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University Support For Student Project Sparks Change across Waterloo

Learn how a university sustainability centre supported student efforts and transformed a region. Wilfrid Laurier University shares its experience.

Mike Morrice and Chris DePaul could not have predicted the wide-scale impact their independent study project would have. The undergraduates from Wilfrid Laurier University studied carbon policy and conceptualized how a local not-for-profit could help businesses in Waterloo Region, Canada reduce emissions beyond regulatory requirements.

Dr. Barry Colbert, director of the P&G Centre for Business & Sustainability (P&G-CBS) at Wilfred Laurier, guided their research. P&G-CBS then provided funding to turn the students’ research into reality

Sustainable Waterloo

Using this seed funding, Morrice worked with a dozen volunteers to launch Sustainable Waterloo Region (SWR) in 2008. In just four years, SWR has become a self-sustaining not-for-profit with over 50 member organizations. It employs six full-time staff and is supported by over 50 volunteers. SWR’s flagship program is the Regional Carbon Initiative (RCI), which helps local organizations reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. RCI membership enables organizations to make formal GHG reduction commitments and provides access to an online tool for quantifying and reporting on emissions. RCI members also receive complimentary passes to educational workshops and collaborative learning events hosted by SWR. Finally, online tools offer companies technical and marketing support for activities related to emission reduction.

To date, RCI members have committed to reduce carbon emissions by 45,000 tonnes over the next 10 years. Most importantly, they’re taking action and are on track to achieve those commitments.

In addition to the Regional Carbon Initiative, Sustainable Waterloo Region is working with local government on activities that include climate change forecasting, sustainable transportation initiatives and policy engagement. SWR is also in the midst of starting a national not-for-profit, Sustainability CoLab, which seeks to enable similar approaches to business sustainability in communities across Canada.

Benefits of Student Projects

Dr. Barry Colbert shares the benefits of supporting student projects:

  1. Centre recognition and funding: Sustainable Waterloo Region was incubated at the Centre for Business & Sustainability and its tremendous success reflects well on the centre. SWR’s success has helped the centre to attract additional external funding.

  2. Quantitative environmental benefit: Sustainable Waterloo Region is enabling organizations to reduce their environmental footprint. The regional commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 45,000 tonnes is the equivalent of taking 10,000 cars off the road.

  3. Change in sustainability dialogue: Sustainable Waterloo Region has created awareness that carbon reduction and climate change are important not only to Waterloo Region citizens, but are also business priorities. The organization promotes collaborative learning and facilitates dialogue between business, academia and local government. Every spring, SWR releases a year-end report to celebrate the commitments and accomplishments of individual RCI members, as well as the leadership shown by members collectively. This approach has started to move local sustainability dialogue from finger pointing to collaboration and action.

Advice for Achieving Impact

  1. Leverage the commitment and energy of students: Students have tremendous energy and can do a lot with a little support. In this case, Morrice and DePaul leveraged the university’s initial backing to engage major corporate supporters, including Ernst & Young and Manulife Financial. By providing motivated students with guidance and a small amount of funding, you give them potential to reach heights beyond imagination.

  2. Support collective action: Sustainability is a collective challenge and requires collective action. Support activities that encourage cooperation and learning between key stakeholder groups, including business, academia, government and the community. SWR embodies this philosophy. For example, as part of its policy engagement strategy for the 2011 Ontario provincial election, SWR collaborated with the David Suzuki Foundation to release a non-partisan, expert report assessing the various party platforms from a climate change perspective. Insights provided by the report contributed to the dialogue and debate.

More Information

Visit Sustainable Waterloo Region or contact Mike Morrice for more information on SWR.

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  • Chelsea Hicks-Webster
    Writer and Editor
    Network for Business Sustainability
    MSc in Biology with Environment and Sustainability, Western University

    Hi, I’m Chelsea. I have a Masters degree in Sustainability, where I studied ecosystem health. I'm also a Certified Life Coach. I used to be the Operations Manager for NBS, but now I just focus on my favourite part of that job – the writing! I also run a social enterprise, called Creating Me, dedicated to strengthening maternal and family well-being. I know first-hand how difficult it can be to balance career goals, impact, and one’s own well-being. When I’m not working on my own impact goals, I offer executive coaching and writing support to help researchers and change-makers grow their impact and well-being. (creatingme.ca/sustainability).

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