Just What is Sustainability?

Though a popular buzzword in academic, business and policy circles today—sustainability remains a nebulous, elusive term for many who have yet to embrace it. Many are quick to assume it involves something to do with saving the environment or “going green.” However, sustainability is a much broader concept. It embraces everything from promoting good health and eliminating poverty to building economic growth and fighting social injustices.

Winter 2016 | by Alumni Magazine Staff

There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals that were set forth by the United Nations Development Programme in 2015—as well as 169 specific targets—aimed at creating a better world for all.

More commonly, for simplicity’s sake, they are often boiled down to three interdependent pillars: People (sustainability of our society), Planet (sustainability of our ecosystems) and Profit (sustainability of our economy).

Sustainability, of course, is very important to the Georgia Tech community, having been part of the Institute almost since its inception in 1885—decades before the term entered our everyday lexicon. Let’s take a look at how key Tech leaders define and apply sustainability in their work and research.


Georgia Tech President G.P. “Bud” Peterson

Georgia Tech’s commitment to sustainability is embedded in just about everything we do. It is an integral part of the design of our buildings, like the Carbon Neutral Energy Solutions lab, Clough Commons and the Engineered Biosystems Building—plus the Living Building now underway.

Our campus is a living laboratory. Our faculty serve in national leadership roles in energy, public policy and water conservation, and our sustainability research can be found in multiple disciplines. Courses span every college, including our Serve-Learn-Sustain initiative. Our goal is to demonstrate leadership in sustainability, and then equip and inspire our graduates to design solutions with the potential for lasting global impact.



Jennifer Hirsch, Director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain

I've done my best to avoid a strict definition for sustainability or sustainable communities, which is my specialized focus, because doing so would immediately lead to many people thinking, “Well, that has nothing to do with me”—and disengaging from the get-go.
Instead, I’ve embraced a very broad definition—communities where people and nature thrive—and then dive into an examination of the three Es of sustainability: Environment, Economy and social Equity.

But first, let me give you some context for my work here at Georgia Tech. A little more than a year ago, my family and I moved to Atlanta from Chicago, with more than a little trepidation. I grew up in Chicago and my whole family is there, but I had received an offer I couldn’t refuse: to be the director of a new Center at Georgia Tech formed to launch and implement Tech’s new 10-year Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP): Serve-Learn-Sustain (SLS). SLS is a key component of Tech’s 2015 reaffirmation of accreditation with the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

The SLS center’s charge is to develop opportunities for undergraduate students in all majors across campus to learn about and engage in creating sustainable communities. While there are lots of university initiatives focused on sustainability or community, there are very few that operate at the intersection of the two areas. As a cultural anthropologist specializing in this intersection, this was an opportunity of a lifetime. So we sold our house, packed our bags, put the dogs and the snake in the car, said goodbye to grandma and headed south. Soon I started my new job in one of the most sustainable buildings on campus: Clough Commons.

For much of my first year, I felt like a student—an anthropology student—studying Tech’s culture and, at the same time, getting to know Atlanta while meeting community, nonprofit, government and business leaders who might be valuable SLS partners.

Our core work includes, but is not limited to, the environment or “green” issues and actions. We’re helping people across campus to explore our need to improve conditions, not only for humans—as Georgia Tech’s mission states—but also for all living beings. The “communities” part of our charge dictates that we put community issues front and center, for example, by addressing equity concerns from the beginning, and highlighting culturally diverse perspectives and solutions to sustainability challenges.

Building on this loose starting point, SLS is following an approach promoted by Georgia Tech environmental philosopher Bryan Norton: learning our way toward sustainability, together. Early results are exciting. Highlights include:

Identifying “Big Ideas” in sustainability. We’ve developed an interactive tool presenting more than 50 ideas from faculty and staff across campus that they believe are important for creating sustainable communities.

Offering more than 70 affiliated courses during the 2016-17 academic year.
These courses, ranging from “Sustainable Development of Construction Megaprojects Through Community Engagement” to “French Cinema I: Learning and Environmental Issues in Francophone Documentaries,” introduce and teach nearly 4,000 students about sustainability ideas and practices.

Getting over 20 student organizations involved with sustainability efforts.
These include Net Impact, Engineers Without Borders, Arts@Tech Ambassadors, the College Diabetes Network and more, representing a wide range of activities.

Developing a year-long Environmental Justice series. The fall semester alone featured public talks, service activities and performances sponsored by SLS and 16 partners from Georgia Tech and Atlanta.

Building a Social Sustainability Network. Launched this summer, it’s part of the National Science Foundation Research Coordination Network, which focuses on strengthening collaborative work in the Atlanta region related to the social part of sustainability, especially as it relates to engineering practice.

All of this work is helping us start to shape a broader agenda of Tech becoming a “think-and-do tank” that facilitates work and effects change around sustainability. There will be lots more to come soon.


The Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain (SLS) aims to give Tech’s students the knowledge and inspiration to use their education to make a positive difference in the world—and pursue more meaningful careers and lives. Tech wants to become known for this work, so that SLS becomes one of the reasons people hear about, and choose, the Institute. The link to careers is key: SLS is looking to partner with Tech alumni who want to share their stories, mentor students, and connect SLS with partner organizations and businesses. Visit SLS online at and contact SLS Director Jennifer Hirsch at to get involved!



Michael Tobias, ME 04, LEED AP, CEM
Founder and Principal of New York Engineers

Sustainability means using our natural resources in a way that we humans can live on earth indefinitely. The world’s growing human population is the biggest cause of unsustainable natural resource usage.  

Before the industrial revolution, the human impact on the earth was in balance. But since then, the growing demand for more energy, more materials and more food, as well as the byproduct of more waste and more contamination, has lead to an unsustainable situation. If we continue on the path we’re on now, we won’t have enough food and water to nourish everyone, and we will run out of fossil fuels faster than they can be replenished. So the question is: How do we get back in balance?

Believe it or not, about half of all energy used in the U.S. is in and by buildings—that’s more then either the industrial sector or transportation sector consumes. At New York Engineers, we work at reducing a building’s energy consumption and increasing its energy generation in a more sustainable way through solar panels, fuel cells and micro turbines, among other technologies.

First, we focus on reducing energy loads by super insulating the envelope of buildings to nearly eliminate heating systems, something known as passive heating. We also reduce solar thermal HVAC loads by using exterior wall projections and fins to let solar heat in through windows in the winter when you want it, and minimize it in the summer when you don’t. Then we design ultra-efficient HVAC systems to condition the space, LED lighting systems to reduce electric usage and an efficient control system to operate the building from your phone.

Anyone can build these exotic options with an exotic budget. But our goal is to reduce the construction cost and the energy cost of these buildings simultaneously. After all, an engineering project—or a project of any kind—is not truly sustainable unless it’s economical.


Beril Toktay, Professor and Faculty Director,
Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business,
Scheller College of Business

From my perspective, the most influential institution in the world is business. It connects communities across the globe, creates jobs and transforms lives through innovation. And business is increasingly expected to be the problem solver, the innovator and the leader in achieving responsible, equitable growth. In response, firms large and small, household names and startups alike, are stepping up to define their sustainability strategies. Based on my years of research on sustainable business practices, here’s how I define sustainability in action.

Sustainability is a journey, not a destination. Walmart evolved from a defensive posture to adopting ambitious environmental targets. Interface started out with an aggressive “Mission Zero” vision, and has now upped the ante further with its “Climate Take Back” vision.

Sustainability is moving from being a cost center to an innovation center. Rubicon Global, “the Uber for recycling,” finds it is sustainability questions from customers that drive product innovation. IKEA relies on design innovation to deliver “low cost prices, but not at any price.” The Living Building at Georgia Tech (see page 52) serves to spur innovation in the building materials and construction sector.

Sustainability is not a one-size-fits-all proposition for corporations. Value derives from cost reduction (Cox Enterprises’ Cox Conserves effort), risk reduction (Rio-Tinto’s Stakeholder Engagement Academy), product innovation (Interface’s bio-inspired design focus), revenue growth (GE’s Ecoimagination strategy), social license (Coca-Cola’s water stewardship initiative) or competitive advantage through regulatory advocacy (Pacific Gas and Electric’s cap-and-trade lobbying).

Sustainability is not just about the environment. It’s also about people; it’s about partnering with the public sector and civil society organizations on creating sustainable communities. Some examples: Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan emphasizes social impact in communities it sources from; Ben and Jerry’s is committed to offering a livable wage; and Anglo-American deploys its Socio-Economic Assessment Tool (SEAT) at all of its operating sites every three years, shares the results publicly, and offers SEAT as an industry-wide tool for best practice. To accelerate such changes, Georgia Tech started its most ambitious undergraduate initiative yet, Serve-Learn-Sustain, to empower students to become alumni who create sustainable communities throughout their careers and civic lives.

Sustainability can be hard work. It takes daring leaders who stay on message year after year. In 1994, Ray Anderson, IE 56, HON PhD 11, founder of Interface, stunned his employees with his “spear in the chest” speech, where he painted a bold vision: “To be the first company that, by its deeds, shows the entire industrial world what sustainability is in all its dimensions … and by doing so we will become restorative through the power of influence.”

Similarly, in 2005, Lee Scott of Walmart challenged his employees to be “at our best, all the time.” He asked them: “What if we used our size and resources to make this country and this earth an even better place for all of us: customers, associates, our children and generations unborn? … What if the very things that many people criticize us for—our size and reach— became a trusted friend and ally to all?”

At the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business here at the Scheller College of Business, we are committed to empowering the leaders of tomorrow to create sustainable businesses and communities. We engage with businesses to inform their goals and progress, and we create opportunities for our students to be the leaders of this powerful transformation. Visit the Center online at and contact Managing Director Michael Oxman at to become a mentor to our students and a partner in our work!


Liz York, Arch 90, MS Arch 95, FAIA,
Chief Sustainability Officer for the CDC
and Associate Director for Quality and Sustainability

I spent 10 years working for design firms before joining the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (After working as an architect for the CDC for a few years, I became the chief sustainability officers in 2008.) But I’ve long been interested and involved in sustainable design and practices. In fact Georgia Tech is the place where I first heard the term “sustainability.” My professors were teaching about it back in the late 1980s. Sustainability seems to have always been part of Tech’s DNA.

Those who are new to learning about sustainability may at first recognize the financial benefits of efficiency. They are pleased to hear that by definition something cannot be sustainable if it is not financially feasible. In my role, I examine solutions that best impact our people, our planet and our bottom line .

It won’t surprise you, but one of the things we at the CDC always connect to sustainability is health. My work focuses on creating systems and environments that support human health. Whether you’re a part of the government, a business or an individual, we all need to be responsible for the things we do.

Good governance is key to all of this. As the problems in our world seemingly grow more complex, it takes collaboration across organizational boundaries so that people are solving problems from the place where they are leading.

At the CDC, I collaborate with partners to facilitate communication around water and energy conservation. It takes partnerships from across the agency to make any initiative happen and that’s where my office comes in to bring them together. One example of how we made an impact at the CDC is the Freezer Challenge. In a beta test of sorts, we worked with laboratories across the agency to have them evaluate their freezer use, share freezers, and get rid of old freezers that waste energy in lieu of new models that are energy star compliant. With eight CDC labs participating, we saved approximately $125,000 annually.

Another major initiative is Fitwel, a new building-certification program much like LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environment Design), but one that measures a building’s impact on occupant health rather than energy conservation. Fitwel looks at myriad aspects of occupant well being, such as the presence of natural light, encouragement of stair use, healthy food choices, architecture, overall walkability and much more. Fitwel takes the public health science around built environments and puts it into language and standards that builders and owners can understand and use.