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Making Maroon Green

Questions for University of Chicago’s Director of Sustainability

Sustainability posts are the latest trend at institutions around the country, and University of Chicago’s first director of sustainability, Ilsa Flanagan, has been working to make the school green since last year. She’s striving to implement a sustainable environment that saves money and creates a template for lessening the school’s impact on the environment and lowering its carbon footprint. Flanagan, who has a master’s degree in women’s studies and a law degree, has worked for the United Way as vice president for public policy adviser, Sustain—a sustainable development non-government organization—and then LaSalle Bank as senior vice president and director of sustainable development. She talked to Chicago Life about her work at the university.

What’s your definition of sustainability?
   There’s a traditional definition that’s been around since the ‘80s, which is that sustainability is meeting present needs without compromising future generations’ ability to meet their needs.  It’s not necessarily a very rousing definition. My definition is that any program of sustainability should reflect the institution in which it lives—the people, the culture and its quirks. We at the university should make a definition of how we should describe sustainability. Otherwise there is no real connection.

How can people apply that definition to their lives?
   In the past, people have equated sustainability with deprivation. I want it to have a sense of vitality, and for people to understand that, you can be mindful of the choices you’re making, but not feel like you’re suffering or giving up. I suspect what people are doing now is practicing an economy on purchases because of the economy. If we can connect that to sustainability, to show them that this is not only a way to save money, but also a way to have an impact on the environment, it helps tie it in. It’s a way of saying, let’s get back to smart. How many more things can we produce more locally so that, as an example, packaging doesn’t have to be designed to keep things safe so they can be exported around the globe. There’s a real opportunity in this economy for people to reflect on how past actions have gotten us here.

How are you working on achieving sustainability at the university?
   We’re focusing on the environment and connecting it to the human element. For example, we’re looking at having our buildings more green and getting them LEED-certified, so we’re focusing on how green buildings increase productivity.

How does a green building increase productivity?
   There’s evidence that non- toxic paint and carpets with non-toxic material increase our well-being and health. You’ve probably been in a building that felt toxic or made you sleepy. We can show people the positive impact of having green buildings.

It sounds like a huge project. How do you go about implementing it?
   That’s the big question. Here we’re looking at focusing on both big and small. Thinking big usually takes time, but you want people to be engaged almost immediately. I would say under the category of thinking big, we’re looking at creating a set of sustainable building policies for our more than 200 buildings. Looking at paint on the wall, water conservation—things like that will take time because we do want to engage the community on this. As far as thinking small, we’re going to launch a campaign around Earth Week in April to basically recommend to people some small behavior changes that they might not have made that can have a big impact, like turn off your overhead lights, turn off your monitor, use power management software on your computer and cut printing in half. If you do need to print something out, do it on both sides, not in color and then recycle.

Can sustainability equal profitability?
   That’s really easy, yes.  At the University of Chicago, we just engaged with a Esco, an energy service company, and they will be doing an audit on a bunch of our energy hog buildings and tell us where all the opportunities are, and they’ll help us make cost savings. Buildings are big energy users. There are a lot of smaller cost savings that add up. There are initial cost savings and longer term.  Life cycle cost accounting is a really interesting concept. The idea is you take something you purchased and instead of just saying this desk cost $100, you look at the life of it—where it came from, what was chopped down, how was it manufactured, what were the green house emissions used in transportation, what are the costs of maintaining it, how long will we have it and how much does it cost to dispose of it. So if you’re looking at something that was made out of a renewable resource that cost $200, but will last 20 years compared to 10, you have your answer.

Do you see a lot of student support for sustainability?
   Students are good at coming up with solutions. The students here are trained to think big and to know how to create systems for getting things done.

Published: April 04, 2009
Issue: 2009 Spring Green Issue


Greening the university
A lot of campuses around Chicago are beginning to see Green. At UIC, we are using geothermal heating and cooling and building to LEED Silver standards, developing a Climate Action Plan, and integrating sustainable development into our new campus master plan.
Cynthia Klein-Banai, Apr-06-2009