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“SFU sustainability” is less about students and more about image

The university grows complacent whenever they get recognition, despite the apathy of students and the lack of follow-through

It’s easy to critique someone’s efforts than to actually try to do better. Regardless, I’m going to critique SFU’s recently-launched 20-year Sustainability Vision. As a campus resident, my observations within the past three years have me raising my eyebrows about the sustainability “engagement” that SFU prides itself on.

SFU’s visions and goals always end at planning, at efforts, and at celebrating, while the actual execution suffers. Their institutional push for sustainability takes the form of words such as “global leader,” “community-engaged,” “zero waste,” and “core values of sustainability.”

Doesn’t that sound familiar? It’s the MO of just about every other leadership project and underperforming government out there.

The university has many years behind it, with genuinely commendable efforts to make our campuses sustainable. My cynicism originates from the only partially-visible impact of those years. SFU celebrates their ‘successes’ way too quickly, because they get overly excited at the first sign of positive public reception.

For instance, SFU’s execution of a fair trade campus has been clean and on-track, but pardon me for stating that SFU is content with simply receiving the status of “fair-trade.” While many administrative members strive to push for fair trade practices, they fall short of actual impact on the student body.

The majority of SFU students likely don’t know (or care!) that they’re sipping fair trade coffee. We often blame this kind of disconnect on the general ignorance and indifference of students. Yet maybe the problem is SFU’s half-assed efforts at determining the most effective means of educating and engaging us on these issues. The school’s trying, yes, but their attempted methods aren’t working.

SFU’s Sustainability Strategic Plan lays down innumerable strategies to execute sustainable goals from 2018–22 — using a strategic plan last revised in 2013. In 2017, I want to see what strategies have improved sustainable causes on campus; a fresh strategic plan before the launch of the 20-year vision would have been optimal.

There’s no one strategy in the plan I could point to and call impractical. However, the detailed accounting of sustainable practices at SFU fails to highlight the complexity of dealing with those who should be most involved in bringing forth change: the students.

SFU does a phenomenal job of publishing reports, organizing events, establishing systems, and providing opportunities to engage students. But it turns a blind eye once these efforts have actualized into a public, tangible form, such as their relaxing on the pursuit of fair trade methods: ever since the days of receiving their certificate and piloting fair trade through Starbucks back in 2013, SFU’s fair trade trajectory has needed more mobilization.

The Zero Waste Initiative is a prime example. SFU has been awarded national and international recognition for the program, but how many students actually “stop, think, sort” garbage on campus? Every week, I notice coffee cups in “landfill” bins.

SFU’s efforts in sustainability aren’t far-reaching; an international student isn’t as likely to care, because there might be cultural and regional values dissonance. As an international student, I had to cultivate my own understanding of sustainability — something not everyone does. SFU has no strategy for providing us with motivation to care.

All this suggests that SFU cares more about sustainability’s nominal value than about actually maintaining it. I don’t say this to discredit all the people, organizations, and efforts that have worked in creating the vision. I just wonder: how many of these people go to bed thinking about sustainability?

SFU’s umbrella of sustainable strategies might look good on the surface, but it’s incoherent, shows minimal outcomes, and, ironically, has barely any student engagement. But, I guess SFU’s excuse is that they’re at least trying, right?