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The building blocks for a culture change

Photo credit: Julian Haber

Sustainability is a fundamental priority at Concordia, from research and coursework to student initiatives to event planning and more. Throughout the 2021-22 academic year, the Office of Sustainability offered the university community several exciting opportunities to get informed and take action. 

Cassandra Lamontagne is manager of the Office of Sustainability, a unit under Environmental Health and Safety. She says a main goal for her this year was building connections between new initiatives and those already happening throughout campus.

Campus Sustainability Month

The first-ever Campus Sustainability Month was a university-wide event series that took place in October 2021 and was organized around four broad themes: wellness and well-being, climate and biodiversity, zero waste, sustainable food and fair trade. 

“Sustainability work is not just for the Office of Sustainability,” Lamontagne emphasizes. “It’s for everyone who is interested in it and understands its importance. Campus Sustainability Month is really in recognition of the place that all of us have in fostering that at Concordia.”

She adds that her office’s role included organizing several activities as well as curating 30-plus events led by student groups, academic departments and operational units - and packaging them in such a way that demonstrated how integral and far-reaching sustainability initiatives are on campus.

Student and employee sustainability ambassador programs

In fall 2021, the Office of Sustainability launched a revamped edition of their popular Student Sustainability Ambassadors Program. Nine students completed program-related learning, volunteering and activities for five hours a week, culminating in the development of six new campus sustainability projects: one student worked with her peers to develop an arcade game called Waste Invaders; another group designed and facilitated vermiculture workshops; and another designed an interactive map to educate community members about campus resources, departments and initiatives.

“This program is for people who want to learn more about sustainability, engage the campus community, and bring their own solutions to life,” Lamontagne says.

In winter 2022, the Office of Sustainability also welcomed an inaugural cohort of 13 staff from across the university to participate in the Employee Sustainability Ambassadors Program. From January to August, they participated in learning sessions, made improvements to their departmental sustainability practices and volunteered on campus.

“These ambassador programs are essential building blocks to the culture change that we want to foster within our community,” she says. “We really want to facilitate learning that encourages thoughtful, community-oriented action around sustainability. And we want to do that in a very accessible way.”

STARS gold rating 

Every three to four years the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education generates a Sustainable Campus Index via its Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS). The Office of Sustainability led Concordia’s 2022 submission, through which the university earned a gold rating for its performance in the categories of academics, engagement, operations, planning and administration, and innovation and leadership.

“It’s a really valuable process for us because it assesses where we are doing well and what we have yet to improve on,” Lamontagne says. 

This year 900 institutions from 40 countries made submissions. Concordia scored at 100 per cent and tied for first in the research category. It also placed seventh overall in the transportation category, with an 82.7 per cent grade. 

Lamontagne anticipates that next time the university will score even higher, following the implementation of initiatives flowing from the Sustainability Action Plan, notably with electric vehicles, support for cyclists, the Zero Waste Plan and the Sustainability in Curriculum Plan

Virtual sustainable event guide and certification

“At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, online events were uncharted territory,” Lamontagne says. “We didn’t know what recommendations would make your virtual event more sustainable.”

In response, the Office of Sustainability teamed up with Hospitality Concordia to research and develop a set of best practices for virtual events. The resulting guide discusses which digital platforms to consider, the carbon footprint of streaming, the digital load of email and more. For a component regarding social sustainability and accessibility of events, the office worked with representatives from the Access Centre for Students with Disabilities, Black Perspectives Office, Equity Office and Office of Indigenous Directions.

“Online environments are not necessarily more accessible or inclusive than physical environments, unless you take deliberate steps to make them that way,” Lamontagne stresses, adding that these partners offered invaluable tips for how to do so, ranging from live captioning to ways of reaching diverse audiences.

The office also piloted sustainable event certification for virtual events. The first event that achieved Platinum certification was Celebrating Indigenous Expertise in Sustainability: A Sustainability Across Disciplines Conference, held online in March 2022. 

Sustainability Living Lab

In partnership with the Sustainability Action Fund, the Office of Sustainability funded five community-led projects in 2021-22 to advance progress on the Sustainability Action Plan. The projects were housed under the newly created Sustainability Living Lab. There is up to $80,000 available for new projects every year for five years.

As Lamontagne explains, the Sustainability Living Lab was built in recognition that Concordia has a community of motivated researchers, faculty and students who want to make the university more sustainable. “As with nearly everything that our office does, the Living Lab is designed to harness the Concordia community’s leadership potential and facilitate a shift toward our sustainable future.”

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