The kitchen staff at the international school in Jakarta, Indonesia where I was hired to conduct a campus-wide sustainability audit looked like they had been caught with their hands in the cookie jar. I was interviewing them with the help of a Bahasa-speaking teacher because we were stumped as to why their food waste was so small, not much more than one 5-kg garbage bag per day, compared to similar k-12 schools we had worked with. Normally we would find high resource use and waste generation in a school’s food program, and along with corresponding opportunities for saving energy and reducing waste. We jokingly refer to it as a school’s “low-hanging fruits and vegetables.”
I tried to reassure them that it was actually a good thing to have so little waste, and I certainly wasn’t accusing them of stealing banana peels. I was just curious: “There are hardly any leftovers at the end of the day, what do you do with all the food scraps?” we asked. After some awkward silences and sidelong glances, a young woman in replied “oh, we throw it over the wall.”
I discovered after some more questions that the wall divided the wealthy international school from the neighboring “kampung,” (“village,“ in this case a sprawling urban slum, a city within a city). They were not just “throwing it over;” in fact, the staff had established relationships with local kampong residents who used the food waste for garden composting and to feed an extended family of cats, who did their part by keeping the rat population under control.
This was just one small example of the extensive sharing network that had developed over the years between the school, which was founded in the 1970s, and the local community, which today is part of a complex symbiotic economy in the city of formal production and informal recycling and reuse.
Conventional approaches to sustainability often overlook these important social and economic linkages between buildings, particularly gated campuses, and their local communities. I’ve been a green building consultant for the last ten years in the US and Asia, starting back when LEED was routinely confused with a town in Northern England. It’s actually singular not plural (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and is the widely-used US-based standard for certifying green buildings.
LEED has been hugely successful due in part to its feel-good, triple bottom-line approach to sustainability: green is good for business and the earth. And it’s been proven that green buildings can save significant amounts of energy and resources in their design and operations, which makes good business sense. That is certainly my line to clients when I work as a consultant: I can help save you money and, as an added benefit, do some good for the planet. But at best it’s a half-truth. Although successful in terms winning easy converts to the cause, the conventional green-is-good argument commits a sleight of hand by equating doing “less bad,” in terms of consuming less energy, water and generating less waste, to doing real positive, sustainable good for the environment.
As green consultants we are paid to deliver the goods – money saved, better products, bigger markets – and as a result we deal only with what we can see, measure and monetize. But we miss a lot in the process – in fact we miss what’s actually most important in the transition to a low-carbon future: people. The equivalency between reducing the negative impact of buildings and businesses and enhancing the positive benefits does a disservice by taking people’s awareness and actions out of the equation.
The real catalyst that transforms a building with a small carbon footprint into one with a big social impact are the people who work in it, live in it, and change their lives and others’ according to its underlying principles. And at the end of the day, each one hotter than the last, that’s the transformation that counts.
In my green consulting work with schools around Asia, I’ve learned from teachers and students to measure not only the negative impacts of a school’s operations but also the positive benefits of its community service and environmental programs. In the next three posts to Prevailing Wins I share stories from three international schools that are exploring new ways to address environmental challenges they face by transforming awareness and behavior beyond their own walls.