Sustaining a Facade

By: Aidan Fromm, Rohan Nair, Daniel Deglane, Robert Arnold, Michael Blach


With only a few days left to decide on a college after senior year, Santa Clara reached out to me. I was barraged by emails asking, “Daniel, have you heard about our most recent steps towards sustainability?” “Washing machines using thirty percent less water.” “Recycled water makes up forty percent of campus-wide water use.”  “SCU Dining Services buys from local farmers.” “Designated recycle and compost bins.”  Sure, a lot of schools claim they are sustainable, but after a simple Google search, I was astounded to find that Santa Clara is actually ranked the 11th most sustainable school in the nation according Best Colleges. Santa Clara’s commitment to sustainability finally drew me in. Wanting to be at an institution that claimed to value the environment not only out of necessity, but also of a fundamental belief in social justice, I chose Santa Clara University.

Santa Clara University is often lauded for its beautiful campus, and once on campus, a student at Santa Clara University, can see sustainability in action almost everywhere they look.  The university has a completely website dedicated solely to their Center for Sustainability.  Here students can find all there is to know about Santa Clara’s efforts and commitments to keeping a sustainable campus: how they manage water, energy, and food, or the different ways students can get involved in erasing their footprint on the planet.

Visitors to campus are greeted by impeccably manicured lawns and gorgeous flowering trees (even during periods of intense drought), and buildings that seamlessly combine the traditional Spanish architecture reminiscent of the university’s origins — dating back to the arrival of Spanish Missionaries in the 1770’s — with cutting edge technology reflective of our presence in the heart of the Silicon Valley. One of the most interesting buildings on campus is this one:


“The vision of Santa Clara University’s Radiant House is a vision of a brighter future, a future of energy independence and environmental integrity. Our goal is to expand and enable the accessibility of solar energy, demonstrating that a sustainable lifestyle is something that can be achieved today.”

With a mission statement like that, I couldn’t help but feel a great sense of hope and excitement for my future at Santa Clara. And, while all this sounded great on paper, it did sound a little like a sales pitch, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much real, tangible, action the university was taking to make this hypothetical future a reality.

“Greenwashing” — a term that originated in the mid 60’s when the environmental movement began to gain traction — is used to describe misinformation spread by an organization or corporation to portray themselves as environmentally responsible. Greenwashing is a commonplace practice and corporations of all varieties and magnitudes are guilty of greenwashing on some level — from BP to the marketing of college campuses. For the last decade and especially since the 2010 Gulf oil spill, BP has been pouring millions into an intensive greenwashing campaign: from their name change (British Petroleum to BP), to their new slogan, “Beyond Petroleum,” they are attempting to depict themselves as socially and environmentally conscious despite affecting little real change.

The claims that these corporations often make in their marketing efforts and promotions can vary from dubious to outright false. In 1991, a study published in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing found that 58% of environmental ads had at least one deceptive claim, and in 2010 a study revealed that a measly 4.5% of products tested were legitimately green, and the remaining 95% were not green in the slightest (Terra Choice Group).

In the exceedingly expensive and competitive market of higher education, colleges can also be guilty of greenwashing on some level. Yet, I saw no evidence of this in Santa Clara. On my first walk through campus, every trash can I saw was always accompanied by a green compost bin and a blue recycle bin.  On all the lawns signs read, “recycled water, do not drink.”  On my first encounter with the cafeteria, I was surrounded by informational posters detailing the local sources of the food served, the dining service’s commitment to sustainability, and how all containers could be composted or recycled. I learned, after falling asleep in a library study room, that the lights automatically turn off after ten minutes of no movement. Santa Clara was truly a haven for environmental consciousness. Wherever I looked I could always see the University’s efforts to create a sustainable campus and better the world.  But, still wondering about Santa Clara’s honest dedication to sustainability, I dove into the archives.

SCU’s stance on sustainability officially dates back to 2004 with the school’s enacting of the “Sustainability Policy.”  This policy “institutionalized a commitment to improve our campus environmental stewardship, education, and outreach,” (“Sustainability Policy”).  In 2007 under former President Fr. Locatelli, the school adopted The American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment.  This was a public demonstration of the school’s attempts to further cast itself as an environmentally-friendly institution. The signing of this pledge required the University “to establish a focused plan to achieve climate neutrality and broader plans to integrate sustainability into our education (teaching and research), outreach to others, and stewardship of natural resources” (“Climate Neutrality”).  What came out of this commitment was the university’s Center for Sustainability’s ambitious “Climate Neutrality Action Plan,” which entailed the campus of Santa Clara, including faculty, students, administration, and their pledge to produce zero net greenhouse gas emissions, or to be known as “climate-neutral,” by the end of 2015. Broadly, it included enacting strategies to make climate neutrality and sustainability a part of the curriculum and educational experience for all students, as well as to expand research efforts and community engagement as well as the plans detailing the approach to reach the 2015 carbon neutrality goal (“Climate Neutrality”).

However, I also discovered that Santa Clara failed to reach this goal, and my suspicions about the university’s level of commitment to making real change began to grow.  

On the surface,  Santa Clara seems to be committed to sustainability through “eating sustainably”, “conserving water”, and “reducing energy consumption whenever possible” (Santa Clara University Sustainability website). However, under stricter scrutiny, these commitments seem to be simply a façade, a veil thrown over the unsuccessful implementation of good intentions for sustainability at Santa Clara University. To me, this showed that the idea of sustainability serves more as a marketing ploy than a serious goal for the university. 

Since water usage is so important here in drought-stricken California, I thought that this would be something that SCU would take very seriously. Despite the emphasis on the use of recycled water and low flow bathroom facilities, I wondered if this was really enough to create a sustainable level of water consumption. Looking for more information I dug back into the SCU website.

The SCU’s sustainability page’s major claim is about reducing water usage by watering all the plants and lawns with recycled water, which does preserve water, but still requires the treatment of wastewater up to a certain point. This purification demands energy, although not as much as creating potable water, but it still creates carbon pollution during the process, adding to climate issues. Far down on the page is the note that 85% of the water used for irrigation is recycled, meaning the university still uses drinkable water on plants. According to the 2003 data on the university website(the first year with the recycled water system) the university used about 570 million gallons of recycled water for this 85% of irrigation, meaning that 100 million gallons of drinking water was stilled used on the lawn, and that the total usage of water for irrigation was about 670 million gallons for 104 acres of campus, or about 6.5 million gallons of water for each acre of campus every year.

Is that too much? It sounds excessive compared to the per person potable water usage for SCU which is about 7,800 gallons per year. 

Grey Water System

While this seems like a decent effort on the part of the university, it doesn’t seem like it is truly sustainable, in the sense that it can be continued into the indefinite future allowing natural resources to maintain an ecological balance. However it seems to fit the university’s sustainability policy which states, “We seek ways to reduce our use of non-renewable resources, minimize pollution, and live more lightly on the land. We are mindful of the need to share equitably the natural resources on which all life depends.” (  I understood what the university has been working towards, but I couldn’t help but feel that all the advertising about sustainability oversold the actual efforts and stated ideals of the school.

I was also interested in what other schools were doing to make their water consumption sustainable, so I went back to my computer for some more research. Knowing that SCU was ranked 11th on a list of the most sustainable universities, I wasn’t expecting anything too much better from other schools, but I was surprised to see some great ideas being put to use that were not mentioned on the Santa Clara website. CSU Los Angeles has in place an impressive water control system that adjusts usage according to the weather. When it rains the system shuts off the irrigation for the campus in order to avoid wasting water during those days. Saint Mary’s college, which is relatively close to Santa Clara, has their campus landscaped with all drought resistant plants, so watering them all the time isn’t even an issue(Mother Nature Network).

Another area of student and campus life that the university highlights as a key component of its drive to be a leader of sustainability among American colleges and universities is food and student dining. SCU eagerly points to its partner in providing dining services to its students, Bon Appetit  Management Company, who proudly advertises their always-freshly prepared food. On their website, the company’s vision in providing dining services clearly states:

A pioneer in environmentally sound sourcing policies, [Bon Appetit has] developed programs addressing local purchasing, overuse of antibiotics, sustainable seafood, the food–climate change connection, humanely raised meat and eggs, and farm workers’ rights.

Bon Appetit continues, telling the reader of their switch to humanely raised meats and dairy products without the rBGH hormone. The company says they were the first in the industry to “address food’s role in climate change” (About Bon Appetit Management Company), while repeating their mission statement of providing good food in a sustainable manner.

One cannot help but commend Bon Appetit for being committed to making a positive impact in areas like treatment of farm animals, artificially engineered food, and local farming. Its lengthy award list testifies to their success. Compounding this positive light is the SCU Forge Garden, the university’s manifestation of locally grown, organic fruit and vegetable production. Located on the north side of the campus, the Garden and its workers grow and harvest crops year-round while teaching students how to grow their own nutritious food. Its website boasts of producing over 4100 pounds of produce and selling over 200 pounds of that total to the university Dining Services for student consumption, the rest being sold to local residents in weekly farmers markets, promoting locally and organically grown food (The Forge Garden). But, again, doing the math, 200 pounds of campus grown vegetables divided among 5000 students leaves less than an ounce per student, annually, which could be said to be fairly scant nutrition.

Surely then, after examining the quality of Bon Appetit and the tangible good produced by the Forge Garden, Santa Clara University is hardly making a true, tangible impact in its mission to be sustainable. Additionally, taking a second look at the SCU Dining

Forge Gardens

Services, one realizes how little and inflexible the options for non-meat eating students really are. At least eighty percent of the meal options in the food hall contain meat.  For a student who depends on the university to provide food, their options include the salad bar and a vegetarian alternative to the daily special dish for lunch and dinner. Beyond that, the university is not quite different from other campuses or people in their meat consumption.

Unfortunately, this heavy reliance on meat is only supporting the planet’s slide into climate and ecological turmoil. According to the film Cowspiracy and its subsequent website, “Livestock and their byproducts account for at least 32,000 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, or 51% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.” (Facts and sources).

And maybe sustainability isn’t even what we need. Sustainability implies maintaining the status quo; when we sustain we are not enhancing or building a capacity for a continuous cycle. We need to take the next step, beyond simply preventing things from getting worse. According to Professor Joanna Ahlum, there seems to be a shift away from buzzwords like “sustainable,” especially in the agricultural realm, and towards ideas of “regeneration.”

“Compostable plastics are a step in the right direction and they keep the marine debris problem from getting worse, but not better. I’m interested to see things like worm bins, which are alive and actually producing something helpful, not just creating more waste that is going to be trucked away. It’s a tall order, but in many ways it’s quite practical.”

She recognizes that Santa Clara does have a clear message of sustainability, evident by the growing staff and money they have dedicated to the cause through their Center for Sustainability. “Commitment is present in pockets. Sustainability is presented as a unifying theme, but we’re not quite there yet,” she says. “There is absolutely more interest than dismissal, but there is still a whole spectrum of opinions, and not everyone is gung ho about it. If you’re going to focus on something as an institution, you need buy-in from students and faculty.”

Professor Ahlum also informed us that the Center for Sustainability actually introduced a program where they provide seed money and funding for people who want to develop projects around sustainability on campus. After digging through the Center for Sustainability’s webpage I was able to find this:

“CSIF is an internal fund that provides financing to implement energy efficiency, renewable energy, and other sustainability projects that generate emissions reductions and cost savings. Project outcomes will be measured and savings will be re-invested in future campus sustainability investments.”

I thought this was quite an incredible idea, and something that I hadn’t seen publicized or talked about at all in any of our classes or on bulletins around campus. I’m curious to see how Santa Clara, an institution that places such a high value on entrepreneurship and social justice can better integrate programs like these into their curriculum, and hopefully garner more student and staff support. 

Evaluating Santa Clara University with all of this in mind, it turns out that the university’s intent on being sustainable has, at this point, not gone far beyond a marketing campaign that relies on the sustainability movement’s catchphrases including “recycled water” and “locally sourced food,” motion detecting light switches, as well as the positive reputation of Bon Appetit’s direction for providing food, as a boost for its image.  This not only lures us to the campus, but allows us to maintain a belief in our good intentions, while the university is not yet  so different in its consumption of resources. Instead of getting caught up in meaningless buzzwords and marketing campaigns, we want to challenge Santa Clara to take the next leap towards thriving, not just sustaining. And while the intention of all these programs are indeed good, it will take much more than simply good intentions to truly make Santa Clara a fully sustainable campus, one which pushes it’s students to go beyond good intentions themselves and become leaders in sustainability once they enter the much larger world beyond the campus’s impeccable green lawns.



“About Bon Appétit Management Company.” Bon Appétit Management Co. Bon Appetit Management Co., n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2017. <>.

“The Forge Garden.” The Forge Garden – Programs – Sustainability at SCU – Santa Clara University. Santa Clara University, n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2017. <>.

“Facts and Sources.” COWSPIRACY. COWSPIRACY, n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2017. <>.

University, Santa Clara. “Energy Efficiency.” Sustainability at SCU. Santa Clara University, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

University, Santa Clara. “Climate Neutrality” Sustainability at SCU. Santa Clara University, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

University, Santa Clara. “Conserve Water.” Sustainability at SCU. Santa Clara University, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

University, Santa Clara. “Sustainability Policy” Sustainability at SCU. Santa Clara University, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

“Reuse Gray Water And Rainwater For Irrigation Or Toilet Flushing.” A Better City. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.

“40 Important Ways That Colleges Are Conserving Water.” Mother Nature Network. Mother Nature Network, 24 May 2016. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

“The Sins of Greenwashing: Home and Family Edition.” Greenwashing Report 2010 | The Sins of Greenwashing: Home and Family Edition. Terra Choice Group, n.d. Web.


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