Northwestern Going All-In on Sustainability

Building on momentum from a series of campus-wide initiatives, Northwestern is going all-in on sustainability. The University released its inaugural Strategic Sustainability Plan on October 3, detailing the next five years of sustainability at Northwestern with the ultimate goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.

Reducing Campus Energy Use Intensity

Northwestern has reduced its campus energy use intensity in campus facilities by 14 percent since 2010, absent a formal plan. Now, the University has a clear roadmap for transforming the campus into an ecological gem that improves the health and well-being of its community and the surrounding environment.

“As a leading global institution, Northwestern is committed to mitigating the impact of climate change,” said President Morton Schapiro. “We have an obligation to future generations to reduce our carbon footprint, yes—but also a tremendous opportunity to contribute to global climate solutions.”

The plan, which consists of five program areas (built environment, transportation, resource conservation, experiential learning and communication, and engagement), had been more than a year in the making. Engaging the entire campus community for input and to build excitement in sustainability brought it to life.

The Process

Northwestern has had an office of sustainability for some time, but its leadership decided the title lacked a certain luster. So, last October, it dropped “office of” from the name and rebranded as sustainNU, which refers to the office and a campus-wide initiative to engage students, faculty and staff in reducing, and eventually eliminating, Northwestern’s contribution to climate change.

It was a massive undertaking, with a focus on building awareness of sustainability programs at Northwestern and educating the campus community on how it could get involved in greening the University. “If we actively participate in the sustainability plan at both the institutional and personal levels, together we can make the most lasting impact,” said Kathia Benitez, director of sustainability for the University.

Led by Benitez, sustainNU oversaw development of the strategic plan, creating a multilayered structure that gave key stakeholders across the University a say in the outcome. Working groups of students, faculty and staff helped craft the details for each of the five program areas. The working groups’ co-chairs formed sustainNU’s sustainability council, which gave its recommendations to the plan’s steering committee, made up of senior University leaders.

“From what I’ve seen, it’s impressive what Northwestern’s going to be doing; they’ve got a lot of work ahead of them,” Jamie Van Mourik, vice president of education at the U.S. Green Building Council, told Crain’s Chicago Business. “For an institution to go through this lengthy process and get to this point shows a level of maturity in becoming a truly sustainable community and campus.”

Communications and Engagement

The results are in on sustainNU’s efforts to get buy-in on campus: Since the rebranding, sustainNU has gained more than 4,000 new subscribers to its monthly newsletter. Increased engagement has allowed sustainNU to expand its programming, involving students, staff and faculty in tackling the other four program areas. In other words, keeping the campus community interested underpins the success of the plan’s four other areas.

“The program is only effective if, as a campus community, we take ownership of driving impactful change on campus and in our personal lives,” Benitez said. “We will continue to push outreach and educational programming to help students, faculty and staff do just that.” In the built environment, for example, Northwestern’s annual Green Cup—a month-long friendly competition between residence halls and Greek houses to reduce energy and water use the most—kicks off in November. Last year, the competition saved more than 850,000 cubic feet of water and cut electricity by more than 1.8 million kWh.

On the staff side, the plan calls for a doubling of campus offices participating in Northwestern’s Green Office Certification Program. In all, sustainNU hosted or supported 55 campus sustainability events that reached 5,000 students, faculty, staff and community members during the 2016-17 academic year.

Built Environment

Here is where the heavy lifting takes place. Northwestern’s built environment accounts for approximately eighty percent of carbon emissions, driven largely by energy-intensive labs and historic buildings. The average building stock is from 1944, with the oldest remaining building constructed in 1869 and the newest in 2017. But demonstrable progress already has been made, as the 14-percent reduction in energy use intensity since 2010 suggests.

The University recently celebrated the certification of its first LEED platinum building, Kresge Hall. Two years of extensive renovations transformed the 63-year-old building into the Evanston campus’ greenest, and marked Northwestern’s 11th LEED certified building between the Evanston and Chicago campuses.

Kresge is one of the first dominoes to fall. Under the plan, all new major construction projects must achieve at least a LEED New Construction v4 Gold rating, while renovations of existing buildings are required to achieve at least LEED for Existing Building v4 silver. The recently opened Kellogg Global Hub, a marvel of modern architecture and sustainable design that sits on the shores of Lake Michigan, is currently being scored for its LEED rating.

Prior to the strategic plan’s release, Northwestern built momentum with upgrades to various components of its infrastructure. Last year, the University cut outdoor lighting energy use by 50 percent by converting all outdoor lamps to LEDs and repaired leaky steam traps in the main utility plant on campus, resulting in a 90 percent decrease in wasted energy and $2 million per year in energy savings. All told, Northwestern looks to reduce campus energy consumption by 20 percent by 2020 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.


Sitting along Lake Michigan and just north of Chicago, the Evanston campus has a major public transit advantage. A sustainNU-led 2016 transportation survey found that the Chicago Transit Authority’s ‘L’ train is the primary commuting mode for 20 percent of students and 21 percent of faculty and staff.

Still, 44 percent of faculty and staff drive alone to work for their primary mode of transportation. To slash gasoline consumption, the strategic plan calls for an increase of 5 percent public transit usage by 2021 by boosting awareness of the commuter pre-tax public transit benefit for faculty and staff, among other strategies.

The University also is doing its part to eliminate its greenhouse gas emissions from its own vehicle fleet. Facilities Management has replaced 16 of its department vehicles with all-electric “club cars” and will transition to a campus fleet run exclusively on renewable energy by 2030.

The campus community, meanwhile, continues to take advantage of Northwestern’s bike-friendly infrastructure. The University helped finance the construction of new protected bike lanes and the extension of current protected bike lanes along Sheridan Road, near the entrance to campus and into downtown Evanston, and provides discounts on bikes and bike accessories for students, faculty and staff.

Faculty and staff have responded in kind. Northwestern won the Active Transportation Alliance’s Bike Commuter Challenge in June, logging more than 8,000 miles over two weeks—the most of any of the 300-plus Chicago-area organizations that participated —and received the Bicycle Friendly University campus silver designation from the League of American Bicyclists in 2016.

Resource Conservation and Experiential Learning

Efforts led by sustainNU at the University’s annual community picnic is a microcosm of Northwestern’s larger plan to reach a landfill diversion rate of 50 percent by 2020. In July, sustainNU volunteers helped 1,500 attendees divert a whopping 93 percent of picnic waste from the landfill.

Meanwhile, sustainNU awarded more than $50,000 in grants to support student-led sustainability projects on campus during the 2016-17 school year as part of its commitment to fostering real-world learning opportunities. One grant went to House by Northwestern, which placed sixth in the 2017 Solar Decathlon, a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) competition that challenges collegiate teams to design and build a 100-percent solar-powered home.

Moving Forward with Transparency

Keeping with the spirit of campus-wide involvement in transforming Northwestern into a sustainable operation, everyone will be able to follow the University’s progress. Northwestern will, on an annual basis, share a publicly available sustainability report card that will be posted online by sustainNU and DOE. Northwestern recently completed its first comprehensive Greenhouse Gas Emissions Assessment, establishing a baseline for accurate tracking and reporting. Meanwhile, the University uses several benchmarking platforms, including EPA’s ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager, the Campus Carbon Calculator and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System (STARS).

Northwestern earned a silver STARS rating during the latest evaluation period. The sustainNU program will also adhere to standards set by the Climate Registry for calculating, verifying and publicly reporting greenhouse gas emissions. “Northwestern has demonstrated its commitment to addressing the linked challenges of sustainable energy in recent years through significant investment in programs, faculty, staff and infrastructure,” said Bradley Sageman, co-chair of sustainNU’s sustainability council and chair of the department of Earth and planetary sciences in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. Sageman notes, “The creation of a campus sustainability plan brings all of these efforts together and sets clear goals for the future. It is the logical next step for our community.”

About the Author
Joe Popely is a marketing content specialist at Northwestern University. He lives in Chicago and volunteers extensively for the U.S. Green Building Council Illinois chapter as a member of its Emerging Professionals Committee.