Why Sustainability Ratings are Useful

By: TANJA SREBOTNJAK, Hixon Center Director

Good news: Harvey Mudd College has just received a STARS Silver rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). This follows last year’s first-ever Bronze rating and reflects continued efforts to embed sustainability across all organizational units and processes and was bolstered by the submission of more complete data to the STARS reporting system.

But what’s STARS Silver worth? How sustainable are we as a campus and community? How much more needs to be done to reach Gold, or even Platinum? Let’s take a look at the world of sustainability ratings.

Sustainability ratings have proliferated over the past 15 years—across all sectors and industries. There are now ratings for investment products (e.g., so-called ESG funds, E=Environment, S=Social, G=Governance), company ratings (e.g., the Dow Jones Global Sustainability Index), government and national ratings (e.g., the Environmental Performance Index), and many more performance reporting tools (e.g., GRI, CDP, and SASB).

AASHE, the higher-ed sustainability association, launched its STARS 0.4 draft version after an extensive stakeholder engagement process in 2007 with the goal to offer a comprehensive and custom-tailored sustainability assessment tool for the higher education sector. Since then the platform has evolved substantially and it currently in version 2.2. More than 900 universities and colleges worldwide have registered for the STARS reporting tool and more than 300 have a currently valid rating (ratings expire after three years without new data submission).

Any sustainability assessment protocol faces multiple challenges. First, sustainability is inherently cross-cutting and interdisciplinary. In order to be comprehensive, it requires a lot of data, some of it will inevitably be more uncertain or qualitative than other information. Because of this complexity, there is no single, right way to aggregate this data. For example, how does one compare energy and water consumption data and how should they be weighted relative to one another? Sustainability is also somewhat of an aspirational goal in that there is currently no universally agreed-upon absolute level of operations that is equated with being a sustainable organization. Some useful benchmarks exist, such as being net-zero water and carbon and sending zero waste to landfill or incineration. Other objectives are less easily formulated in absolute terms such as promoting healthy workplaces and institutional diversity.

The STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System) rating is a comprehensive approach for measuring and evaluating the sustainability of higher education institutions. Its 4 main categories are Academics, Engagement, Operations, and Planning & Administration. Within these broadly construed topics, there are 19 sub-categories covering aspects such as sustainability in the curriculum, research, and public engagement, finance and investment, climate, energy, water, and building performance, food and dining, diversity and inclusion, and wellbeing.

Submitting institutions receive points for relevant sustainability actions, processes, and structures. For example, up to 10 points are awarded for action on climate change such as compiling a greenhouse gas inventory of at least Scope 1 and 2 emissions, while up to 4 points are awarded for institutions that conduct sustainability literacy assessments among their students. STARS does not penalize for actions running counter to commonly accepted sustainable practices, rather, it awards points for actions taken.

An institution’s final STARS score is calculated as the percentage of available points. The scores are then translated to a rating (Bronze for at least 25% of total available points, Silver for at least 45%, Gold for at least 65%, and Platinum for at least 85%).

So, Harvey Mudd College’s score of just under 50% means that the College has earned nearly half of the available points for all sustainability items scored in STARS. With respect to its peers, that is not a bad result. Olin College of Engineering obtained Bronze in 2018 with a score of 36.28, while Stanford maintains a Platinum level with 88.00 in 2019. Our neighbors Pitzer, Pomona, Scripps, and CMC have not updated their submissions since 2015 or earlier.

Aside from comparing ourselves to other institutions, what does the STARS rating offer us? For one, the detailed data collection facilitates identifying areas where we can do more. These are areas where we obtained no or only few of the available points and/or where our similarly sized and oriented peer institutions are doing particularly well. For Harvey Mudd College they are Curriculum (17 out of 34 points), Buildings (3/11), Energy (1.5/10), Food & Dining (1.6/10), Coordination & Planning (1.5/8), Investment & Finance (2/7), Purchasing (1/6), and Wellbeing & work (1/7).

The assessment can serve as a starting point for further analysis of the campus’ sustainability profile and cross-institutional learning, which in turn can inform internal decision-making. It is also an outward-facing communication tool, signaling to prospective students and their families that the college is taking sustainability seriously and is continuously striving to improve its performance.

As so many of these rating systems, STARS is not perfect. For one, its categories and actions tend to work in favor of larger institutions. One can also argue over the number of points allocated to different items because they do not take local priorities such as water scarcity or transportation challenges into account. But the imperfect should not be the enemy of the good and STARS is an important assessment and benchmarking tool for institutions in higher education. It is a guiding light for doing what we teach and we can be proud of the STARS results we have achieved to date, while looking at opportunities to do better.