“greenwashing” /ˈɡrēnwôSH,ˈɡrēnwäSH/: disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.
According to a recent Olin press release, “Olin College is one of the nation’s most environmentally responsible colleges, according to The Princeton Review Guide to Green Colleges: 2023 Edition”. The press release also quotes Rob Franek, The Princeton Review’s Editor-in-Chief: “[w]e strongly recommend Olin College to the increasing number of students who care about the environment and want their ‘best-fit’ college to also ideally be a green one.”
“Sustainability” requires context. What follows is an explanation of how the score was calculated, a primer on AASHE STARS, and commentary.
For this ranking, The Princeton Review tallied “Green Scores” for 713 colleges. The “Green Score” rating ranges from 60-99 and is based on questions including:
- What is the percentage of food expenditures that goes toward local, organic or otherwise environmentally preferable food?
- Does the school offer programs including mass transit programs, bike sharing, facilities for bicyclists, bicycle and pedestrian plans, car sharing, a carpool discount, carpool/vanpool matching, cash-out of parking, prohibiting idling, local housing, telecommuting, and a condensed work week?
- Does the school have a formal committee with participation from students that is devoted to advancing sustainability on campus?
- Are school buildings that were constructed or underwent major renovations in the past three years LEED certified?
- What is a school’s overall waste-diversion rate?
- Does the school have an environmental studies major, minor or concentration?
- Do the school’s students graduate from programs that include sustainability as a required learning outcome or include multiple sustainability learning outcomes?
- Does the school have a formal plan to mitigate its greenhouse gas emissions?
- What percentage of the school’s energy consumption is derived from renewable resources?
- Does the school employ a dedicated full-time (or full-time equivalent) sustainability officer?
These are the only questions mentioned on The Princeton Review’s “methodology” page to score colleges; it is unclear whether these are the only 10 data points and how they are weighted. The methodology page mentions the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) STARS, a self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance. However, it does not specify the extent to which AASHE STARS data is factored into the “Green Score”, if at all.
Colleges that scored 80 or higher were considered “green”. Of the 713 colleges considered, 455 colleges scored 80 or higher (the score ranges from 60-99; scoring an 80 is 50%). The 455 “green” colleges are unranked.
The Princeton Review also compiled a list of the “Top 50 Green Colleges”. Olin is not on the top 50 list, which is ranked.
AASHE STARS is a comprehensive report that examines a school’s sustainability actions across several categories: academics, research, engagement, operations, planning and administration, and innovation and leadership. AASHE gives awards based on a cumulative score out of 100; 45 is Silver, 65 is Gold, 85 is Platinum.
Olin scored 48.27 on our last AASHE STARS, putting us in the Silver category. 191 schools have Gold AASHE STARS reports*, including Babson and Wellesley, and 12 schools have Platinum reports, including Cornell and UC Berkeley.
Some might find it misleading to call Olin “one of the nation’s most environmentally responsible colleges”, when this ranking merely indicates that Olin, has, like the majority of schools considered, scored more than 50% on a “green” ranking of ambiguous methodology.
As Healey and Debski (2017) write, “sustainability’s lack of fixed meaning enables university management to continue business-as-usual operations and present sustainability in ways to suit their own agenda… Sustainability in practice tends to operate in ways that are decisively non-threatening to the status quo”.
Some might argue that sustainability initiatives are basic requirements of any institution that cares about ethical responsibility and “doing good in the world”. Given the rapidly closing window of time in which we have to act, “winning slowly” with climate can also be seen as losing, simply with a different name.
The most relevant metric to evaluate Olin’s climate initiatives must be our actions taken relative to action required, not action compared to inaction or business as usual.
- Green Rating Methodology: princetonreview.com/college-rankings/green-guide/methodology
- Olin’s AASHE STARS Report: reports.aashe.org/institutions/franklin-w-olin-college-of-engineering-ma/report/
- Healy, N., & Debski, J. (2017). Fossil fuel divestment: Implications for the future of sustainability discourse and action within higher education. Local Environment, 22(6), 699–724. https://doi.org/10.1080/13549839.2016.1256382
*This number includes reports that have been filed more than 3 years ago, and have expired.