What is a Green Office?
A Green Office is a platform that empowers the wider university community to act on sustainability. It also realises its own ideas to embed sustainability in education, research, and operations.
The first Green Office was established at Maastricht University in 2010. Since then, the model has been replicated by universities across Europe, and won the UNESCO-Japan Prize on Education for Sustainable Development. The model is open-source – you can adapt and improve it to suit your needs.
Green Offices co-organise sustainability events, conduct overviews of sustainability courses, co-design new courses, lobby for waste separation and solar cells, or advise student groups and staff who want to act on sustainability.
The average Green Office consists of 5 student employees, who work 14 hours a week, and one staff member. Some Green Offices also engage students as volunteers. The average funding for a Green Office is €60,000, to pay for project expenditures and salaries. It is made visible through permanent office space and an online presence.
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What is a Green Office?
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“An outstanding project to train young people as transformation agents.”
Jury of the UNESCO-Japan Prize on Education for Sustainable Development
Founding story and movement
An international movement in the making
2010: At Maastricht University, many student initiatives are working on sustainability. While they raise awareness among students, they have little impact on the institution itself.
As for the university, an environmental coordinator and a sustainability committee are in place. Both are necessary, but they lack the energy and resources to make a significant difference.
2014: The university has a sustainability report, sustainability strategy, and roadmap. Ten student initiatives and an official university department organised a sustainability barbecue for 150 people. Eight student research projects provide answers to real-life sustainability issues at the university. The caterer more than triples the supply of organic food (rise from 5% to 17%).
The difference? In 2010, a student initiative came up with the idea to establish a dedicated office that would support students in advancing sustainability at the university. They called it “Green Office.”
Upon graduation, co-founders of Maastricht University Green Office established rootAbility as a non-profit social business to spread the idea.
As the graph below shows, the Green Office Model has been replicated across Europe. Today, you can find Green Offices at universities, universities of applied sciences, technical and vocational colleges, and government organisations in the Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Sweden, and Italy.
Each Green Office is invited to connect to this community of students and staff working on sustainability across Europe. Being part of this community makes the work of Green Offices easier, more fun, and more impactful.
A sustainability platform for everyone
What it is: A Green Office is a platform that informs, connects and supports the wider university community to act on sustainability. At the same time, a GO develops and realises its own ideas on how to advance sustainability in education, research and operations.
In general, there are two basic variations of the model: a team of students and staff which together make up a dedicated sustainability team, or a student-led sustainability hub working alongside an existing staff team. You can use a Green Office in a flexible way to advance visibility, awareness, collaboration, strategy development, behaviour change or engagement.
What it is not: A Green Office is not a group of student interns supporting the environmental manager or a student initiative working outside of university structure. It also is not one environmental coordinator trying to change the whole university on her own or a high-level committee that decides about the sustainability strategy. A Green Office can work next to those and provides additional benefits: More capacity to implement sustainability throughout the whole institution, and students taking the lead to advance sustainability at the university, together with staff.
We looked at the set-up of existing Green Offices. They are all different and unique. But to give you an impression, the graph below provides you with some numbers of what the “average” Green Office looks like.
Green Offices are diverse, yet share common characteristics
We looked at 23 Green Offices to identify what they have in common. See below how the ‘typical’ Green Office looks like.
The office space allows the team to work and the community to come together. Have a look below:
A day in the life of a Green Officer
Next to her studies, Marta works at a Green Office. Early in the morning, she attends a class; after her lecture, she goes to the Green Office. The office is located in a central room on campus with a large table, some chairs, a printer, decorated walls, and lots of plants.
There is a meeting going on already. Student initiatives are planning a sustainability day. Marta gets a coffee and opens her laptop. She then sends the results of a student research project to the energy coordinator. As part of the project, a team of engineering students did a feasibility study for solar panels on the university’s rooftops.
Then, Max walks in with a large smile on his face, announcing that the dialogue round table about education for sustainable development among students and educators was a success. Participants decided to form a working group to determine the number of courses that are already dealing with sustainability topics.
The afternoon is reserved for the weekly meeting of the Green Office. The students and sustainability coordinator meet to share their updates. Topics include an onboarding workshop for student volunteers, a staff engagement pilot, a sustainability lecture series, and waste separation. Some team members ask for advice on how to address specific challenges while others assist with these challenges.
In the evening, the whole team and volunteers get together for their semester drinks in a cafe. They celebrate the achievements of the semester. Combining studies and work hasn’t always been easy for the students, and there have been some bumps along the road. But overall, it was a very successful semester, and Marta is looking forward to what they’ll be up to next.
Each Green Office runs between 10-20 projects per year
There are many things to work on, from community engagement, policy and governance, education and research, to operations and campus. Get inspired by the photos below to see what Green Offices are working on:
Advancing sustainability, one achievement at a time
Education and research
– Created a new sustainability minor and an honours course for 50 students (VU Amsterdam)
– Got an online course accredited as an additional sustainability qualification students can take (Konstanz)
– Conducted a sustainability assessment of 127 study programmes (Greenwich)
Operations and campus
– Handed out 1800 bottles and installed four water refill stations (VU Amsterdam)
– Initiated a local food pickup station with 300 members and 25 weekly orders (VU Brussels)
– Increased vegan meals from once a week to having vegan options every day (Utrecht)
– Contributed to gaining the Fair Trade Certification for the university (TU Eindhoven)
Policy and assessment
– Co-created a sustainability vision, roadmap and policies (Maastricht)
– Integrated sustainability as one of the core priorities in the university’s Strategic Plan (Kaiserslautern)
– Developed the first official sustainability report (Magdeburg)
We are the biggest fans of the model, but also know its limitations
Since we are here to educate, we also want you to be aware of the risks associated with the Green Office Model:
Student turnover: Student stay a minimum of one year. Knowledge, contacts, and continuity of projects can get lost if transitions aren’t organised well.
Recruitment & training: Working in a Green Office is unlike other student jobs. Students have significant responsibility and opportunities, as compared to, for example, sorting out books for the library. If Green Offices don’t manage the recruitment well, they risk recruiting students are not up to the job. Once employed, the students also need to be trained.
Limited authority: A Green Office doesn’t have any formal authority over courses, research or buildings. If the team doesn’t manage to find teachers, researchers, and facility managers who want to work with them, the institutional impacts of a Green Office will be limited.
No golden bullet: A Green Office is not the solution to all your sustainability challenges, it is a step along the journey. If institutions think that they are sustainable once they have a Green Office and that a Green Office is enough to change a whole university, they will be mistaken. It is one solution that has its unique strengths and is compatible with other solutions which may have other strengths.
A Green Office needs to be carefully designed, well-supported and managed to address these challenges.
“This approach can increase the visibility of sustainability efforts amongst students, improving the potential for wider student engagement and learning.”
Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges
Before establishing your Green Office, check if the model meets your needs
For those just starting out: What is your institution already doing on sustainability? If there isn’t much yet, you might want to start with a smaller project before establishing a sustainability platform. For instance, you can start with a sustainability day, report, or podium discussion.
Alternatively, you could establish the position of sustainability coordinator to have a dedicated staff working on sustainability. A Green Office may also make sense to kick start sustainability, but in the long term you will need to make sure that you have both students and staff working on sustainability.
For those already active: If you have many sustainability initiatives at your university, but you feel like your existing efforts could be more visible, better connected, and with a more stable and consistent student engagement, then a Green Office could be a good fit for you. The Green Office can then be the central platform to inform, connect, and support people.
For the advanced: If you already have a central sustainability platform and enough implementation capacity, you might not need a new Green Office. You could use the model as an inspiration to improve existing efforts and connect to our international network. However, if the existing sustainability efforts are mainly led by staff, and you miss student engagement, then you might use the model to establish a dedicated student-led sustainability platform.
If you would like to receive specific advice tailored to your institution, simply contact us to discuss how a Green Office could fit into your institution.