The Value of Sustainability Reporting in Higher Education Institutions

Posted on June 22, 2023 by Emma Haynes, Sustainability Reports Research Analyst Intern

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by Emma Haynes, Sustainability Reports Research Analyst Intern at G&A Institute

Colleges and universities are a breeding ground for innovation and creativity. There, students are being exposed to new ideas while formulating the basis of their values going into their professional careers and beyond. While much learning takes place inside a classroom, students can learn just as much from the atmosphere created around them. The implementation of sustainability reporting within these higher education institutions (HEIs) demonstrates to students and other stakeholders the importance of accountability and environmental stewardship within all organizations and facets of life.

Sustainability reporting is an important tool for HEIs to communicate their environmental, social, and economic impacts and their efforts to improve performance in all three areas of sustainability. At the same time, reporting demonstrates their commitment to sustainability and can inspire others to take similar responsibility for their own actions for a more sustainable future. Educational institutions can also use sustainability reports to highlight collaborations and partnerships with other organizations or stakeholders to achieve sustainability objectives.

Higher education institutions have a unique platform to promote sustainability and environmental stewardship in future leaders and decision-makers. Sustainability reports can pique the interest of the student audience by describing sustainable practices on campus as well as efforts to reduce their environmental footprint in the community.

Sustainability reports typically cover a range of topics such as energy and water usage, waste management, transportation, procurement, greenhouse gas emissions, and sustainability-related education and research initiatives. One crucial step involved in reporting on these topics is identifying stakeholders to gather critical insights and feedback. While stakeholders will vary depending on the institution, all HEIs have a major stakeholder group in common: the student body. A recent UNESCO report titled “Knowledge-driven actions: transforming higher education for global sustainability” emphasizes the importance of partnerships and collaborations with stakeholders.[1]

Most sustainability reports follow a framework such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) or the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB). However, data on international trends in sustainability reporting shows that the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) is the most popular reporting framework used by HEIs in the United States, followed by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) framework.[2]

The STARS framework – a program of The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) – is designed specifically for colleges and universities. Its aim is to “measure, report and strengthen [the institutions’] contributions to global sustainability.”[3] Approximately 1,150 institutions have registered to use the STARS Reporting Tool with 595 receiving a STARS rating indicative of their performance.[4] Ratings are organized into categories of Academics, Engagement, Operations, Planning and Administration, and Innovation and Leadership. Top scorers are highlighted in AASHE’s Sustainable Campus Index.[5]

A third sustainability reporting mechanism – less commonly used by HEIs – is the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) Standards. Although SASB is geared toward reporting by publicly traded companies, it includes an Education Standard that is applicable to HEIs that provide “services [that] are delivered on a full-time, part-time, distance-learning, and occasional basis across establishments such as junior colleges, business and secretarial schools, colleges, [and] universities.”[6] The SASB Education Industry Standard covers a range of sustainability issues, including: access and affordability of education; student success and outcomes; diversity, equity and inclusion; governance; and privacy and data security. Clearly there is a place for HEIs in the SASB framework, but primarily those that are “for-profit.”

By using the relevant sustainability standards, sustainability reports from HEIs can provide valuable insights into their sustainability performance, demonstrate their commitment to sustainability, and inspire others to act towards a more sustainable future. While there is room for improvement in sustainability reporting frameworks for this sector, the STARS framework offers a path toward a bright future in HEI sustainability reporting.

Emma HaynesG&A Sustainability Reports Research Analyst Intern Emma Haynes is a recent graduate from Binghamton University, with a BA in Environmental Studies concentrated in Public Policy. Emma is now working on a Master’s degree in Sustainability Management from Columbia University hoping to learn more about the world of sustainability. Her interest in the environment led her to become involved with food sustainability initiatives on at Binghamton, spreading awareness of the importance of supporting local agriculture and plant-based diets. She then interned with US EPA, developing an understanding of government involvement in environmental regulation and practicing her GIS skills. Emma hopes to use these passions and experiences to pursue a career in sustainability consulting after graduate school.