Community Environmental Outreach: The Green Star Model

The Declaration, Volume 2, Number 1 : Winter 1998  [Partnerships]

by Kary Schumpert

Northland College was founded in Ashland, Wisconsin in 1892. The small, regional institution offered undergraduate degrees with an emphasis on a liberal arts education. In 1972 Northland adopted its environmental mission, emphasizing both the academic curriculum and the institutional focus. The founding of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute in the same year strengthened Northland’s commitment as an environmental liberal arts college, and honored the legacy of its alumnus, trustee, noted author and nationally recognized conservationist, Sigurd Olson.

The Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute specifically supports environmental efforts in the greater Lake Superior region. Ashland and its 9000 residents are situated on the north shore of Lake Superior in Chequamegon Bay. Many visitors travel to the area to experience the lake, the North Woods, and the nearby Apostle Islands, making tourism one of the main sources of income for the Chequamegon Bay region. Outdoor activities attract tourists from across the nation. Balancing economic growth and development with environmental protection has been a hot topic for local discussion and debate. Community partnerships are vitally important to finding environmentally sustainable solutions in such circumstances.

Northland students, staff and Ashland residents work as partners on a number of regional issues and activities, with environmental concerns at the forefront of community discussion. Most recently the conversation has turned to sustainable development.

Over the years, Northland College students have worked with a number of local organizations and businesses as volunteers and interns. In particular, environmental management and environmental studies students have joined forces with local businesses to find economically and environmentally practical solutions to various problems. One team of students studied ways that paper sludge could be reused and recycled. Others volunteer to teach environmental and outdoor education in local schools.

Community organizations like the Alliance for Sustainability enjoy broad-based support from both the campus and area communities of Ashland, Washburn, and Bayfield. Unfortunately, however, the linkage between Northland College and the community is not consistent. Given Northland’s mission as an environmental liberal arts college, there are occasional divisions between the school and the community regarding environmental problems.

The Chequamegon Bay Area Green Star Award Program is a model of community environmental outreach. It utilizes the leadership and expertise of business, community, environmental, and college leaders to build community partnerships for determining environmental solutions to challenging problems.

Green Star Program Overview

The Green Star Program was started in Anchorage, Alaska in 1990 as a volunteer effort to encourage businesses, schools, non-profit organizations and government agencies to conserve energy, reduce waste, and recycle. The premise is that these actions are not only environmentally sound, but economically beneficial as well. Since the program’s inception, over 400 institutions in Alaska, employing over 60,000 people, have earned Green Star awards.

An interested institution enrolls as a member and then begins earning the Green Star Award by completing steps which encompass such practices as material purchasing, reuse of materials, and handling of toxic wastes. The Green Star standards are designed for businesses of any size or type. Each business must complete all six of the following standards:

  1. Adopt, post and circulate to all employees the Green Star policy statement, or your version of it.
  2. Designate a Green Star Coordinator or team.
  3. Conduct an annual waste reduction assessment.
  4. Provide three incentives or training opportunities to encourage management and employee participation.
  5. Notify customers about your environmental efforts by publicizing what your business is doing to meet the Green Star standards.
  6. Assist at least one other business in learning the importance of becoming a Green Star business and encourage them to enroll in the Green Star Program.

In addition, a Green Star business must complete at least six of the following twelve:

  1. Practice conservation of office paper.
  2. Incorporate at least three energy-conserving changes in your business.
  3. Monitor, record, and post utility usage and waste generation.
  4. Incorporate waste reduction methods into materials and equipment purchases.
  5. Purchase recycled/reusable materials for your business.
  6. Enhance your business’s maintenance program to improve equipment efficiency and reduce waste.
  7. Segregate waste materials for recycling and reuse.
  8. Promote proper handling and disposal of hazardous materials.
  9. Reduce your business’s use of toxic materials.
  10. Establish a litter-free zone in the immediate vicinity of your place of business.
  11. Establish a waste reduction, recycling, and energy efficiency library in your place of business.
  12. Develop your own waste reduction method different from those listed above.

Integrating the Green Star standards with day-to-day practices requires business owners, managers and employees to shift their thinking from “How do we properly dispose of our waste?” to “How can we prevent waste?” Once this is accomplished, owners can focus on completing six of the next twelve standards.
Once an institution has implemented the standards, it is eligible to receive its Green Star Award. A committee made up of fellow business owners, environmental specialists, and community leaders examines the business to verify its practices. To maintain Green Star status these practices must be ongoing, and an annual update of the institution’s improvements is required.

A Green Star business may display the Green Star Award and include it in advertising and publicity. Based on a commitment to partnership, the program encourages Green Star businesses to share their knowledge of environmental practices with other businesses in the community.

Building Community Partnerships

Marianne Inman, Academic Dean of Northland College in 1992, learned of the successful program in Alaska. She introduced it to Northland faculty as a possible pursuit for Ashland and the Chequamegon Bay area. Two Northland professors and a steering committee comprised of business and community leaders led the development of a local effort. In fall 1992, the steering committee solicited funding, in-kind donations, and community support to purchase rights to the Green Star Program. It was agreed to adopt the program as is, and the work began.

In contrast to the Anchorage model, run by the state’s environmental agency, the Chequamegon Bay Area Green Star Award Program is administered by the Ashland Area Chamber of Commerce in partnership with Northland College. Two Northland students are hired to coordinate the program on a work-study and internship basis. They work closely with the Director of the Chamber of Commerce and Northland’s Environmental Programs Coordinator, and a steering committee comprised of business and community leaders. These students share in a unique opportunity to run and administer an environmental organization. Other student volunteers and interns help the Green Star coordinators with specific tasks and offer assistance to business owners as well.

An Advisory Committee, made up of five to six representatives of businesses and institutions, serves as the guiding force of the Green Star program and the critical link between students and the community. Advisory Committee members are owners, managers, and employees of Green Star businesses. In addition to their advisory role, they provide leadership in the community and promote the benefits of environmental business initiatives. A recent assessment of the role and purpose of the Advisory Committee emphasized that members should come from Green Star businesses since they understand the process and the commitment that such a designation involves. Members should also represent different sizes and types of business and institutions (profit and non-profit, retail, educational, and manufacturing) in order to have a broad perspective on the kinds of environmental issues and obstacles these entities face.

Examples of Success

The strength of the Green Star Program is in its link to the community. As a program of the Chamber of Commerce, it gained early acceptance by area businesses, and many business leaders who are part of the Chamber have become Green Star members working to earn the award. To date, five businesses have earned awards and several others have taken steps toward enrollment and certification. Businesses are sharing ideas for everything from recycling spent fluorescent light bulbs to donating packing peanuts to a local gift shop for reuse in shipping.

Northland College is the fifth largest employer in the area when its student workforce is included. Measures taken to earn its award included initiating a comprehensive composting program, an energy reduction program, an in-depth environmental audit, and most recently the planning of an environmental dorm.

Northward Bookstore was the first business in Ashland to meet all of the Green Star standards for its award in 1994. The two owners stock many titles promoting ecologically sound living. They reuse envelopes and packaging materials, have eliminated much of the waste from their distributors, and retain one of the few green spaces in the Ashland downtown area.

Larson-Juhl, a picture frame manufacturer, employs over 125 people in its Ashland plant. To earn its Green Star Award in April 1995, the employees reduced the plant’s production of hazardous waste by 50 percent in 1992 and 10 percent each subsequent year. This was accomplished at the same time that production requirements were increasing by 10 percent annually. The Larson-Juhl Ashland facility is being recognized industry-wide for its reduction and recapture of solvents. The company has also greatly reduced the use of packing materials and has employed several reuse measures for other materials.

The Ashland Area Chamber of Commerce earned its award in April 1997 by purchasing higher post-consumer recycled content in stationery and brochures. Several office measures have resulted in reduction of paper use, and the Chamber now participates in a local close-the-loop paper recycling effort.

The Challenges

As with any young program, Green Star has faced its challenges in becoming a real part of community solutions to environmental problems. One impediment to success has been a high turnover rate among the Green Star staff. This is due in part to having students administer the program; they are by definition short term. It is also a result of inconsistent and inadequate staff support.

Out of a recent examination of the goals, functions, and roles of the “Green Star players,” several proposals for change were suggested. One was to seek funding for permanent staff to replace the paid students. Unfortunately, this proposal is contrary to the original intent of the Green Star program: to foster community connections between Northland College and the Chequamegon Bay communities. A more reasonable proposal, currently being considered, was to seek funding for a permanent staff person without eliminating the student positions. Currently there is a successful effort underway to strengthen the support framework from which the students run and operate the program.

Support for the student coordinators comes in several forms. One staff or faculty member of Northland College serves as the students’ supervisor and mentor. In the past, this support was inconsistent since Green Star duties were add-ons to the already full work loads of various faculty and staff. With the recent appointment of a faculty member as the Environmental Programs Coordinator, this obstacle is being overcome. With more time and energy devoted to Green Star, the Programs Coordinator can be a long-term anchor for the program as students move on and graduate. Furthermore, staggering the replacement of student coordinators permits more experienced students to train new participants.

The other guide and leader in the Green Star program is the Director of the Chamber of Commerce. This person provides a direct link to the business community and is critical to promoting the program. In the past Green Star has been a low priority issue for the Director. While additional time may not be available, more open lines of communication and a clearer definition of the Director’s role in Green Star may help. The recent presentation of a Green Star Award to the Chamber of Commerce had immediate effects on communication between the Director and student coordinators.

The student coordinators, the Environmental Coordinator of Northland College, and the Chamber Director are the heart and soul of the Green Star program. A sense of teamwork and partnership among these entities is imperative for success. It is important that they see themselves collectively as the framework for the program. Maintaining these relationships will determine the level of program consistency over time and allow the flexibility necessary to interpret roles as needed.

The success of Green Star also depends on maintaining high environmental standards so that the Green Star Award does nor come to be seen as a symbol for “greenwash.” This has not been an issue to date, since each business must regularly demonstrate its adherence to Green Star standards.

As relatively few businesses are involved in Green Star in Ashland, innovative methods to recruit new institutions are being considered. Linkage between Chamber of Commerce businesses is improving, and concerted attention is being given to outreach. Still in the early stages, this partnership program helps businesses find new approaches to pollution prevention, waste reduction, and energy conservation, and helps builds bridges between Northland students, faculty, and the local community. A series of workshops for similar institutions is being planned to offer an opportunity for sharing ideas and lessons learned.

The Green Star model is important in a number of ways. It demonstrates how a college can share its resources and the expertise of its staff and students to have a positive impact on the community. Colleges and communities working together help break down the boundaries between the fabled ivory tower of education and the people who live beyond. With initiatives like the Green Star Program, colleges and communities can build and strengthen a broader sense of community while fostering an environmentally sustainable future.

For more information about the Green Star program, please contact:

Green Star Coordinator
c/o Northland College
1411 Ellis Ave.
Ashland, WI 54806


Chequamegon Bay Area Green Star Award Program
Ashland Area Chamber of Commerce
311 W. Third St.
Ashland, WI 54806
phone: 715-682-2500.

Kary Schumpert is a student at Northland College and Coordinator of the Chequamegon Bay Area Green Star Award Program.

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