Individually, one person ditching plastic forks or riding public transportation won’t solve climate change, the effects of which are inescapable in headlines and newscasts every day. But with more than 40,000 employees, the Penn community has the chance to make a real positive impact on the environment. That’s the goal of Penn’s Staff and Faculty Eco-Reps, a peer education program that encourages sustainability and climate awareness in offices and labs across Penn.
The initiative, which consists of more than 140 graduate students, staff, and faculty members from every corner of the University, was founded in 2009 to promote workplace sustainability on and off campus. Every semester, environmentally-minded programs and bimonthly meetings give members the chance to learn from experts at Penn and from the greater Philadelphia community. With a shared resolve the Student Eco-Rep program for undergraduates focuses on campus dining and residential life.
The ultimate aim of the Staff and Faculty Eco-Reps is to support and implement Penn’s Climate and Sustainability Action Plan (CSAP). Currently on its third iteration, CSAP 3.0 lays out goals for the University’s environmental future, including carbon neutrality by 2042. It’s a “30,000-foot view” of the University’s sustainability efforts and the Eco-Reps are the “ground up, get it done team” to help implement it, says Beth Delaney, director of gift planning in Development and Alumni Relations and an Eco-Rep since 2014.
The group helps enact change on campus by making environmental action accessible to everyone, says Austin Sutherland, Penn Sustainability coordinator and an eco-rep himself. The initiative is an especially good fit for those just starting to become more eco-friendly, he says. “If you’re someone who’s tiptoeing into sustainability or doesn’t know how to get involved, this is really one of those pipeline programs that allows you to jump in.”
Programs for every workplace
The most popular of the associated sustainability initiatives is called the Green Office Program, which allows offices to become certified by adopting eco-friendly practices like providing reusable mugs and utensils, organizing carpools, and buying secondhand furniture. There are four levels of certification, each requiring more commitment than the last.
Currently, 34 offices across Penn have some level of certification, and many others are working towards certification.
For those who spend more time with pipettes than printers, labs also have a chance at certification, through the Green Labs program. Staff and faculty interested in making their lab more eco-friendly can practice habits like closing fume hoods, turning off equipment when not in use, and sharing energy-intensive freezers with neighboring labs.
Sustainability support is available to hybrid and remote employees, too, through the program’s Green Hybrid Office commitment, which provides a blueprint for at-home employees who want to curb energy use and waste in their home offices.
A climate community
Beyond what offices and labs can do, the program benefits individuals, too. During monthly “lunch-and-learns,” typically in person but done virtually throughout the pandemic, members hear from local sustainability leaders on topics ranging from operation of Philly’s recycling system to cutting energy costs at home. “Every time you come to the meeting, you are going to feel a little smarter, a little more engaged, a little better informed,” says Delaney.
For those who struggle with climate anxiety—distress stemming from fears about climate change—these meetings can offer support from a like-minded community, says Chris Klaniecki, funds coordinator at Penn Global and an Eco-Rep since 2019. The group provides “strength and solidarity in numbers,” he says.
Ultimately, building communities that focus on sustainability is essential for Penn to meet its climate goals. “We need people at every level, in every department,” says Nel Reynolds, an associate at Penn Medicine Development and an Eco-Rep since 2017.
“The more people we have chipping in, in whatever way that they feel comfortable doing,” says Klaniecki, “the better chance we have at not just mitigating the damage from the crisis but also turning some things around, not just for us but also for people who we’ll never meet.”
Staff, faculty, or graduate students interested in getting involved this academic year can email firstname.lastname@example.org sustainability.upenn.edu/participate/staff-and-faculty/staff-and-faculty-eco-reps. Learn more about the Green Office and Green Lab initiatives at sustainability.upenn.edu.
Undergraduates interested in joining the Student Eco-Reps can learn more at sustainability.upenn.edu/participate/students/student-eco-reps. And keep an eye out for campus sustainability events like Climate Week, Oct. 10–14. Visit https://climateweek.provost.upenn.edu/ to learn more.