Environmental sustainability at Oberlin is fundamental to campus life.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Oberlin College

Environmental sustainability at Oberlin is fundamental to campus life. To create an enduring ecological and human community, we shape our college to be responsive and responsible to the local, regional, and global environment. We conserve energy, eat foods grown locally, reuse and recycle materials, and pursue a carbon neutral future. We match our concern over the physical environment with our desire to build socially just and sustainable communities.

Students, professors, staff, alumni, and administrators work with one another. We form communities for learning, conserving, growing, and sharing. Partnership is key to our process: administrators ask for student feedback on projects—from building designs to meal plans. In turn, students exhort faculty, administrators, and each other to find new ways of thinking and acting that protect and preserve resources for future generations.

Together, we make sustainability integral to the way we learn and live.

Student and Faculty Engagement

Oberlin students volunteer throughout Lorain County, including at the Lorain Metro Parks. Many students work at George Jones Memorial Farm, a 70-acre research farm and nature preserve that grows a third of the produce served on campus.
On campus, Oberlin students work as recyclers or staff the Living Machine, a wetland-based wastewater treatment system that treats and then recycles 70 percent of the water used in the Adam J. Lewis Center for Environmental Studies.

During Orientation, new students engage in Day of Service projects, many of which focus on preserving and enhancingthe local environment such as weeding public gardens, assisting local farmers, planting trees, and restoring wetlands. During the academic year, students volunteer across Lorain County, including at the Lorain Metro Parks. Many students volunteer at George Jones Memorial Farm, a small farm that grows a third of the produce served on campus. For campus jobs, students work as recyclers, or staff the Living Machine, a wetland-based wastewater treatment system that treats and then recycles 70 percent of the water used in the Adam J. Lewis Center for Environmental Studies.

A quarter of all students eat in the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association or OSCA, a student-owned and managed cooperative dining system that buys a majority of its food from local vendors. Clubs such as the Resource Conservation Team and the Ohio Public Interest Group promote environmental stewardship on campus, keep the student body informed, and engage in environmental advocacy work on and off campus. Students and community members teach Experimental College classes on a wide variety of issues related to the environment such as Bicycle Repair, Vegan Cooking, Environmental Films, Permaculture and Grassroots Organizing. To get to class or around campus, students rent bicycles from the Bicycle Co-op, a nonprofit, student-run bicycle shop located in one of the residence halls. When we have new ideas on how to conserve energy, the student-run Green EDGE fund provides the financial backing to put our ideas into action.

In the classroom, professors offer courses that integrate sustainability across many disciplines—economics, art, history, physics, politics, and chemistry, to name a few. For example a geology class on Coral Reefs spends a significant portion of time discussing the human effect on reef ecology. A recent First-Year Seminar in Field Writing focused on the intersection of narrative nonfiction and ecology. Environmental studies is among the most popular majors, but no matter your major, it’s easy to integrate sustainability into your studies.

We view the built environment on campus not just as place in which learning occurs, but also as a fundamental component of a curriculum emphasizing environmental stewardship. Oberlin has received national awards from the U.S. EPA, National Wildlife Federation, the Great Lakes Protection Fund and Energy Efficient Markets for its Campus Resource Monitoring System. This is a technology developed by students and faculty that provides residents of student housing with instantaneous feedback on electricity consumption via websites and glowing “energy orbs” and enables the annual dorm energy competition, the Ecolympics.

The College at Work

In 2005, the college signed an innovative agreement with the local utility that ensures that approximately half of the college’s electricity comes from environmentally favorable sources. Oberlin requires that all new buildings constructed on campus achieve a minimum of a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED silver rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. The Bertram and Judith Kohl Building for jazz studies achieved a gold rating.

Oberlin’s Board of Trustees adopted a comprehensive environmental policy in 2004 that covers all aspects of campus management including buildings, food, energy, transportation, purchasing, and recycling. The Committee on Environmental Sustainability, a body composed of students, faculty, administrators, and townspeople works with Oberlin's Office of Environmental Sustainability to oversee implementation and further development of this policy.

In 2005, the college signed an innovative agreement with the local utility that ensures that approximately half of the college’s electricity comes from environmentally favorable sources. Oberlin requires that all new buildings constructed on campus achieve a minimum of a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED silver rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. The Bertram and Judith Kohl Building for jazz studies achieved a gold rating in 2010. Other LEED buildings are Robert L. Kahn Hall (2012),  Allen Memorial Art Building (2011), and Williams Field House (2009), 

The college’s A.J. Lewis Center for Environmental Studies has served as a showcase for green design. The building houses Oberlin’s nationally recognized environmental studies program. Its design-oriented curriculum helps students develop an understanding of the causes and consequences of the environmental predicaments and the creative problem-solving skills necessary to develop a more sustainable relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world.

In 2006, the college was also the first of its peers to sign on to the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, a commitment that requires Oberlin to develop and implement a plan for achieving zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Through the Farm to Fork program, we eat excellent locally grown foods in the dining halls: cheese without additives, milk free from artificial hormones, and chicken raised on a diet without growth stimulants or harmful products. At every dining hall, students may eat healthy vegetarian and vegan meals, with all prepared foods accompanied with a list of ingredients. Campus Dining Service welcomes student suggestions, and will change its ordering styles to adjust to student tastes.

Because of our innovations, the Sierra Club has consistently ranked Oberlin as one of its top schools in terms of sustainability work. Sierra magazine has, in 2016, ranked the college 13th of 201 undergraduate colleges and universities on its “America’s Greenest Universities” list. Oberlin also shared the highest marks on the College Sustainability Report Card with Dickinson College and Brown and Yale universities. The organization ceased data gathering in 2012.

In town, alumni founded socially and environmentally mindful companies such as Sustainable Community AssociatesNew Agrarian Center, and Full Circle Fuels.

Oberlin was recognized in 2014 by President Barack Obama’s administration for its efforts to become resilient to climate change and reduce greenhouse gases. The city is one of 16 local governments named a Climate Action Champion, a new designation from the Department of Energy.

Get Involved

Read other examples of our collaborations on campus:

Read student and alumni submissions about sustainability from the Oberlin Stories project: