5th annual climate survey aims to track changes in sustainability culture

Wednesday, January 17, 2018 - 6:50pm

The Sustainability Cultural Indicators Program is launching its fifth annual survey this week, collecting data from University of Michigan students, staff and faculty. The longitudinal study is conducted by the University’s Graham Sustainability Institute and the Institute for Social Research, and focuses on awareness, attitudes and behaviors relating to sustainability in participants.

The SCIP project has tracked sustainability culture at the University since 2012, though it took a two-year break to avoid overlapping with an ongoing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion survey.

John Callewaert, Integrated Assessment Center director of the Graham Institute and one of the survey’s principal investigators, explains the SCIP project is revolutionary because it is the first longitudinal study to track sustainability culture, and its innovativeness is being replicated at other institutes.

“It’s been used as a model at many other institutions,” Callewaert said. “I think we are up to over 130 different institutions around the world that have contacted us to see what we are doing and get copies of our questionnaires. We’ve been very open with them because we want this to be something that grows and develops. Hopefully at some point we can compare across institutions.”

A report from Planet Blue, the University’s collaborative effort to further sustainability education, research and operations tracked positive progress on nearly every sustainaibility goal the University had set for itself. Greenhouse gas emissions, the findings detailed, have decreased to 5 percent below the 2006 levels last semester Callewaert added the over the past years, positive trends have clearly emerged at the University, particular centered around meals.

“There’s been real increases of awareness around sustainable food. That’s an area where there have been positive changes both in terms of awareness and behavior, and we think that a part of the reason for that is there is a lot of activity on campus related to sustainable food,” Callewaert said. “The University has put a lot of effort into it and we are seeing the results in our survey.”

Still, progress has not been uniform. For example, student transport remains a major issue on campus.

“The one area where we have seen a decrease over the four years is in regard to sustainable travel and transportation for students,” Callewaert said. “In 2018, we are asking about Uber and Lyft use for the first time.”  

Robert Marans, the survey’s other principal investigator, points out that despite the steady increase in campus sustainability awareness, taking behavioral steps toward sustainability can prove more challenging.

“Behavioral changes have been slow,” Marans said. “Things haven't changed that much in some areas over the past four years as we had hoped.”

Fortunately, the data collected by SCIP surveys can and are being used by organizations to address sustainability issues on campus.

“There’s been a major overhaul of the recycling and waste containers across campus. It’s very clear about which items can be recycled,” Callewaert said. “The team that worked on that was looking at SCIP data and results to inform their decision making.”

Planet Blue aims to change the University’s culture by promoting sustainability.

“Few universities are making efforts to change the culture, which is really what the Planet Blue effort is about,” Marans said. “Even fewer are trying to track the change in culture over time, and that’s where the SCIP surveys come in.”

Erin Barton, an Environment and Sustainability graduate student who works at the Graham Institute, describes the importance of the SCIP survey in an email interview with The Daily.

“In general, social science is important for creating a more sustainable society because human behavior is a major barrier, often more so than science and technology,” Barton wrote. “We need to understand what people do and why they do it if we want to facilitate positive behavior change.”

The SCIP project is aiming for 2,500 students, 1,000 faculty, and 1,000 staff to fill out the survey this semester. All survey responses are completely anonymous and allow the University to better obtain its goal of creating a sustainable culture.