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Engaging Change

Swarthmore has made strong strides in the last few years toward its goal of carbon neutrality by 2035. It’s done so through efficient use of energy and other measures. But one critical component was missing—a professional to direct student, faculty, and staff efforts.

Laura Cacho arrived from Melbourne, Australia, in February 2014 as Swarthmore’s first director of sustainability. She’d spent the previous six years helping several cities with sustainability-related planning, policy, and education initiatives. A graduate of the University of Virginia and the University of California–Berkeley, Cacho is a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)–accredited professional. One recent achievement was the planning and implementation of a two-day sustainability charrette (see Page 32 for more on the event). Just after her first anniversary at Swarthmore, Cacho spoke with Bulletin editor Sherri Kimmel. 


How would you say that your work in Australia has informed the work you’re doing here?

Australia is a place of extremes, and climate change there felt real and now. It was quite striking, coming from the East Coast where, if we have a bad summer or a major storm, people talk about it a lot, but they’re not living it the way a place like Australia is. Australians have been dealing with water scarcity and other issues for a long time.


Catch me up on some of the things you’ve been doing since you arrived?

We launched Zipcar [a car-sharing program] in the late summer, which people had wanted for a long time. There’s a lot of interest in expanding our composting program. We have partnered with a local company, Kitchen Harvest, which now takes our compost to nearby Linvilla Orchards. We’ll eventually be able to expand composting on campus. A lot of work has focused on creating a sustainability framework—new building standards that will affect major renovations and new construction. My priorities always fall into four categories: improve our infrastructure, institutionalize sustainability as much as I can, promote or nudge behavior change, and engage with the curriculum. 


I’m interested in the ways you have partnered with students.

I work most closely with our green advisers. They’re trying to model a way to live in a sustainable way within our dorms. They help plan the programming in dorms that make students more aware of how to be sustainable in their everyday lives. I also work with the two Student Council environmental impact chairs on a number of initiatives from bike sharing to waste-bin signage to campus events. 


You’ve mentioned embedding sustainability into the DNA of the College.

It needs to be part of every aspect of the College—all policy, decision making, practices need to align with a commitment to sustainability. It means changes to our physical infrastructure and behavioral practices, but it’ll also require recognition that sustainability is one of the foundations of the modern liberal arts education. Many topics, from injustice and poverty to innovative technology, interlink and integrate with sustainability. 


Do you think there’s an opportunity for Swarthmore to be a leader among liberal arts colleges in this effort?

I do. There are other colleges that have a head start on us, but it could be something that we take on in a different way, a really Swarthmore way, particularly because of the College’s Quaker roots and its focus on social justice. If we embrace sustainability fully, it could really transform us.          


+Click here for more on Swarthmore's sustainability charrette.