Sustainability Principles and Goals

Williams adopted its first climate action goal in 2007, the same year it created the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives. Since then it has updated and expanded its sustainability goals and embedded sustainability as a cross-cutting theme in its 2021 Strategic Plan.

  • Sustainability has widely come to mean meeting the needs of today without compromising the ability to meet the needs of tomorrow. Some definitions also refer to the metaphorical three-legged chair to illustrate the three dimensions of sustainability that must be in balanced to maintain human wellbeing—environmental, economic, and social/cultural. When one of those dimensions—or legs—is absent or weak, it is not sustainable and society is unstable.

    By focusing on sustainability we aim to contribute to positive environmental, economic and social impacts by:

    • supporting human and ecological health and eliminating or rehabilitating negative environmental impacts;
    • securing livelihoods, a diverse, vibrant economy, and equitable access to resources; and
    • advancing social justice, equity, diversity, cooperation, democracy, transparency and other positive social goals.

    These specific tenets are modified from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE)  STARS report, which many colleges and universities use to assess their sustainability performance.

    When one thinks about sustainability through this lens, one can see that everyone is, as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny" and can understand the importance of advocating and striving for sustainability.

  • The 2021 Strategic Plan outlines the cross-cutting sustainability goals for Williams' near-term future. Organized into six priority areas, the goals cover education and research, climate action and carbon emissions reductions, resource use efficiency, sustainable management of the natural and built environment on campus, collaboration and DEI, and accountability and transparency. As part of the college's commitment to accountability and transparency and aligned with the Zilkha Center's efforts to embed sustainability strategically and operationally across all areas of the campus, the Sustainability Action Planning Group (SAPG) was launched. SAPG brings together volunteer representatives from a diverse group of operational departments and the three academic divisions to formulate sustainability action plans for departmental units as called for in the Strategic Plan.

    Energy and Emissions

    We reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by increasing building, vehicle and appliance energy efficiency and selecting cleaner and renewable energy sources. We aim to constrain the growth in square footage, meet holistic and ambitious sustainable building certifications for new construction (including reductions in embodied carbon), and to optimize building operations throughout their life. To ensure we reach our emissions goals, we purchase renewable energy from a solar farm in collaboration with four other colleges. We further seek to reduce the climate impacts of business travel, in procurement, food production and consumption, and other areas.  The climate action goals in the college's 2021 strategic plan were the basis for the Climate Action Plan.

    Natural Resources

    Although we are located in a region blessed with plentiful freshwater resources, the college aims to conserve water and reduce and manage storm-water runoff. For construction projects we emphasize the reuse of materials, the recycling of construction and demolition waste, and the sourcing of healthy building materials. We protect the local habitat by limiting the physical growth of the college and work to develop built landscapes in ways that support natural ecological functions by protecting existing ecosystems and regenerating ecological capacity where it has been lost. We provide opportunities for members of the community to interact with and appreciate the environment.

    Procurement, Consumption, and Waste

    We reduce, reuse, and recycle materials. In particular, we work to understand and decrease the environmental impacts of the use, production, transportation and disposal of consumables and durable goods. We seek out vendors and contractors committed to environmentally and socially sustainable practices for their products and employees, and we prefer to buy locally. We encourage students to minimize consumption and reuse and reduce before recycling.

    Buildings and Grounds

    We build and maintain buildings that provide safe, comfortable and healthy environments for students, employees and visitors through effective use of day-lighting, ventilation, use of healthy building materials, and enabling connections with the natural environment. We work to reduce the presence of toxic materials in labs, art studios, building and maintenance materials, as well as in cleaning, landscaping, and pest-control. We seek ambitious green building certifications and abide by green building guidelines.

    Food Systems

    A number of partners work collaboratively with Williams College Dining Services to improve the sustainability of the food served on campus. Model relationships established by Dining Services with Peace Valley Farm and High Lawn Farm demonstrate the potential for student dining at Williams to be strongly rooted in regional agriculture. At Williams, each meal is an educational opportunity. Dining Services seeks to prepare students with the information they need to make informed and responsible food choices.

  • Sustainability Performance Assessment

    Williams participates in STARS—the Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System designed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).  This comprehensive self-rating system allows Williams to evaluate progress toward sustainability over time as well as benchmark its activities against those by peer institutions.  For more information, visit the STARS website.  In 2011, 2016 and 2019, we were awarded Silver ratings and in 2022 we obtained a Gold rating.  Visit the Williams College page on the STARS website for more information.

    Annual Emissions Reports

    Each fiscal year, Williams prepares an inventory of its greenhouse gas emissions and tracks its progress in reducing emissions. The public reports can be viewed here.

  • 2020 Sustainability Goals and Milestones

    In 2015, President Falk and the Board of Trustees issued a statement addressing the College's responsibility and commitment to address climate change and defined five goals for doing so by the end of 2020. These goals accelerated the College's sustainability efforts and led to key investments in renewable energy projects, high-performance buildings, carbon neutrality, impact investing and academic programming. They represent a milestone, not an endpoint in our work and learning from our successes and shortcomings will continue inform our current set of goals.

    Read a summary of the goals and outcomes below, or visit each goal page for more details.

    Greenhouse Gas Emissions

    Reduce net greenhouse gas emissions 35% below 1990 levels
    Lowering energy use, new construction efficiency standards, generating and purchasing electricity from renewable sources and carbon offsets all contributed to this goal. Although the college fell short of the 35% reduction, a utility-scale solar photovoltaic project in Farmington, Maine, that Williams participates in (together with Amherst, Bowdoin, Hampshire and Smith colleges)  came online in fall 2021, and is estimated to match ~73% of the college's annual purchased electricity with Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs).

    Carbon Neutrality

    Purchase sufficient carbon offsets to achieve carbon neutrality by the end of 2020
    After careful deliberation regarding its approach to purchasing offsets, the college purchased a small set of trial-run offsets in September 2019. Since then the college has covered the annual net GHG emissions with offset purchases that were carefully reviewed by the Zilkha Center. The ultimate goal is to reduce these offset purchases over time as the college implements its new climate action goals and further lower its emissions.

    Fossil Fuel Use

    Partner with students, faculty, staff and the community to reduce fossil fuel use
    Notable efforts include increasing sustainable food purchasing and reducing food waste, eliminating plastic water bottles from all catered campus events, conducting the Williams Wedge Project and partnering with local communities to support home weatherization and renewable energy sourcing.

    Impact Investments

    Invest endowment funds in projects that benefit the environment
    To date, Williams has committed $50 million across six funds (run by four managers) in three asset classes. In addition, the college has set up funds for donors and employees to make contributions to low carbon investments and retirement plans.

    Educational Investments

    Make new investments in our educational mission
    The college added and filled two additional tenure track lines in environmental studies. Laura Martin is an assistant professor of Environmental Studies and faculty affiliate in History who investigates the ways in which humans intentionally and unintentionally shape the distribution and diversity of other species. Alice Bradley is an assistant professor of Geosciences whose research focuses on Arctic sea ice and the impact of strong storms on the environment.

    In 2016–2017, the college launched a Year of Confronting Climate Change. Throughout the year, the college hosted speakers who addressed various aspects of climate change, including NASA’s James Hansen and Gavin Schmidt, Stephen Gardiner, Van Jones, Maxine Burkett ’98, Mark Tercek ’79 and Bill McKibben. In addition, the Williams College Museum of Art invited the Ghana ThinkTank, an international art collective, to collaborate with the college on identifying and addressing climate challenges.