Bright Green Vs. Greenwashing

Is Cornell walking the walk? Room for improvement?


The road toward campus sustainability is long. Significant effort, commitment, and hard work are required. In Cornell's effort to be more sustainable there will always be room for improvement.

Last week, the Cornell Sun published an opinion piece that called for additional action at Cornell on sustainability education requirements. The author also pointed out areas of operations where other schools are leading Cornell in environmental performance. Although the piece has several factual errors which we correct below, the article raises an important question for the Cornell community.  Is Cornell doing enough to build a sustainable future or are we heading down the road of green-washing? If you were deciding where to focus Cornell's sustainability efforts, what would you prioritize? 

After reading through the factual corrections and the original article leave us your comments...


  • Cornell and 436 other colleges use the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS) scorecard to provide reliable public information about sustainability performance. Cornell's 2012 scorecard reports that 21% of total food expenditures are grown and/or processed within 250 miles and the waste diversion rate is 63%


University Greenwashing: Cornell, the Prostitute
By Matt Hudson via the Cornell Daily Sun, 2/6/13

Twelve years ago on a late winter Sunday, I was struck by a sudden bolt of inspiration that gave rise to the first environmentalist idea I’ve had in my life. Equipped only with the naivety of a second grader whose greatest prior claim to fame had been completely disrobing during a spelling lesson, I mailed a letter to President George W. Bush describing smokestack filters intended to expunge toxins before the skies turned sickly shades of brown like a Blade Runner-esque steampunk, dystopian future. Three weeks later, I received an impersonal stock “thank you” letter with a signed picture of the President and Laura Bush attached, both of whom stared back soullessly with practiced attempts at Duchenne smiles pasted on their wrinkling faces. Despite never receiving proper acknowledgment, I consider myself the sole driving force behind the Clear Skies Act of 2003 and will forever discredit President Bush as a scoundrel who shamelessly stole a seven-year-old boy’s honest ideas. Ironically, that “green” initiative has since been attacked by environmentalists for having supposedly weakened air pollution laws. The legislation has been called into question as a form of greenwashing, the advertising of an organization’s environmental concerns to boost popular support and revenue; however, rather than corresponding, words and actions often seem to be divorced. Simply put, all that glitters is not green.

The trend is both troubling and ubiquitous, found not only in the lexicon of unctuous political jargon but in the advertised sustainability of Ithacold’s finest Ivy League University, that snow-laden ice block in the frozen wastelands of upstate New York. The American collegiate system has latched onto the notion that environmentally sustainable habits correspond to greater popularity, which naturally translates to more student applications and, consequently, higher revenue. Money is the warp and weft running through Cornell’s green initiative, guaranteeing that environmental actions are both ostentatious and tangible. Plastic forks and spoons have been replaced with biodegradable cellulose utensils, and recycling and compost bins often boast massive signs that scream Big Red sustainability with an egregious number of exclamation points. Soon enough, we will see Happy Dave replaced by a grinning scarecrow (brain not included) and Denice Cassaro by an earthen pile of sod. Ironically, Cornell’s waste diversion rate is decent but rather unimpressive. According to a recent investigation published by the Princeton Review, our alma mater sits far below less wealthy contemporaries like Georgia Tech and the University of Washington at a fairly average 39 percent. Despite the abundance of arable land and independent farming projects in the area, the University’s support for farmers markets and organic agricultural models is also disappointingly ordinary, with a meager 15 percent of its food grown organically or locally.

The Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, Cornell’s primary environmental institution, has laid plans to supposedly erase the University’s carbon footprint within the next four decades. By both making grandiose claims and publicizing large investments in green energy initiatives, Cornell seems suspiciously guilty of greenwashing. Present numbers, along with our apparent fascination with pointless construction projects (i.e. Myron Taylor Hall’s new bomb shelter), suggest that the supposed focus on sustainability is not entirely honest. Our corn forks and free bus passes may look nice to potential applicants, but with an endowment so large and with a bleak future of ecological chaos staring us in the face, we can do better. By dolling itself up in a green dress and flaunting itself on the metaphorical streets of college education, Cornell has made itself into somewhat of a prostitute, selling itself on looks without enough satisfying depth to its environmental promise.

That is not to say that great strides have not been made. The Big Red Bikes program, regardless of how horrendous those wheeled death traps actually are, is a great idea and one that further cuts down on gas consumption on campus. The proverbial miner’s canary has sung for coal, as 2010 marked the end of its consumption on campus. There are also hundreds of courses related to sustainability in various forms, though no environmental literacy requirement has yet to be established. I have enough gripes with Cornell’s outrageous list of requirements and am still struggling to understand why I need KCM-AS/MQR/PBS courses (not a keyboard slam) as an Arts major, but the inclusion of a “green consciousness” requirement would serve a legitimate purpose, defeating the tendency to treat the symptoms of unsustainability rather than the “disease” itself. For an educational institution, it seems rather obvious that education would be Cornell’s primary curative mode; considering the prominence of the issue, it seems plausible to nix those obscure science requirements in favor of something actually relevant.

I would challenge Cornell, as one of the world’s most influential collegiate institutions, to make better use of the tools at its disposal rather than prance about like a common harlot.

Matt Hudson is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at Red in the Face runs alternate Wednesdays this semester.

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