, it seems that the question of what is sustainability is more about scale, not just which component (environmental, economic or social) is being practiced. In fact, students at the sustainability conference talked more about global solutions as they apply to disciplines, not location since any local sustainability practice is part of the global system.
SUSTAINABILITY IS NEW NORM
The sustainability conference showed that this new generation of entrepreneurs and innovators are enthusiastic about creating multifaceted solutions to the challenges in creating global sustainability practices that go beyond existing programs. Students are the ones who are driving many of the initiatives in higher education to change the system and integrate sustainability into other disciplines including political, social and economic. For them, sustainability is not a question of scale since they were raised with technology that removed boundaries between countries; it is about integrating a philosophy into everyday practice in business and life.
Educational institutions have are already started to shift their thinking and have seen an increase in businesses wanting to work cooperatively with them on projects to develop new sustainable materials, products and processes. There is no question that as a community we have already seen the benefits of having local businesses with sustainability philosophies. Now is the time for the community to shift their concept of sustainability to match those of education and entrepreneurs and embrace the global, multi-disciplinary definition. As a result, the community encouragement and support of innovative thinking will provide new avenues for entrepreneurs of the next generation to solve our global sustainability challenges.
This week our organization, the Northwest Innovation Resource Center, launched the northwest Sustainability Challenge with $25,000 in prizes that is open to college students, faculty, alumni and staff from eight schools in northwest Washington. The goal is to have the regional community of northwest Washington benefit from the creativity and innovation of local people working to find solutions that solve global sustainability challenges. To find out more go to nwsustainabilitychallenge.com.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lara Merriam-Smith is the program manager for NW Innovation Resource Center, a Bellingham-based organization that supports economic opportunities through entrepreneurial innovation in northwest Washington. It helps inventors looking to take products to market and connects new start-up businesses with resources to help them grow. For more information online go to nwirc.com.