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Social Justice and Sustainability Go Hand in Hand at Northwestern

Northwestern is committed to creating an environmentally sound, socially just, and economically sustainable culture. Environmentally conscious organizations often refer to their sustainability efforts as the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit. This definition dates back to 1987, when the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations first defined sustainable development. This definition reflects the fact that to truly thrive in the long term, a community must address all three of these pillars of sustainability.

Although the definition has remained constant, efforts to address these challenges have evolved throughout the decades, and, at times, certain elements can seem to be overemphasized or neglected. In recent years, the sustainability movement has shifted toward ensuring that adequate emphasis is given to social justice concerns, and to ensuring that we do not protect profits, or even the planet, at the expense of people or social equity.

Northwestern University is tackling all three elements of this sustainability framework on multiple fronts, with several departments championing specific initiatives. But these efforts go beyond the work of any one department. Environmental, fiscal, and social sustainability are values that must be taken into account in all aspects of the University’s operations.

For example, sustainNU is the University’s comprehensive and inclusive sustainability program that aims to engage the campus community in reducing and eventually eliminating its contributions to climate change. This program is bigger than the team of sustainNU staff members who serve to coordinate campus sustainability initiatives. Students, faculty, and staff from across the University participate in sustainNU Working Groups, helping to set goals, implement projects, and integrate sustainability into daily campus life.

Meanwhile, Northwestern’s Change Makers program is an initiative that focuses on the social equity side of sustainability. The program is led by the Women’s Center, and it serves to ensure that the University’s efforts to address social equity and inclusion reach beyond specific departments, committees, and task forces. The program engages faculty and staff members from across University departments in dialogue and discussion aimed at helping participants develop a deeper understanding of what it means to create a more inclusive environment. Participants are empowered to apply the insights gained from the program in the work they do every day.

This winter, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), recognized the Change Makers program in their 2017 Sustainable Campus Index. AASHE recognizes that diversity and affordability in higher education will contribute to a more equitable and sustainable world.

Here are other ways that Northwestern is addressing the social justice pillar of sustainability.

Northwestern connects with the diverse communities of Evanston and Chicago through the work of Neighborhood and Community Relations. This department is focused on building stronger communities and promoting partnerships that enhance community and campus. Initiatives include educational programs for local youth, investments in community development, and collaboration on public health and safety.

Northwestern is also working to reflect the three pillars of sustainability in the University’s purchasing practices. The Procurement and Payment Services department launched the University’s first Business Diversity Program, demonstrating the University’s commitment to developing mutually beneficial relationships with small, minority-owned, women-owned, disadvantaged, veteran-owned, HUBzone, and local business enterprises. The Supplier Diversity Program is Northwestern's initiative to create opportunities for such vendors to market their products to the University. The Procurement and Payment Services is also working with sustainNU to develop guidelines for more environmentally preferable purchasing practices.

The Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion helps create and sustain a diverse, inclusive and welcoming environment for all Northwestern community members. Key initiatives include the annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. commemoration, InclusiveNU, Faculty Diversity and Excellence, and Native American and Indigenous Initiatives.

The Women’s Center is dedicated to fostering a campus climate that promotes equity and enriches the personal, professional and academic lives of all members of the University community, particularly women. The Center is committed to educating the community on issues that affect women such as gender bias, sexual harassment, reproductive justice and several others.

Together, these initiatives support Northwestern’s efforts to address the social justice pillar of sustainability. Creating a welcoming, inclusive community results in a rich culture that fosters learning and the exchange of ideas. When we give everyone a chance to thrive, regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and economic background, we strengthen our community as a whole.

Likewise, environmental sustainability is an issue that impacts everyone, and the harmful effects of environmental degradation are often felt most immediately by low-income and minority communities. At Northwestern, we recognize the need to address these interconnected issues. We welcome everyone to join in creating a more sustainable, just, and inclusive culture, at Northwestern, and in the broader world.