Journey to Sustainability: Transforming Values into Action


Studying Experience At Aef Florence

In recent times, the importance of sustainability has transcended being a mere buzzword and has become a pivotal aspect of responsible organizational practices. At Accademia Europea di Firenze (AEF), this shift from considering sustainability a value to incorporating it into our everyday practices has been a profound and collective effort. This article aims to shed light on our journey over the past 18 months, highlighting the steps we have taken to infuse sustainability into every facet of our institution.

Preparation: Laying the Foundation

Why is this important?

What we accomplished was organizational change. This is difficult in the best of circumstances, but it can become impossible without three key components.

  1. Make sustainability an institutional goal or value.
  1. Ensure that the senior leadership is fully aligned with sustainability.
  1. Secure the support of everyone at the organization.

Identifying sustainability as a core value at AEF was our first significant stride towards aligning our institution's ethos with responsible practices. This was a collective process.

Gaining support from senior leadership ensured that our commitment was backed by actions, not just words.

The formation of the Sustainability Action Group (SAG) provided a dedicated platform to drive our sustainability efforts collectively, while the signing of the Sustainability Pledge by our President demonstrated our institution-wide commitment to making a tangible impact.

Chronological Progress:

  • Q1 2022: Identifying sustainability as a core value at AEF marked the inception of our journey.
  • Q1 2022: Gained support from senior leadership to initiate concrete actions.
  • Q2 2022: Formation of SAG consolidated our collective efforts. Our SAG is comprised of senior leaders and staff members from all departments. The SAG assesses our sustainability efforts and drives forward new initiatives.
  • Q2 2022: Our President signed the Sustainability Pledge, reaffirming our commitment.

Launch: Initiating Change

In this phase action is key. You do not know what you do not know because you have never implemented a sustainability overhaul at an organization.

You can overcome this lack of experience by taking some obvious first steps and then learning as you go.

Why is this important?

The launch phase allowed us to set the stage for embedding sustainability into our operations. The sustainability audit helped identify areas for improvement, while our involvement in the CANIE (Climate Action Network for International Educators) Accord underscored our determination to make a significant impact. The introduction of a distinct sustainability logo and signposting heightened awareness and demonstrated our unwavering commitment to this journey.

Chronological Progress:

  • Q3 2022: Commenced an ongoing sustainability audit to identify improvement areas. We used an Excel spreadsheet to list everything we were doing as an organization with an eye toward doing those things more sustainably.
  • Q3 2022: Signed the CANIE Accord, signifying our commitment to action. This sustainability initiative is specific to our sector: International Higher Education.
  • Q3 2022: Introduced a sustainability initiative logo and signposting, visually highlighting our focus. We use this logo in our physical plant to encourage more sustainable practices, such as turning off the A/C or the lights when leaving a classroom.
  • Q3 2022: Installed recycle bins to promote responsible waste disposal.
  • Q3 2022: Implemented filtered water dispensers to reduce single-use plastic bottle consumption.

Training and Development: Equipping for Change

The initial excitement for becoming more sustainable quickly gives way to a sense that you have no idea what you are doing.

After taking the first step toward sustainability just keep moving forward. You will expand your expertise and awareness about what is sustainable and what is not.

Training is a way to do this learning faster, and that is what we decided to do.

Why is this important?

Training and development sessions were integral to our approach, as they empowered stakeholders with the knowledge needed to drive change. Kate Whitfield, director of Zeroverse, and Daniel Ponce-Taylor, Sustainability & Strategic Partnerships Director at Intercultural Outreach Initiative (IOI), provided insights through two workshops. Carbon Literacy (CL) training provided deeper insights into global climate change and our impact.

Chronological Progress:

  • Q3 2022: Two members of SAG attended a workshop on sustainability in international higher education at the Forum on Education Abroad in Milan, Italy.
  • Q4 2022: Daniel Ponce-Taylor's workshop, "Sustainability at AEF," provided valuable insights.
  • Q1 2023: Kate Whitfield's workshop, "Sustainability for All," raised awareness.
  • 2023: Three members of our SAG committee become Carbon Literacy certified through the Carbon Literacy Project. They are also certified facilitators for the training. We received our training from Kate Whitfield of Zeroverse.

Integrating Sustainability into Practices: A Holistic Approach

Why is this important?

Embedding sustainable practices into our work procedures and processes is crucial to ensure that sustainability becomes an inherent part of our daily operations. Prioritizing carbon-light transportation, leveraging virtual meetings, and embracing digital documentation align with our commitment to reduce our environmental footprint.

Chronological Progress:

  • Q3 2022: Review ALL organizational procedures and activities and incorporate a more sustainable approach wherever possible. For example, we now prioritize less carbon-intensive transportation as part of our commitment. For example, if we take students to Siena, we will use public transportation over private coaches.
  • Q3 2023: Introduced the Sustainable Travel Challenge to our semester study abroad students encouraging mindful transportation choices. We use gamification to encourage students to stay in Florence or Italy on the weekends.
  • Q3 2023: Integrated the UN Sustainable Development Goals into all courses, making sustainability inherent in education.
  • Ongoing: Replaced some in-person meetings/conferences with virtual alternatives whenever possible.
  • Ongoing: Transitioned to digital documents and forms to reduce paper usage. We invested in better productivity software and a digital signature solution.

External Collaborations and Advocacy: Extending Our Reach

Why is this important? Our commitment to sustainability extends beyond our institution's boundaries. Collaborations with Elon University and the City of Florence underscore our active involvement in environmental stewardship. Partnerships with external organizations and our advocacy efforts in conferences amplify our role as sustainability advocates in our field.

Chronological Progress:

Our transformation from recognizing sustainability as a core value to actively embedding it into our operations is a testament to our commitment to responsible practices. The journey is far from over, as we continue to evolve, adapt, and inspire others on the path to a sustainable future. At Accademia Europea di Firenze, sustainability is not just a buzzword; it is a way of life that we embrace wholeheartedly.