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Environmental sustainability


Universities, as centres for training responsible and knowledgeable humans, prepare students to respond to the intellectual, social, and personal challenges that they will face in community. To this end, universities will take use of various resources. In this regard, the question which rises is to what extent the world leading universities take their environmental responsibility into consideration and how committed they are to environmental sustainability. This paper aimed to explore this issue by studying the world top 10 ranked universities. The study sample included Harvard University (US), University of Cambridge (UK), Yale University (US), University College London (UK), Imperial College London (UK), University of Oxford (UK), University of Chicago (US), Princeton University (US), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US), and California Institute of Technology (US). The required data was collected through the content analysis of the websites and annual reports of the mentioned universities. Findings of the paper showed that all the studied universities were involved in a number of various environmental activities and were committed to their environmental responsibilities. The findings of the paper can be a benchmark for other universities. Since the environment is an important pillar of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and vital part of sustainability, the findings have important implications for CSR policy of universities.


All humans have a moral obligation to preserve the planet and there is no excuse for doing nothing to improve the environmental state of the globe. This also applies to institutions of higher education (Christensen et al., 2009). Organizations such as companies or universities are usually responsible for the severe environmental degradation we have witnessed (Alshuwaikhat and Abubakar, 2008; Hoffman and Woody, 2008; Haden et al., 2009). Nowadays, higher education institutions can cause “significant environmental impacts” (Jabbour, 2010). Many of them, due to their large size, expressive movement of people and vehicles, high consumption of materials, and strong development of complex activities, may be considered as “small towns” (Alshuwaikhat and Abubakar, 2008). Therefore higher education institutes have a great environmental responsibility toward society. This could be through training graduates with suitable environmental knowledge as well as environmental plans and programs to reduce waste and preserve environment. Now, the question which arises is how aware universities are toward their environmental responsibilities toward society. To answer this question, this study will investigate the issue among world top 10 universities through reviewing their website content and annual reports. Although previous studies have been conducted in this area, they are mainly case studies considering only one university. This study, however, considers 10 International universities at the same time and tries to provide a general picture of how aware and responsible world top universities are toward environment. Since the environment is an important pillar of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and vital part of sustainability, the findings of this study have important implications for CSR policy of universities.


Sustainability is a pattern of resource use which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. The main idea of sustainable development is to achieve the lasting satisfaction of human needs. Environmental management may be defined as “the study of all technical and organizational activities aimed at reducing the environmental impact caused by a company’s business operations” (Cramer, 1998, p. 162). Although initially targeted for companies, this definition can also be applied to service sector and universities. Universities apply various resources to provide quality education for students. This, in turn, will cause impacts on the environment. Several simple examples of these impacts are electricity consumption, production of waste and CO2 emission caused by daily printing of large numbers of papers. A number of dimensions define environmental management practices (AragÏŒn-Correa, 1998; Klassen & Angell, 1998; Klassen & Whybark, 1999). As Céspedes-Lorente et al. (2003) mention, “Peattie and Ringler (1994) drew a distinction between software and hardware environmental activities. Software activities are those focused on organizational issues such us systems, procedures, audits and manuals, whereas hardware activities are concerned with technological change to reduce the environmental impact of the firm”. Environmental sustainability refers to the environmental actions or impacts of what we do. There are a number of studies considering the issues of sustainability and environment in higher education. A study by Wright (2010), examined how a cohort of university presidents and vice-presidents in Canadian universities conceptualize sustainable development, sustainable universities, the role universities play in achieving a sustainable future, key issues facing the university, and the barriers to implementing sustainability initiatives on campus. They showed that although the majority of participants were well versed in the concept of sustainable development, they were less familiar with the concept of a sustainable university. However, majority of them were dedicated to having their university become more sustainable. The participants also listed “financial predicaments”, “lack of understanding and awareness of sustainability issues amongst the university population”, and “a resistance to change” as the main barriers in the path of sustainability. Pollock et al. (2009) also insisted that “complex and ineffective governance, traditional disciplinary boundaries, and the lack of a shared vision at academic institutions often hinder university’s progress toward leading the world to a more sustainable and desirable future”. Furthermore, a study by Rauch and Newman (2009) in Yale University explored how an institutional target can lead to greater community action and long-term commitment than if no specific target is established.


Similar to a related study by Capriotti and Moreno (2007), this paper used a content analysis methodology to analyze the websites of the top 10 world universities ranked by Times Higher Education (THE, 2009). This research studied the content of the university official websites and tried to identify universities environmental practices, procedures and plans. To this end, we have reviewed all the related web pages of the universities (including news, media, department web pages, etc.) and not just direct links from the homepage.

The study sample included Harvard University (US), University of Cambridge (UK), Yale University (US), University College London (UK), Imperial College London (UK), University of Oxford (UK), University of Chicago (US), Princeton University (US), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US), and California Institute of Technology (US).


The findings of this research shows that world leading universities are in some way or another involved in environmental practices and committed to their environmental responsibility. Table 1 summarizes the diversity of the areas which these universities are involved in.

Table 1

Environmental practices of studied universities

Environmental Practice 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Reduction of greenhouse gas emissions a a a a a a a a a a
Reduction in the use of fossil fuels and increase in the use of renewable resources a a a a a a a a a a
Waste recycle and management a a a a a a a a
Reduction of water use a a a a a a
Green buildings and environmentally responsible architecture a a a a a a a
Running an specialized environmental centre/ network a a a a a a a a a a
Reduction of the environmental impact due to the use of paper a a a a
Increase of environmental awareness among staff & students a a a a a a a a a a
Minimisation of environmental impact due to materials and services used by the university a a a a a a a a
Minimisation of environmental impact due to travel a a a
Maintenance of university sites in an environmentally sensitive way a a a a a a
Green purchasing for university procurement a a a a a

1: Harvard University (US), 2: University of Cambridge (UK), 3: Yale University (US), 4: University College London (UK), 5: Imperial College London (UK), 6: University of Oxford (UK), 7: University of Chicago (US), 8: Princeton University (US), 9: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US), 10: California Institute of Technology (US).

With the growing concern on climate change around the globe, most of the universities are taking this issue into consideration. For instance, Harvard University monitors and publishes its greenhouse gas emissions statistics across its various schools in North America campus. As shown in their report (Harvard, 2008), the university managed to totally decrease its greenhouse gas emission to the amount of -2.3% in year 2008 compared to year 2006 in their North America campus. At Harvard, they also notice the issue of green buildings through defining Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) projects. As mentioned in their environmental report (ibid.), “LEED is a rating system for green buildings and provides a nationally accepted third-party verification that a building project meets the highest performance standards”. Similarly, in University of Cambridge, a student network named “Architecture sans Frontiéres (ASF)” considers the possibilities of a new socially and environmentally responsible architecture. Through lectures and exhibitions, this network aims to get people thinking about how buildings can respond to the needs of society and the environment (Cambridge, 2007). Yale University also has an office of sustainability where they run various projects such as LEED rating. Similarly, California Institute of Technology utilizes the LEED standard to ensure its buildings meet and maintain a high level of energy, water and resource efficiency. In another instance, Imperial College London was recognised by the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) for the efforts of the Facilities Management department to reduce its carbon production. Interestingly, University of Chicago has an interesting website called “green guide” where they provide information related to health and environmental topics at the University of Chicago and share tips with visitors on how to live a greener life (Chicago, 2006). The university also provided eco-tip of the month in its website. Overall, all the studied universities take their environmental responsibility seriously and are involved in this regard.


This study showed that world leading universities are aware of their environmental impacts and have taken necessary steps toward sustainability. Many of them have defined annual plans with objectives to achieve. This can be considered as a benchmark for other universities around the globe. However, the key to success of such plans is commitment from all levels of management specially top leaders. As discussed by Wickenberg (2006) and cited by Axelsson et al. (2008), the norm support given by the leaders of the universities is necessary and crucial to success in local implementation of sustainability plans. This is supported by the research of Christensen et al. (2009) who showed that in spite of adopting an environmental policy and signing an agreement to work for sustainable universities, Aalborg University (Denmark) failed to reach its objectives due to the lack of commitment from top management, the missing acceptance from technical staff, and a narrow understanding of the university’s environmental impacts. Other universities and their leaders can benchmark these plans and culture to organize their own sustainability and environmental plans.


The first author would like to thank Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) for supporting this research through providing Vice-Chancellor Award.


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