Taking sustainability at McGill to the next level

Posted on Thursday, March 28, 2013

"We are very cognizant of the fact that we are operating in a very austere financial environment. But that can’t hold us back – it’s what we call ambitious realism," says Martin Krayer von Krauss, Manager, Office of Sustainability. / Photo: Adam Scotti

By Neale McDevitt

As the Manager of the Office of Sustainability, Martin Krayer von Krauss seems to be exactly where he belongs – even though he took a rather circuitous route to get here.

Graduating as an engineer from the Royal Military College in 1996, Krayer von Krauss worked for a year at Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic before he became “disillusioned about life here as an environmental professional who wanted to do more than just deal with issues of compliance,” he says.

Quitting the military, Krayer von Krauss hit the road and travelled extensively through Nepal, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran before landing in Denmark with his wife – a woman he met while volunteering in a Ghandian Ashram for orphaned children in India.

Fourteen years later, three kids, a PhD, and stints working for the European Environment Agency and the World Health Organization later, Krayer von Krauss was recruited by McGill to become the Manager of the Office of Sustainability, a post he began this past September.

The McGill Reporter recently sat down with Krayer von Krauss to talk about issues of sustainability. 

What is sustainability?

At the Office of Sustainability we tend to talk about sustainability as a process of working together toward a shared vision for a better future in a manner that incorporates environmental, social, and economic dimensions. Put another way, this means being greener, being healthier and being fairer.

What do you mean when you say “being greener”?

Being greener in our housing choices, in the way we eat and in the way we move in terms of transportation. Those are the big areas where we can make a marked difference in reducing our environmental footprint with the choices we make.

And being fairer?

I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept of fair trade products. It means having a greater equity in our society and making sure that we don’t end up in a situation where the poor get poorer and the rich get richer perpetually.

We have to try and reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, not only from a financial perspective but also from a health perspective because poor people tend to also be less healthy.

And being healthier?

Healthier means creating an environment that is conducive to good health. Especially here in the West, things that are killing us are no longer epidemics of cholera or other contagious diseases. We’re dying as a result of diseases like cardiovascular disease and cancer. These are diseases that are related to our lifestyles – to the way we eat, to the amount of exercise we do, to whether or not we smoke tobacco, etc…

It’s about designing a society that makes the healthy choice the easy choice, and adopting a lifestyle that makes us healthier.

What does sustainability mean for McGill?

Here in the Office of Sustainability, we’ve been looking at sustainability at the University as it applies to our teaching, our research and our operations. First and foremost, it is about the questions our researchers are asking and the way we are training our students—are we tackling the big challenges of this century? We are a university, after all. We are part of the knowledge industry, and knowledge is the way we will make our biggest impact on the world.

Sustainability is also about the choices we make as an institution, about the way we manage our buildings and our grounds and the way we choose to travel, be it travel between campuses or travel between countries.

It also includes our governance and administration. For example, McGill has a sizable financial portfolio and there are choices to be made on how to invest that money in ways that are responsible. Similarly, its about how we take care of each other. Although it is rarely recognized as such, stress is probably the most important occupational risk in the knowledge industry. Are our professors, students and staff members maintaining a healthy work life balance?

And finally, sustainability means connectivity. How do we relate to the community around us? How do we relate to the problems that are weighing on the minds of the people in the communities that we are a part of, and how do we choose what research we think is relevant in light of those concerns?

It’s a complex network because it means connectivity within our Faculties and between our Faculties and administrative units, but it also means connecting McGill with Montreal, Quebec, Canada and the international community.

What are some of McGill’s sustainability success stories?

One of our greatest achievements and our biggest innovation was the establishment of the Sustainability Projects Fund (SPF) which is an $840,000-a-year pool of start up money for initiatives that are led in large part by students but also by staff and faculty to make McGill a more sustainable place.

Universities from across the continent are looking at the SPF as a model for their own initiatives.

In terms of infrastructure we have the Life Science Complex, which was built according to a set of buildings standards known as the LEEDsystem. The Complex achieved a LEED gold rating so that is a flagship achievement.

On the operations side, there is the McGill Feeding McGill project. We’ve gone from a situation where McGill Food and Dining Services was buying all it’s produce on the open market to a situation where we are sourcing about 25,000 kilos worth of fresh produce a year from Mac Farm.

And that closed loop is enhanced even more because then we have the Big Hanna composter that is taking a portion of the waste from Food and Dining and turning it into compost that we use here downtown on our property.

Finally, we have any number of sustainable research initiatives taking place here. For example, we have Canada’s leading centre for green chemistry here at McGill, led by Professor C.J. Li.

So where does McGill stand in terms of its sustainability initiatives?

From a sustainability perspective we have a good reputation but we’re not ahead of the pack and it’s important to acknowledge that fact.

So what do we need to do to improve our efforts?

For years here the sustainability effort was characterized by high-level commitments being made by senior administration and grassroots initiatives being taken by passionate people. The result has been some notable achievements and successes, albeit in a fairly ad hoc patchwork-type way

We’re trying to connect these high-level commitments that are being made by our senior administration and our governing bodies to the activities that are being undertaken on the ground. We need to work in a more collaborative manner toward collectively adopted goals to really make this a team effort.

What does that mean in concrete terms?

We’re about two thirds of the way through a yearlong consultation process which we call Vision 2020.

We’ve been consulting with and listening to the McGill community over the course of the Vision 2020 process. We feel that we’ve captured what is on people’s minds and in their hearts in terms of their vision and goals for sustainability in the medium to long-term future of McGill.

We will be going to Senate this spring and the Board of Governors in the fall with what we believe are broadly endorsed sustainability goals. But, in parallel to this, we’ve also initiated a conversation across campus to say “Okay, we have these high-level goals, but can we make them more concrete? We have some very lofty goals, but what actions should we take to bring us from where we are now to where those objectives are in the future?”

Where does the Office of Sustainability fit in in all this?

To be honest with you our Office is not going to be the big action takers. There are a ton of individuals and groups across McGill already working on sustainability initiatives, or eager to work on sustainability initiatives, but just needing a little guidance about how to begin. Our job is to pull all the threads together and make connections where there aren’t any currently. We need to connect people who have similar ideas and who are working on similar objectives in isolation in order to help them work together. Pooled resources can go much further.

Are pooling resources and streamlining operations more important that ever?

Absolutely. We are very cognizant of the fact that we are operating in a very austere financial environment. But that can’t hold us back – it’s what we call ambitious realism.

In today’s economic climate it is all the more important to make efficiency gains by trying to make people work together to use their resources more efficiently. In part, this means being visionary and looking ahead and trying to push the envelope but in a way that is realistic. We don’t want to create false hopes either for ourselves or for the people who believe in us.

On the other hand, we can’t lose sight of the fact that we do want to create hope. Employees of companies with strong sustainability profiles tend to experience more job satisfaction, which in turn can boost productivity and loyalty, as well as reduce absenteeism. As McGill copes with the impacts of successive budget cuts, it will become more important than ever for us to rally around a shared vision for a better future.

Have we reached a point where sustainability is part of the McGill culture or is it still being driven primarily by a handful of dedicated people?

It’s part of the culture to the extent that it’s everywhere. It’s built into the Achieving Strategic Academic Priorities initiative, the Strategic Research Plan, Vision 2020, Student Services. We have the relatively new BA & Sc in Sustainability, Science and Society, plus, of course, the McGill School of Environment, and dozens of student initiatives from Campus Crops to the Desautels Business Conference on Sustainability you’ll find sustainability everywhere. The student appetite for sustainability just gets bigger and bigger as time goes by.

That being said, we haven’t reached a point yet where we have a common understanding of what we mean by sustainability among the general community. It hasn’t quite soaked in, if you will.

So McGill’s sustainability identity is still under construction – which just means we can all play a role in this work in progress.

Aside from the economic efficiencies, what other benefits can be gained from collaborating on sustainability? 

To begin with, it will help ensure that one person’s work won’t stop when they leave because their knowledge has been passed on.

But also it creates a sustainability identity and culture that is less segmented and more consolidated. You will have a common stream of people from different parts of the University who are working together. This will bring much-needed diversity to the joint endeavor.

The challenges that societies face today don’t fit neatly into boxes, so modeling ways to work together across boundaries is really important in solving those challenges, and in preparing our students to solve them in the future.

Above and beyond helping build those bridges between people and units, what does the coming year have in store for the Office?

The Office of Sustainability has been doing some strategic planning with McGill’s Organizational Development to make sure that our own resources and processes are well-placed to support the Vision 2020 goals. In addition to making sure we are providing the right services to the community, we also need to make sure that we are walking the talk and embodying the ambitious goals in Vision 2020 right here in our office. Even for us, this is challenging.

Another priority is the SPF. It is reaching the end of its original three-year mandate and is up for renewal this spring. All three students’ societies will hold referenda this spring on the renewal of the Fund for a five-year period. If it goes through, the Fund will be a very important tool for turning the Vision 2020 goals into reality over the next few years.

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