From little things bigger things grow. In the case of Australasian Campuses Towards Sustainability (ACTS) it all started with an email list 28 years ago connecting like-minded individuals concerned about how universities could become more sustainable across their operations.

Today, ACTS – a non-profit, member based organisation – brings together people from campuses and tertiary institutions across Australia and New Zealand in a body that has international reach.

ACTS President and Macquarie University’s Director of Sustainability Leanne Denby says the “beauty” of sustainability is that it’s everywhere and everything.

“It is everybody’s responsibility so it doesn’t matter where you sit in an institution’s organisational structure, there is something you can do to help to make that institution more sustainable,” she tells CMM.

A major aim of ACTS, says Denby, is to be inspirational, educational and practical – to motivate and help people, while at the same time providing guidance in how to make change outside of the more obvious clichéd areas such as conserving electricity and recycling paper.

“Our primary focus has been on people in roles similar to mine – practitioners employed by the university to embed sustainability in that institution. However, we are now reaching out to an audience in campuses more broadly,” she says.

“It could be a project manager trying to understand what sustainability means for their role; a senior executive thinking more strategically about their campus; it could be an academic in the classroom who wants to do more about learning and skills development.”

Comprehensive and practical framework

One successful major element in the strategic quest to embed sustainability holistically in universities is the ACTS LiFE Index, a comprehensive and practical framework it developed with input from practitioners in Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

“It is a truly international framework that not only positions sustainability strategically in the conversation but also develops a common language for the areas we need to be addressing – from leadership and governance through to partnerships and engagements, facilities and operations, and learning, teaching and research,” she says.

Universities are responding through a range of initiatives, with, for example, a number of institutions moving to carbon neutral, utilising solar energy and other renewables.

“There is a lot that’s happening and there are big conversations now around what sustainability means for an institution,” she says.

Denby says the language used is important in developing understanding of sustainability – and that can sometimes mean not using the word ‘sustainability’ but instead talking about what it actually means: “like ‘doing good’ for yourself, for others and the planet because people understand that better, and they understand ‘doing good’”.

In this regard, at Macquarie University, Denby and her team have worked to develop an across-campus Building Better Futures approach.

Part of this is an accreditation program called Target Better Futures designed to help departments and offices to embed sustainability as part of ‘business as usual’. Bronze, silver and gold accreditations are awarded to departments as they move through the different levels, each of which has a specific focus with specific strategic outcomes.

“It starts with recognising and rewarding what people are already doing, and progresses through a series of activities that shows embedding sustainability in all we do is a collective responsibility,” she says.

Denby says she can see a future in which sustainability will be an important feature in determining international links and collaborations with overseas universities.

“China is emerging as one of the world’s sustainability leaders,” she says. “They are making magnificent inroads into being more sustainable environmentally, economically and socially. I think there will come a time when, if you want to engage with China, you will need to demonstrate your capacity to understand where they are heading in this area.”