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Rob Whittier

Director of the Office of Sustainability, Northwestern University

“Today’s students are more passionate and discerning than ever—and they’re looking for an academic and professional experience that mirrors their personal values.”
Rob, you were recently appointed the very first Director of Sustainability at Northwestern University. What prompted the university to establish this position?

Northwestern’s leadership, with the strong support of students and faculty, recognized that, as a leader in academics and research, the university had a responsibility to take a prominent role in addressing the global issues around sustainability, society, and the environment—energy and climate change, water and resource scarcity, environmental degradation, agriculture, and biodiversity. For a university, the role is doubly important: we need to address our own impact, but even more critically, we need to prepare our students, the next generation, to address these challenges.

What value does Northwestern expect to derive from its sustainability commitment?

We believe taking a strategic approach to sustainability will benefit Northwestern in some significant ways. In our curriculum, we’re ensuring that students and researchers have opportunities to engage in topics that are critical to the global community, which means they’ll be well positioned for impactful careers in emergent areas like alternative energy and material sciences. In our operations, we’re using the lens of sustainability to identify value through conservation and efficiency. In fact, we’re in the midst of a massive energy efficiency campaign, with over $33M committed to energy efficiency projects that will significantly reduce our GHG emissions and our operating costs.

There are dozens of definitions of sustainability, but they all seem to commonly recognize global interconnections between economies, peoples, cultures, and our environment. For a university, sustainability means understanding how we create a culture and curriculum that engages students and faculty in a multidisciplinary way to address critical issues like energy, water, waste, and climate change.

Universities have a big footprint, from energy and water use to food and waste. So, of course, we need to demonstrate leadership and innovation in these areas—and we are! Northwestern offsets 30% of our energy use though the purchase of renewable energy and we’re working with our vendors in food, office supplies, maintenance, landscaping, and technology to create programs and policies that support sustainable purchasing, use, and recycling or disposal.

How does this new focus on sustainability help the planet and the people of Northwestern? How does it help the profitability of Northwestern?

To achieve our sustainability goals, we’re going to have to engage all of our students, faculty, and staff. We’re also going to have to build a culture of sustainability that empowers every individual to make the right decisions for the university. For example, we’re piloting a Green Office and Green Labs initiative that encourages teams of employees across our campuses to “audit” their workspaces and their actions to identify opportunities for conservation. On a macro scale, Northwestern is investing substantially in energy efficiency and green building, which will save us millions in operating costs. We’re looking forward to discovering how the university can generate and source clean energy more effectively and further reduce our costs and environmental footprint.

How have you gone about developing a strategic plan to integrate sustainable practices into both the operational and academic functions of Northwestern?

Our strategic plan has to reflect the broader mission of the university but also the unique goals and objectives for over a dozen different schools including some—like the Kellogg School of Management, the School of Law and the McCormick School of Engineering—which are globally recognized entities unto themselves. As such, we’ve created a Sustainability Council with representation from across the university, in academics and our operations. Bringing a diverse (and brilliant) group of leaders together around a topic as important and dynamic as sustainability is bound to yield some exciting thinking.

You've had a wealth of experience in building sustainability programs throughout your career. What aspects of your experience do you think will be most beneficial to Northwestern's sustainability plan?

As a consultant in Deloitte’s Sustainability and Climate Change practice, I worked across a diverse array of industries, with a variety of organizations, in multiple countries and cultures. From public sector and non-profit projects to Fortune 100 projects, each one had its share of unique challenges. So, my experience has certainly informed my understanding and modus operandi.

I’ve learned, through hands-on experience, what works (and what doesn’t) and I’ve had ample opportunity to refine a comprehensive, but flexible approach to crafting a strategic approach to sustainability. Building a sustainability plan is really about working with key stakeholders across the organization to establish a vision and goals. Once the goals are set, you create the framework and teams to engage employees and partners to create and manage the programs to attain those goals. Next, you measure and communicate performance throughout the organization and then focus on refinement and continuous improvement.

What lessons from your experience in assisting large corporations with their sustainability projects have impacted your thinking the most? Which of these lessons from the corporate side do you think would help academic institutions the most? Similarly, what lessons from academic institutions do you feel could help corporations?

Sustainability is a still a relatively nascent concept for many corporations. There may be pockets of expertise, but it’s rarely embedded in an organization’s DNA (their mission and values), so it competes with other priorities. At Deloitte, we worked with the leadership of various organizations, and with employees across functions and departments, to understand how sustainability could support corporate strategy and culture and how it could unlock value across an enterprise. What we found was that the answers were never the same for any two organizations.

I think the same holds true for universities. We’re all unique. Some are more focused on research than classroom learning, some have an emphasis on engineering, and others emphasize forestry. A good strategy will leverage an organization or institution’s strengths and use a “sustainable lens” to identify and address potential gaps.

How do you feel Northwestern's commitment to sustainability will impact its brand? Do you see it positively impacting admission levels, on-campus recruitment, etc.?

Today’s students are more passionate and discerning than ever and they’re looking for an academic and professional experience that mirrors their personal values. Northwestern’s focus on sustainability will help position us as a global leader in our curriculum and research in fields addressing energy and the environment, and also in our own operations. This will appeal to ecologically aware students, as well as students with many other interests and aspirations, from around the globe.

We’re already one of the world’s most recognized universities. The Kellogg School of Management and some of our other graduate programs are consistently ranked among the world’s best. So, building a multidisciplinary curriculum around energy and sustainability is only going to improve our competitiveness. In fact, we’re already seeing increased interest from recruiters. In the last two weeks alone, I’ve met with representatives from companies like Siemens, GE, Schneider, and United Technologies, and they’re all intent on acquiring the right talent with that ideal mix of business acumen and technical proficiency. We’re certainly committed to helping
our students develop skills that will give them a competitive edge in a world that will increasingly emphasize sustainability.

Why do you feel today’s students have such great interest in organizations that are clearly committed to sustainability? Do you see this interest driving many of their career paths as they prepare to graduate?

This generation of students is very environmentally and socially aware. They’re very informed about global issues. On campus, there are over twenty student groups with a focus on sustainability, reaching thousands of students. For the majority, it’s not just about a personal commitment to making the right decisions, many students are hoping to pursue a career that’s related to sustainability and social responsibility.

You mentioned that you often see Northwestern’s students working to align their passion for sustainability with their future careers. Which brands/organizations do you see such students flocking to as graduation nears? What qualities attract them to such brands/organizations?

I think there’s an interesting dichotomy in what students are aspiring to after graduation. I see a number of students who are looking for traditional corporate careers with a focus on sustainability. GE’s Renewable Energy Leadership Program, where I got my start, is a great example of a career path where you get valuable experience with one of the world’s most respected companies, and you get a chance to make a positive impact on the environment. Other students are looking for entrepreneurial opportunities with start-ups, either domestically or, frequently, abroad.

I think the common thread is that students want to know they can make an impact and work for an organization that’s aligned with their values. For companies like Ford or Dow, which weren’t traditionally thought of as sustainability leaders, it’s been their visible commitment to sustainability as a core element of their strategy that makes them appealing. Students know that by working for a Fortune 500 company with global reach, they can have a global impact.

What qualities do you feel help the best brands balance their sustainability performance with how the global marketplace perceives their sustainability efforts?

I think the critical differentiator is embedding sustainability in corporate strategy and goals, and backing that up with a focused marketing strategy that details what is unique or beneficial about a company’s products and services. Consumers today are too aware and have access to too much information to be greenwashed. A flashy sustainability website and a colorful “feel good” corporate responsibility report used to be enough, but today’s stakeholders — from customers to partners to investors — are demanding real transparency about a company’s products, operations, and supply chain. Reporting is becoming standardized and auditable in the same way that financial reports are, which enables real comparisons of triple bottom-line performance.

Consumers are smart enough to know what a company should be focused on. Apple, for instance, is one of the world’s most valuable brands, and they’ve done some great work in reducing packaging and energy use in their machines, but it’s consistently raked through the mud for its supply chain issues. People recognize that is one of their main areas of impact. Coca-Cola does a lot of feel good advertising, but until they started addressing their real area of impact, which is water use, their PR had some rough times.

Recent graduates (and today's average consumers in general) have been more and more skeptical about brands that claim to be eco-friendly/pro-sustainability. How would you suggest such brands best avoid being perceived as “greenwashed”?

Sustainability and “green” claims need to be backed up with real detail about what differentiates a product or a company’s operations. There is an awful lot of information available to consumers today. For example, if I’m looking for a “green” car, I have a wealth of tools to compare the miles per gallon or miles per gallon equivalent of various hybrid, electric and clean-diesel vehicles. I might take it a step further to understand the supply chain and life cycle impact of those products. I think a smart company is already using tools like Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) to measure the impact of products from cradle-to-grave, identifying key areas of opportunity, and preparing to tell consumers and the marketplace how they’re addressing those issues.

If you go to Patagonia’s website, you can literally follow the manufacture of your product from “seed to shelf” though an interactive tool called The Footprint Chronicles. Plus, they’ll tell you how to return garments for recycling when you’re done with them. This sort of innovation and transparency used to be for the bleeding edge, but now it’s the expectation. If you go to Coca-Cola’s sustainability site now, you’ll see water covered: why it matters and what Coca-Cola is doing about water stewardship. That’s how you demonstrate leadership in sustainability. That’s how you become a green brand.

About Rob Whittier

Northwestern’s newly appointed Director of Sustainability, Rob Whittier, talks to Interbrand and Deloitte about the impact of millennials, the benefits of integrating sustainable practices into Northwestern’s operational and academic functions and the responsibility universities (and brands) have to lead in the area of sustainability.

Northwestern's Sustainability Website
Northwestern's Sustainability Facebook Page