Shooting for the STARS of sustainability

Last week the Student Government Association (SGA) unanimously passed a resolution in support of STARS, a new sustainability evaluation system, author of the resolution, SGA senator Josh Benes said. The goal of Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System (STARS) is to have a way to track improvement in integrating sustainability into the University, Director of Sustainability Gioia Thompson said. “We are piloting [the program] now and hopefully eventually adopting it,” Thompson said. “The SGA resolution is a definite endorsement on the way to making this happen.” The STARS website defines sustainability as “encompassing human and ecological health, social justice, secure livelihoods, and a better world for all generations.” The vague wording has been a point of confusion for Benes. “It is hard to pinpoint what the term means,” Benes said. But once sustainability is defined, the University will be able to consistently track its progress toward achieving it. “You have to decide as a community what you mean by sustainability,” Thompson said. “It makes it easier to talk about it because you are asking the same question year after year, not different questions.” Another challenge is the actual measurement of sustainability. “There are at least 150 variables within STARS that look at what the University is doing and evaluate it,” Benes said. Thompson said that although such an ambitious project takes a lot of coordinated effort to implement, she thinks that the University can do it. “I think next summer or fall we could officially commit,” Thompson said. “That would give us some time to complete the more difficult sections. We have to be sure that we can handle it.” If the University decides to commit, all of the scores will be put online for public viewing. Thompson said she thinks that transparency will yield improved results. “We can compare how we are doing on a specific issue, such as local food purchasing,” she said. “It makes it much easier to track our progress and track ways to improve.” In an effort to get a sense of where UVM fits on the sustainability spectrum and to begin education and outreach with different parts of the school, two service-learning classes conducted a partial STARS evaluation last spring, Benes said. “We scored a silver rating,” Benes said. “But we can go higher in STARS and beyond STARS.” Benes said he thinks that the more people who know about STARS the better — and the better score. “The next step is to start getting the word out there and having people understand what STARS is,” he said. While departmental decisions affect sustainability in a large, systemic way, student actions have an impact as well. “The way we view sustainability at the campus level can have an impact on students, but it depends on the individual to make that decision to make changes in his or her own life,” he said. “It can be as simple as knowing how to compost correctly, or taking a bike instead of a car.” As much as student actions help the University progress toward sustainability, it will never be tracked unless it is approved by the administration, Thompson said. Although President Fogel has shown interest in sustainability, his stance on STARS is unclear, Benes said. “Back in 2007, President Fogel made a climate commitment that UVM will become carbon neutral eventually,” he said. “But we haven’t heard in particular how they feel about STARS. We are looking for a consensus … the STARS resolution will be forwarded to the administration soon.”