Years ago Suzanne Savanick Hansen helped restore a wetland on the University of Minnesota campus while pursuing her Ph.D. Now, she's applying that experience to her new job as the sustainability manager of a private college wedged deep in a bustling city.
Savanick Hansen starts her job at Macalester College this week, becoming the newest member of a fast-growing club of professionals who are charged with working across departments to streamline, improve and beef up environmental friendliness.
"In some ways, sustainability has to be everybody's job," Savanick Hansen said. "The college students in school now, when they get out, no matter what their field is, they're going to have to deal with these issues of environmental change and global warming."
Those efforts can include everything from switching to ecofriendly sources of office paper to building a wind turbine on campus to changes in a college's curriculum.
Experts say the same is happening in the business world.
"There's been a real blossoming of these types of programs," said Julian Dautremont-Smith, associate director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. "It's really great seeing college campuses take the lead on this kind of stuff. It's an important role for them to play."
Classified ads looking for a sustainability manager -- or various permutations of that title -- on college campuses used to appear once every few months in the association's weekly newsletter. But starting a few months ago, one or two appeared nearly every week, Dautremont-Smith said.
The University of Minnesota, Morris hired a part-time manager in August 2006, Gustavus Adolphus College in St Peter brought one on board in August 2007 and the University of Minnesota Duluth will soon decide whether to allocate funds for the job.
Academics and experts say such jobs will slowly become fixtures on campuses. According to Dautremont-Smith, there are about 100 full-time and 150 part-time sustainability managers nationwide.
"You wouldn't think of not having accountants in the accounting office, right?" said Christopher Wells, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Macalester. "This is the same thing."
Commitment from leadership
Many say the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, which challenges schools to neutralize greenhouse gas emissions, has prompted much of the change.
University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks recently signed the commitment and has asked the school's vice president for university services, Kathleen O'Brien, to "oversee the university's sustainability efforts -- a role she has performed in an unofficial capacity for years now."
As the part-time sustainability coordinator for the University of Minnesota, Morris, Troy Goodnough helped win grant money to bring elementary and middle school students on campus for educational visits.
The Morris campus has its own wind turbine that saves about $30,000 a year, plans to open a biomass plant this May that will supply 80 percent of the campus's heat and is planning an environmentally friendly dormitory for 2009.
"It's important to have an advocate [on campus] for this kind of change," Goodnough said. "This position is a seat around the table. Someone to ask the questions, do the homework and find ways we can do things better."
Companies have been taking ecofriendly measures for decades, but momentum has increased in recent years, said Joel Makower, executive director of GreenBiz.com. Some of that was motivated by scrutiny from environmental activists but has since grown dramatically beyond that, he said.
"There probably isn't a big company out there that isn't asking, 'What's our green strategy?'" Makower said. "This is now part and parcel of business. It's not an afterthought."
Catalogs, lights, action
Florida-based Office Depot's green efforts kicked into higher gear a few years ago when customers started asking for ecofriendly products. In 2003, it launched a catalog featuring environmentally friendly products and hired an "environmental strategy adviser."
The catalog, the Green Book, started out with about 1,200 products and has grown to more than 3,000 in the edition released in November, said company spokeswoman Melissa Perlman. Last year, the company expanded a pilot electronics-recycling program into a continuous service and launched a website for green products, www.officedepot.com/buygreen.
Wal-Mart Stores hired its first sustainability officer in 2005. Last year, the company began installing lights in freezer cases that light up when they sense a customer approaching and turn themselves off when the customer leaves. The company also add a few stores fitted with solar panels, said Rand Waddoups, senior director of business strategy and sustainability.
At Target Corp., store light fixtures are moving from three to two bulbs. The company has also worked with the U.S. Green Building Council, said spokeswoman Susan Giesen.
Despite the feel-good vibes that the work could curry, it turns out that many companies aren't making a big deal about going greener.
"They're doing more than they're saying," Makower said. "This is a sign of change in how business is done. This is not a fad."
Some say former Vice President Al Gore's documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," and the media attention it generated are partly responsible for raising general environmental consciousness. Others say students growing up in more environmentally aware times often drive ecofriendly measures when they get to college.
Regardless, the consensus across the academic and business world is that jobs like Savanick Hansen's have a lasting future. Although in an ideal world, that wouldn't be the case.
"I think in the long term, the end goal is to work yourself out of a job," Goodnough said. "There should be no waste."
Chao Xiong • 612-673-4391