Why establish a Green Office?

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Sustainable development is the largest challenge of our time, and education plays an important role in its achievement. Higher education, in particular, can make significant contributions by educating future decision makers on sustainability and acting as living laboratories to experiment with innovative solutions.

To achieve the vision of a sustainable university, all stakeholder groups should be invited to contribute. However, the compartmentalisation of universities makes it often difficult for people to collaborate across departmental boundaries. This is a problem, since sustainability efforts remain constrained to small islands of activity. Platforms need to be established to create bridges across those islands and offer more opportunities for people to contribute.

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When you’re done with the quiz, just explore the page below to learn more about the GO Model.


Sustainable Development

The largest challenge of our time is the creation of a sustainable and just world

80% of humanity still survives on less than US $10 a day. For them, development along with an equitable distribution of resources is a way out of poverty. But as societies and economies develop, the natural resource base — like rivers, air quality, and forests are often destroyed and the benefits of development aren’t shared equally. This is a problem since ‘business-as-usual’ development undermines human and animal well-being.

Sustainable development emerged to a new paradigm for human development. It tries to solve the question of how we can guarantee well-being and decent living standards for billions of people while preserving and restoring the natural support systems on which all life depends.

Why a GO?
Why a GO?


A leverage point to create change

When you think about sustainable development, you might believe that we primarily need changes in our energy, agriculture, and transport sectors. The education sector rarely comes to mind. But, why care? To realise sustainable development, a critical mass of people need to understand sustainability challenges, find creative solutions, and realise those in their communities and organisations. Education is essential if we want to achieve this.

20% of all EU citizens (106mio people) attend an institution of formal education — from kindergarten to school, college, and university. That’s a lot! Their knowledge, skills, and values are shaped for life through classes, friendships, teachers and the institutional environment.

However, to what extent do these institutions enable pupils and students to become future change makers and empower them to contribute to sustainability in their communities and institutions today? To what extent is the catering, energy, transportation or waste management of these institutions sustainable? Is it creating a learning environment that emphasises sustainability choices in its daily operations?

These are important questions to ask across the education sector.

  • Why a GO?
    Educational institutions can contribute by re-orienting the curriculum towards sustainability. (Photo: UvA Green Office)
  • 28328_119118564783108_3265057_n
    Practicing sustainability in daily operations creates an institutional environment that values sustainability (Photo: Student Green Office ULB)
  • Pupils and students should be empowered to contribute to the institution’s sustainability transition (Photo: rootAbility)
“The destruction of the planet is not the work of ignorant people. Education can equip people to be more effective vandals of the earth.”
David Orr (Professor, academic, activist)

Higher education

Your university can contribute to sustainability in unique ways

We specifically care about universities because they can play an important role that other institutions cannot. By educating future decision makers and using its campus as an experimentation ground, your university can make two unique contributions to sustainability that other organisations cannot easily make.

First, through its Bachelors, Masters and Ph.D. degrees, your university awards the highest degrees in the education sector. These degrees often present the entry ticket into well-paid positions of middle or higher management. The question is thus, to what extent does the university prepare these future decision makers to lead the world into a sustainable, more promising future?

Secondly, your university is a place of teaching and research. This gives it a unique opportunity to act as a living laboratory to experiment with sustainability. For example, facility services can install solar cells on buildings. Researchers can study how much electricity these solar cells produce. The lessons learned can then be shared with students and with the local community through on-site visits and lectures. Hence, it is important that universities actively engage with the sustainability agenda.


Universities can act as living laboratories where solutions to sustainability are implemented, researched and taught. In this case, students and staff are preparing plans for a sustainability garden on campus. (Photo: Green Office Ghent)

Universities can act as living laboratories where solutions to sustainability are implemented, researched and taught. In this case, students and staff are preparing plans for a sustainability garden on campus. (Photo: Green Office Ghent)


Every stakeholder group should be invited to participate

The democratic culture of most universities makes it difficult to implement sustainability from the top. On the contrary, people need to lead, collaborate and work with each other. This is why it is important that every stakeholder group contributes.

It is important that sustainability is inclusive and that all stakeholders can contribute. (Photo: Day of Sustainability TU Delft)
It is important that sustainability is inclusive and that all stakeholders can contribute. (Photo: Day of Sustainability TU Delft)

Here are some ideas on how different stakeholders could contribute:

Educators could enable students to explore societal issues through real-life projects and from an environmental, economic, and social perspective.

Researchers could work with local NGOs, businesses, and the city government to realise research projects that address sustainability challenges of the local community.

Staff could take care of solar cells, waste recycling or organic catering, as well as provide sustainability data to researchers and work with educators to use sustainability projects on campus as a hands-on learning experience for students.

Students could contribute to the sustainability transition with their ideas, creativity, and energy through student groups, societies, course projects, or internships.

Higher management could provide top-down legitimacy, direction, and support, and take the lead on specific sustainability projects themselves.

This is a vision of how to create a sustainable university through the engagement of all stakeholder groups. Unfortunately, this is the reality in just a few institutions. Why?

“New governance models and decision-making processes must be created to enable effective interdepartmental and interdisciplinary engagement in campus sustainability.”
Leith Sharp (Sustainabilty professional)


Sustainability action often takes place on disconnected island

If the ambition is to embed sustainability into every aspect of university life, then a critical mass of students and staff need to engage on the topic. Having a group of 15 supporters at a university of 25,000 people is just the beginning.

Ask yourself: How many students, staff, and academics know what your institution is doing on sustainability? Do they know how they can get involved? Are they aware of what sustainability means for their job or studies? If your institution is like many universities, then many people won’t have an answer to these questions, but that can be fixed!

The decentralised and compartmentalised build-up of universities often makes it difficult for people to collaborate and engage. As the image below shows, different people might be researching, teaching or working on sustainability already, but don’t know each other. Their actions take place in disconnected islands, making it difficult to create synergy effects and take sustainability to the next level. What could be done about this?


Islands of activity_ebook


We need to create spaces for people to collaborate

Engaging students and staff to work and act on sustainability is a process that needs to be carefully organised; it would not take place naturally. Ideally, different parts of the community, as well as the management levels, are connected through a sustainability platform. 

Such a platform informs, connects and supports academics, students, and staff to engage in sustainability. It is the contact point for everyone who has questions and makes existing sustainability efforts visible. This is illustrated by the graphic below:

Sustainability platform_ebook

Many ways exist to organise such a platform: You might have a working group(s), an open forum, a dedicated sustainability department or sustainability committee. Each of those has specific strengths and weaknesses. On this page, you learn about one solution that is very dear to us: The Green Office Model.

The Green Office Model is a great example of what a sustainability platform looks like. (Photo: Green Office Gent)
The Green Office Model is a great example of what a sustainability platform looks like. (Photo: Green Office Gent)

Depending on your needs, you can adapt the Green Office Model in multiple ways: If you are just starting out on the sustainability journey, you can develop your Green Office as the dedicated sustainability platform for the whole university.

You might already have a sustainability team, committee or working groups in place, but might want to improve student engagement. Then, you can use the Green Office Model to develop a student-led sustainability hub that informs, connects and supports students to act on sustainability. Such a student-led hub can then work alongside more staff-led sustainability initiatives.

We invite you to visit the next page by clicking on the button below, to learn more about the Green Office Model.