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U hosts first in-person Pac-12 Sustainability Conference since 2019

By Maria Archibald, Sustainability Office 

The Pac-12 Sustainability Conference gathered at the University of Utah this week for its first in-person event since 2019. The gathering, which was originally scheduled for summer 2020 and postponed due to COVID-19, brought together Pac-12 member universities to discuss and plan sustainability action in their college athletics departments.

“After two unbelievably trying and tragic years, it feels particularly sweet to see all of you gathered here today,” says Chief Sustainability Officer Kerry Case. “Connection, community, and wellbeing are fundamental to both sustainability and athletics. They are values that draw together what can sometimes be separate spheres at our institutions; values that I hope this conference will strengthen.”

While university sustainability and athletics departments, as Case points out, have traditionally worked in separate realms, Pac-12 Team Green is working to change that. As the first collegiate sports conference to convene a high-level symposium focused entirely on integrating sustainability into college athletics and across college campuses, Pac-12 excels in sustainability and supports its member universities in achieving impressive sustainability goals.

At the University of Utah, for example, we produce more than half of our electricity from renewable sources and have reduced water use by more than 20% since 2018. Meanwhile, multiple participating institutions have achieved between 80% and 90% waste diversion rates at sporting events.

Of the 12 institutions in the conference, three have achieved platinum STARS ratings and seven—including the University of Utah—have achieved gold. This year’s gathering provided an opportunity for leaders in higher education sustainability to share best practices, discuss persistent challenges, and brainstorm solutions together.

“Smart people like all of you in this room, we’ve got to push each other and we’ve got to challenge each other on how do we get better,” says University of Colorado Boulder Athletic Director Rick George. “I want to think about the future for my granddaughters and what that looks like for them…and the only way to do that is to challenge each other, and to share ideas, and work together.”

Here at the U, we define sustainability as the integrated pursuit of social equity, environmental integrity, and economic security for both current and future generations. “There are a lot of intersections that you don’t automatically think of, but when you start digging into it you start to see them,” says University of Utah Director of Athletics Mark Harlan.

“As an ‘old timer’ in the world of higher education sustainability, I remember when sustainability focused almost entirely on operational impacts on the environment and saving money,” says Case. “While these remain critical to sustainability work, I am encouraged to see social and economic justice represented in today’s programming and increasingly across the field.”

With panel discussions on everything from sustaining mental wellness to cost effective renewable energy, this year’s event sends a clear message: A truly sustainable future requires not only environmental action, but also social and economic justice.

Pac-12 is making strides on all three.