Environmental Management Systems at North American Universities: What Drives Good Performance?

The Declaration, Volume 3, Number 3 : February 2000  [Research]

By Irene Herremans and David E. Allwright

The University of Calgary (U of C) is located just north of the city center of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. The campus covers 314 acres and employs over 4,000 academic and support staff. The U of C serves approximately 23,600 full- time equivalent students. The Environmental Management Committee (EMC) for the University community was officially formed in 1996. The EMS is centrally coordinated through working groups in the areas of waste management, pollution prevention, energy and water conservation, education, communication, risk management, compliance/due diligence, traffic and transportation, and environmental accounting/audit.

In 1998, a proposal for funding to perform an audit to determine the University’s current environmental state was presented to the vice-president of finance by the EMC, and a small amount of funding was provided. The audit performed by internal personnel not only provided information on the University’s current environmental status, but also made recommendations for further development of the EMS in order to address areas where improvement was needed. However, in order to build on the work of the audit, an accounting and monitoring system was needed to determine how the U of C’s performance stacked up against other universities. It was decided that the project should take on a practical as well as a research perspective, as no resources were available to develop a monitoring or benchmarking system by professional staff. Graduate students were assigned to the project as part of their responsibilities under graduate research assistantships.

The rest of this article discusses both the process that was undertaken as well as the findings of the project.


The first step in helping us decide what we should be doing was to determine what other universities were doing. Even though the literature provides some excellent case studies of environmental initiatives that have been implemented at universities throughout the world, most of the information available is in the form of examples of “this is what we did on our campus.” Although this type of research is excellent for sharing of ideas in a particular area of concern, there was a lack of information on the holistic operations of environmental management systems at colleges and universities. Some of the questions that needed answering were as follows: What are the major environmental challenges of other universities? Do we feel we have the same challenges? Have we overlooked an important area in designing our working group structure? How should the EMS be structured? Is the environment an important issue with other universities? How far behind are we? What works and what doesn’t work?


Rather than selecting a random sample of universities across North America, we were interested in having a sample of universities quite similar to our own, sometimes referred to as a purposive sample. We attempted to select universities across Canada and the United States that were similar or larger in size to the U of C. Our priority was public institutions; however, we did include several major private institutions. We wanted a fairly even representation geographically; therefore, we chose at least two of the largest universities from each of the provinces and states. From more densely populated provinces and states, we selected more than two representative universities.

Although the number of universities responding to the EMS survey contained only 50 respondents out of an initial mailing of 269 (18 were returned undeliverable), of those saying that they would respond to the EMS survey 78 percent actually completed the survey. However, the non-respondents did provide us with some useful information. Through either e-mail, telephone, or regular mail, several universities explained that their lack of response was due to the absence of an organized environmental function at their university or lack of an individual(s) that could answer the questions adequately. Therefore, we can say with some confidence that many of the responses that we did receive are from universities that are undergoing some thought process and have some degree of awareness regarding the environmental management function. Many universities have not even progressed to this point.


79 responded either “yes” or “no” to answering the EMS survey out of 251 valid mailings (31 percent).

50 universities out of 64 who said they would complete the EMS survey actually did (78 percent).

The final sample contained 12 (24 percent) universities from Canada and 38 (76 percent) from the United States. These universities are classified in Table 1.

Size of University



Small FTE<10,000



Medium FTE 10,000-20,000



Large FTE>20,000



Not Known







The purpose of the surveys was to determine what variables characterize the EMS implemented by universities across North America, and what challenges and concerns those EMS address. More specifically, the questions were designed to elicit the following information:

First Survey

1. Key environmental areas that university EMS are addressing; and

2. Time and financial resources to address those areas.

Second Survey

3. Characteristics of universities (posture and behavior);

4. Characteristics of effective EMS at universities.


First Survey: Key Areas and Major Challenges

Universities were asked to rate their challenges, use of time resources and use of capital resources from 0 to 4 on a Likert scale, with 4 representing the most significant challenge or most resources. The three challenges that were determined as most significant (by their mean ratings) are energy management, dry waste, and hazardous waste. Major challenges that universities face regarding environmental performance are matched fairly well with the time and capital resources needed to address these challenges. For example, energy management also received the highest rating for investment in capital resources. Dry and hazardous waste were ranked 2nd and 3rd as significant challenges and also ranked 2nd and 3rd for investment in capital resources. However, dry waste was rated as 1st for time resources even though energy management was rated as the most significant challenge. Other ratings are shown in Table 2.









Energy Management




Dry Waste




Hazardous Waste




Water Conservation




Air Quality




Liquid Waste




Natural Area Conservation




Water Quality




Second Survey: EMS – Posture and Behavior Toward Environmental Issues

In order to determine the posture (attitudes and awareness) that would lead to actions and performance regarding environmental issues, the second survey contained ten statements and asked respondents to indicate to what degree these statements offered a good or poor description of their university. Based on the correlations among these ten statements and our responses to the first survey, we were able to classify universities into four general categories:

Environmental Leaders

Attitude: Feel that environmental problems do affect the university and

Awareness: Know where the problems are; and therefore,

Actions: They have developed the necessary programs and

Performance: Are preventing environmental problems from occurring, because they have the necessary finances, time and skills to implement an effective EMS.

Environmental Strugglers

Attitude: Feel that environmental problems do affect the university; but

Awareness: Are not sure where the problems are until they arise, because

Actions: They are struggling to develop an

effective EMS and

Performance: Use it to determine what programs should occur. They have the necessary knowledge and skills, but do not have the time and finances.

Accidental “Greens”

Attitude: Do not see the EMS as a necessary tool

Awareness: Because they are not aware of the environmental problems that affect the institution.

Action: They might have signed a pre-prepared set of guiding principles, but have not yet considered what preventive programs should take place because

Performance: “By accident”, environmental problems have not occurred. Therefore, they have not provided any additional resources to deal with environmental problems.

Environmental Dinosaurs

Attitude: Feel that environmental issues do not affect their institutions; therefore

Awareness: Are not aware if there are environmental problems. Do not see an EMS or any other program as necessary;

Actions: Have not yet considered what programs should take place

Performance: Are not preventing environmental problems from occurring. Have not considered what knowledge, time, or resources are necessary to commit to an EMS.

Posture (attitudes/awareness) Leads to Behavior (actions/performance)

From an environmental management perspective, these four categories of universities can be classified according to their environmental attitude/awareness and their environmental actions/performance. When organized in a matrix, four categories of universities emerge (see Figure 1. Environmental Progress Matrix).




Accidental Environmental “Greens”



Environmental Dinosaurs

Environmental Strugglers



Environmental Posture

(attitude and awareness)

On the matrix, environmental posture (attitude and awareness) ranges from low to high. Various attitudes and awareness are displayed towards environmental responsibility. Universities with a low awareness would be ignorant or uncaring about the impact their operations have on the environment. This could be the result of a belief (well-founded or otherwise) that their university has no need to consider or improve its environmental performance. High awareness universities are very concerned about the possible effects their operations are having on the environment and have addressed, or are contemplating policies and other actions to address those concerns.

On the other axis, environmental behavior ranges from low to high. Some universities act consistently with their posture regarding the environment. If they believe they do not impact the environment, they do nothing or if they believe they do impact the environment, they act to lessen the impact. Others act inconsistently with their beliefs, in most cases, because they do not have the knowledge, time, or financial resources to perform consistently with their attitudes. Low environmental performers generally have no environmental monitoring programs in place and address each problem as it arises. High performers generally produce little or no pollution, either deliberately (through environmentally friendly processes or policies) or because the very nature of their operations, policies, or processes produces little or no impact.

It is proposed by the authors of this paper that movement from Low Behavior/Low Posture to High Behavior/High Posture follows a predictable pattern. Organizations generally do not move from Environmental Dinosaurs directly to Accidental “Greens”, because moving from Low to High Behavior requires a concerted effort usually as a result of an increased awareness or change in attitude about the effects that their operations may be having on the environment. Therefore, in order to move towards an Environmental Leadership position, organizations must first develop an increased awareness and change in attitude about their environmental impacts.


Further support for the above classifications were developed through the use of analysis of variance. The relationships among several of the survey questions were analyzed to determine the consistency of posture (attitudes and awareness) and behavior (actions and performance). Furthermore, we discuss what characteristics of an EMS are most important in producing high environmental performance. The discussion follows.

Environmental Leaders

Among the Environmental Leaders are universities who are using ISO guidelines or are ISO certified. These universities were more likely to have obtained the required finances and time to develop their EMS and their environmental programs. Those with increased finances set long-range objectives more often and would more likely have assessed their environmental risks.

Also among the Environmental Leaders are universities that feel they are preventing environmental problems from occurring through some form of EMS. These universities generally answered “yes” to having aligned appropriate controls, policies, action plans, and procedures with areas of risk. They also believe in sharing knowledge on environmental issues with other institutions such as partnering, benchmarking, and conferences.

Universities that feel more strongly about environmental issues affecting their institution and have actions consistent with their beliefs are more likely to know if they have environmental problems, to quantify progress, to report to the Board of Governors, and to have full-time staff.

In turn, having full-time staff plays a major role in the further development of the EMS. Those institutions that indicated that they have full-time staff were more likely to respond “yes” to having developed their own guiding principles, having both short-term objectives and long-range objectives, using quantitative measures and qualitative measures, sharing knowledge with other institutions, knowing the cost to comply with environmental regulation, conducting seminars, producing information pamphlets, and producing an environmental newsletter. These universities also see the EMS as a useful tool, have considered what environmental management programs should take place, and report to the Board of Governors.

Of the respondents reporting to the Board of Governors, 75 percent have full-time staff. Having full-time staff tends to ease the time and finance pressures. Respondents that indicated they had full-time staff suggested that finances and time were less of a problem in developing environmental programs.

Environmental Strugglers

Environmental Strugglers are differentiated from Environmental Leaders not by their attitudes but by their inability to implement actions. Generally, they report to a lower authority within the university’s governance or are decentralized with no umbrella committee to organize their environmental activities. They tend to lack either the necessary financial resources or time resources to carry out their initiatives.

Environmental Strugglers tend to report to someone other than the Board of Governors and they have no full-time staff. Only 25 percent of these universities report to the Board of Governors, and generally do not have full-time staff to help carry out their programs. Of the respondents not reporting to the Board of Governors, 55 percent do not have full-time staff. These universities not reporting to the Board of Governors tend to struggle for recognition, authority, or organization. The universities without full-time staff also tend to struggle for time and financial resources.

However, even if the university lacks reporting authority to the highest level of the university, many respondents feel they have the knowledge and skills to deal with environmental problems. Additionally, these respondents know whether they have environmental problems, suggesting awareness but lack of action. If the universities’ environmental programs lack finances the more difficult it is to prevent environmental problems from occurring. Strugglers tend to set more short-range objectives rather than long-range objectives because setting short-range objectives is more often dictated by the limited financial or time resources possessed by a university.

While 70 percent of the respondents felt that they had the necessary knowledge and skills, only 26 percent felt that they had the necessary finances and 34 percent felt that they had the necessary time. This situation indicates an opportunity lost in terms of knowledge and skills not being used to develop programs due to lack of time and finances.

Accidental Greens

If the university tends to lack knowledge as to whether it has environmental problems or the university has not yet considered what programs should take place, it might still achieve a high level of environmental performance, or low environmental impact. A number of explanations may account for these phenomena. First, the size of a university may have a direct bearing on its environmental impact. Small liberal arts colleges are likely to have a lesser impact than large research-intensive institutions with large chemistry, engineering, or medical departments. Size is also a factor in the amount of waste produced (liquid and dry). Additionally, newer institutions with more energy efficient buildings would be more environmentally friendly than older universities struggling (at great expense) to convert existing facilities into energy efficient ones. Numerous jurisdictions also have much more stringent health, safety and environmental regulations; leading to a more environmentally responsible institution while at the same time achieving regulatory compliance without the attendant voluntary commitment to environmental programs (awareness/attitude). Other universities have undertaken “modernization” programs that are driven by economic considerations that also happen to have positive environmental impacts.

Environmental Dinosaurs

Attitude and awareness tend to be an important determinant of the progress the university is making in addressing environmental issues. If the respondent felt that environmental issues did not affect the university, the EMS was in a lesser-developed stage of development. Even if environmental issues affected the university, but it did not see the use of an EMS as a useful tool, then again the EMS was lesser developed. Respondents that felt their institutions were not affected by environmental problems, however, also responded that they did not know if problems existed (96%). Little information is known about Environmental Dinosaurs as most of them did not answer our surveys. However, we do know that they exist as we received some responses that indicated that their environmental impact was of little concern to them.


The most significant finding of this study, and one that should be of particular interest to organizations contemplating implementing an EMS, is the fact that it is more important to have the support and oversight of a senior administrative body than a set of guiding environmental principles. Reporting to a Board of Governors and/or having full-time staff responsible for an EMS does more to ensure dedicated resources (time, money, and expertise), than a simple declaration of principles. This may be partly due to a reluctance on the part of many organizations to declare their intention of adhering to principles and guidelines without first having the necessary resources in place (along with the support of senior administration).

While it was the intention of this study to characterize universities according to their performance and dedication to environmental principles, other factors quickly became apparent. Most importantly, the lack of a centralized reporting function made it very difficult to identify the salient attributes of an effective EMS. This also contributed to the low response rate. The current state of EMS at North American universities is a patchwork of independent, autonomous functions (recycling departments, facility services, plant maintenance, etc.), that are not well coordinated, nor are they working towards a common goal. Therefore, for an effective EMS to exist, a centralized body must be established with the authority to coordinate the various disparate activities.

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