How to maintain momentum on sustainability

Create a shared vision, set ambitious targets and celebrate loudly, advises Zoe Rodwell for keeping a sustainability strategy on track

June 6, 2024
staff and students at Charles Sturt University planting trees as part of their push for sustainability
Source: Charles Sturt University

In 2016, Charles Sturt University became Australia’s first certified carbon-neutral university, 10 years after setting itself the goal. This sustainability milestone demonstrated to the global higher education sector that carbon neutrality was achievable, and that aspirational goal-setting could pave the way for enhanced institutional commitment towards sustainability.

Now, eight years on, what does Charles Sturt’s commitment to sustainability look like? How does a university celebrate sustainability triumphs while not resting on its laurels, and refocus to, yet again, strive for great things?

To start with, a strong foundation and a shared vision have been crucial for us in setting sustainability goals. Charles Sturt embraces and promotes an organisational ethos of “yindyamarra winhanganha”, a Wiradjuri phrase meaning “the wisdom of respectfully knowing how to live well in a world worth living in”. This philosophy underpins efforts and attitudes across the university and provides a framework for a shared pursuit of excellence. Sustainability has become far more than a catalogue of institutional objectives and targets. The united aspiration of safeguarding the future world contributes to organisational identity and directly impacts how staff approach our core business: teaching, research and connection with community.

While nurturing an appetite for sustainable improvement relies on the efforts of many, strong, empathetic leadership is particularly beneficial to establish goals, promote opportunities and foster collaboration. We have a dedicated sustainability team that leads action and accountability across the organisation, and this fixed point of determination has been key to many of our successes. This cross-campus team facilitates top-down and bottom-up engagement via a structured process of annual consultation to ensure that all pockets of the university understand the role they can play in contributing to a sustainable organisation.

University-wide engagement is created through Learning in Future Environments (LiFE) committees, environmental campus working groups, public events, the employment of student sustainability advisers and the constant fostering of cross-divisional partnerships. Our sustainability team is the driving force behind the institution’s shared successes in working towards a sustainable future, including our 2030 Clean Energy Strategy targets. Staff are passionate about supporting others, and, through their knowledge and expertise, they assist teams and individuals to identify how sustainability is important to the areas they work in.

Using the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals as a framework for conversations has refined communication around the concept of sustainability and its relevance, particularly among academic staff, and has contributed to positive shifts in teaching and research. Over time, the fostering of a shared curiosity about and a broader understanding of sustainability has produced dynamic partnerships that improve institution-wide energy efficiencies, share knowledge around everyday practice and develop campus biodiversity zones through the implementation of habitat restoration and monitoring.

In recent years, the sustainability team has collaborated to oversee the supply of electricity from 100 per cent renewable energy for our campuses, the transition to a fleet of fuel-efficient vehicles and electric vehicles powered by renewable energy sources, the move towards on-site renewable energy generation and the planting of thousands of tree seedlings at community engagement events. Annual grant programmes support staff, students and the wider community by turning innovative sustainability ideas into reality. Grant funds have helped build campus pollinator gardens, subsidised bus hire fees for student clubs, facilitated education workshops with regional high schools and supported staff research projects to advance areas of resilience, waste reduction and sustainability in education.

Celebrating loudly, sharing successes broadly and engaging staff and students in hands-on participation are key to retaining momentum within a multi-campus, regional university setting. Impactful improvements rely on everyone to rally. Staff acknowledgement through internal communication, newsletters from the vice-chancellor and digital recognition cards applaud success while simultaneously increasing awareness of the many sustainability initiatives across our campuses. Community tree planting days, fauna spotlighting evenings, campus walk-and-talks, and student residential projects all increase participation among our people and communities.

Reflecting on our current position and future aspirations, Charles Sturt will continue to set targets, celebrate progress and show leadership via initiatives such as our clean energy strategy and our research strategy. These plans incorporate themes such as: prosperous digital and circular societies; climate-neutral agriculture, food and wine production; climate-proof rural and regional areas; and healthy, safe and sustainable communities.

Charles Sturt continues to proudly invest in and model sustainability across all campuses and strives to develop agents of change through teaching and research. As Australia’s leading regional university, the Charles Sturt community is connected by a shared vision and set of values. Sustainability is most definitely a shared responsibility, for we all endeavour to live in a world worth living in.

Zoe Rodwell is sustainability partnerships coordinator and a lecturer in communication at Charles Sturt University.

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