Internal Sustainability Programs
Good for the environment and the bottom line
By Vanessa Orr

s companies look for ways to become better environmental stewards, many consider developing internal sustainability programs that allow them to set sustainability goals, create a plan of action, and measure the success of their efforts. With buy-in from employees and a willingness to create partnerships and recruit outside expertise when needed, it is possible to not only improve an organization’s environmental footprint but its bottom line as well.

“If your shareholders and stakeholders aren’t winning and you can’t make a profit, then that’s not sustainable,” says Lisa Peterson, owner of Aftan Engineering, a Pennsylvania-based consulting firm.

Alaska Airlines

Peterson explains, “When a client calls me and says, ‘We want to do something in the sustainability space,’ my question to them is, why? Is it based on your shareholders? Is it based on your customer? Or is it based on your community perception?” The answers range from the personal values of a small business owner to a global corporation’s need to abide by international standards.

Pioneering Sustainable Technology

Alaska Airlines has been at the forefront of efforts to improve sustainability for more than two decades, and the company takes this commitment very seriously—so much so, in fact, that in January 2020, it rolled out a five-year plan to become the most fuel-efficient US airline and to cut emissions on all ground support equipment by half.

“We’ve always been proud to be a green airline; sustainability is part of our DNA, and it’s probably in no small part due to the fact that we operate in the most pristine place in the world,” says Pasha Saleh, head of corporate development. “We want to take care of the places where we fly.”

Alaska Airlines was one of the first airlines to work with sustainable airline fuels, and a grassroots effort by airline employees established an in-flight recycling program in the early 2000s. “That group, known as the Green Team, preceded our sustainability team,” says Tim Thompson, external affairs manager.

As part of its sustainability plan, UAF students started the Nanook Grown program to grow food for themselves and to donate to the community.


UAF students getting a tutorial in the garden
As part of its sustainability plan, UAF students started the Nanook Grown program to grow food for themselves and to donate to the community.


UAF students and instructor jumping amidst the changing leaves

Twenty-five years ago, Alaska Airlines pioneered Required Navigation Performance (RNP), a method of air navigation that was designed to provide planes with a safer approach through Juneau’s mountainous terrain.

“In addition to dramatically improving safety, an added benefit of RNP is that it helped us establish the most efficient path between A and B, resulting in fewer track miles, fewer emissions, and shorter flight times,” says Saleh, comparing it to a car’s GPS system. “It was developed by one of our pilots who was also an aerospace engineer, and though we were the first to use it, it is now the de facto standard for air navigation worldwide. It was a major milestone in creating more sustainable flights.”

When the pandemic began in 2020, the airline took the opportunity to look for even more ways to increase sustainability.

“When COVID hit, it resulted in air traffic levels not seen since the 1950s,” explains Saleh. “We used this time as an opportunity to rethink all of our processes so that, when traffic returned, we could operate in a way that further mitigated our climate impact. Our board of directors decided to make environmental sustainability a top strategic priority for the whole company, to both guide our choices and drive our values,” he adds.

Alaska Airlines developed a five-point sustainability plan that includes ways to shrink its environmental impact: operational efficiency, fleet renewal, increasing the use of sustainable aviation fuel, exploring novel propulsion alternatives, and purchasing high quality carbon offsets.

“We are evaluating every last process to make sure that whoever who comes in contact with an airplane produces the least environmental impact,” says Saleh. “For example, is the pilot starting the auxiliary power unit at the last minute when at the gate? This may seem a small thing, but it can add up to significant results over time when you consider that we operate over 1,000 flights per day.”

Investing in the Future

Alaska Airlines is also renewing its fleet with an order of 120 new 737 MAX aircraft, which are 22 percent more efficient than the 737 NGs they are replacing on a seat-by-seat basis. The airline is also looking to increase the use of sustainable aviation fuel, which creates 80 percent fewer CO2 emissions than traditional jet fuels by refining biological feedstocks ranging from grease and manure to wood mill waste or forestry residue. In December, a United Airlines jet completed the first flight powered by 100 percent SAF, in this case made from sugar and corn.

“SAF is the industry’s big hope; unfortunately, the demand for this fuel far exceeds the supply,” says Saleh. “That is why we are exploring novel propulsion options like battery and hydrogen fuel cell-electric power.”

While this type of propulsion is currently out of reach for narrow-body airliners, research to scale up the capabilities of the current all-electric two-seaters is proceeding at a feverish pace. “The technology to make narrow-body planes zero-emission is beyond the horizon at the moment,” says Saleh, “but I believe that within a decade we’ll have the technology for electric flight with aircraft comparable in size to those in the current regional fleet operating on shorter stage lengths.”

In fact, Alaska Airlines has contributed a 76-seat De Havilland plane to ZeroAvia, a start-up company that is already using hydrogen fuel cells to fly a six-seater plane, with plans to scale up to the larger aircraft.

“When it’s operational, it won’t burn any fossil fuel and it won’t produce any waste,” says Saleh. “It seems like science fiction, but it’s happening.”

Thompson says that commitment to the sustainability program has been overwhelmingly positive from employees, and customers appreciate the efforts that the airline is making to reduce its environmental impact. In addition to in-house support, the airline launched an investment arm, Alaska Star Ventures, to invest in funds focused on environmentally sustainable technology, including electric powered airplanes and, for ground support, de-icing drones that prevent over-spraying of the chemical.

The airline has also partnered with Airspace Intelligence Flyways, a Silicon Valley startup that has created groundbreaking software that assists flight dispatchers in determining what path to take.

“It’s like Google maps: it takes into account where every other plane is in the air and designs the optimum route given all traffic, weather, and airspace considerations,” says Saleh. “Right now, we are the only airline using this technology, and since we started in March 2020, it has optimized 28,000 flights, saved 15.5 million pounds of fuel, and avoided 24,500 tons of CO2 emissions by finding smarter routes.”

Students Taking the Lead

In an academic setting, the bottom line is less of a concern than in the airline business. In fact, students at UAF are willing to pay more for sustainability. In 2009, students voted to approve a $20 fee each semester that would help the university finance several sustainability initiatives. An Office of Sustainability was established on campus in 2010.

“The students wanted to see the school doing more in terms of sustainability, so they voted to have an extra fee created that they would control,” explains Christi Kemper, sustainability coordinator at the UAF Center for Student Engagement. “Not a single part of this would work without UAF students; they not only supply the funding but they have a volunteer student board that approves how the money is spent, and the students do most of the work as well.”

Since the fund was established, students have selected and invested in more than ninety-five sustainability projects at UAF. These include a solar array on the student recreation center, refillable water bottle stations across campus that have now been adopted as a UAF design standard, the purchase of an electric shuttle to be used in the summer, and more.

“The students also established a computer shut-down program, which they initially funded as a trial. It saved so much money that UAF adopted it permanently,” says Kemper.

In addition to the fee, student efforts were originally funded through some outside sources. As these funds dwindled, they switched from being project-driven to a more program-driven approach.

“Students completely run the recycling program at UAF, picking up waste, getting it sorted, and taking it to where it can be recycled,” says Kemper. “They also purchased a glass pulverizer so we can take care of our own glass on campus, which we recycle for use in construction projects or to give to local artists to use in their work.”

The students also created a Green Bikes program to discourage the use of motorized transportation when possible and to provide transportation to people who can’t otherwise afford it. They created a Free Store, where people can find second-hand items, and an Upcycle Annex, a DIY space and repair café where anyone can borrow tools and supplies for repairing items.

“Our Nanook Grown program teaches students how to grow their own food for free in the summers as a way to provide more food security,” says Kemper. “We also work with the botanical garden on campus to grow food to donate to the community; we provided 5,500 pounds of food in the first year, and about the same in the second year.” She adds that the program also hosts farm-to-table dinners and short-term food security workshops.

UAF also runs the Wood Center Food Pantry and sponsors Swipe Out Hunger, in which students donate their extra meal plan cash at the end of the semester to be distributed to those who need it.

Elements of the sustainability plan, such as running the Wood Center Food Pantry, would not work without a buy-in from students themselves, according to UAF Sustainability Coordinator Christi Kemper.


Elements of the sustainability plan, such as running the Wood Center Food Pantry, would not work without a buy-in from students themselves, according to UAF Sustainability Coordinator Christi Kemper.


Christi Kemper at the Wood Center Food Pantry giving a thumbs up

“The population of people that are younger than about 25 to 30 years old are the strongest proponents of the sustainability movement,” says Peterson, “so universities are faced with a grassroots, bottom-up push: What can we do to save our planet for our kids and the next generation?”

Send in the Consultants

Following the lead of its students, in 2014 UAF hired The Brendle Group, a Colorado-based consulting firm, to create a sustainability plan focused on thirteen strategies that, over the course of ten years, is estimated to result in $3.2 million in cost savings while reducing significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, energy and water use, and other resources.

Goals include the reduction of 8,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent, savings of 10,000 megawatt hours of electricity, savings of 58,000 pounds of steam, savings of 12,0000 gallons of potable water, the reduction of 647,000 miles of personal vehicle use, and the reduction of 120 tons of waste.

Consultants can assess quantifiable standards which can be audited to demonstrate the organization is delivering on its promises. However, Peterson says, “Finding people who have this as their niche offering—kinda rare.” Nationally known consulting firms service large corporations, but smaller businesses would have to shop around for an engineering or environmental adviser to guide them.

UAF students donated 5,500 pounds of food from their Nanook Grown gardens in each of the first two years of the program, in addition to hosting farm-to-table dinners.


A UAF student standing in the garden wearing a top-hat and holding kale
UAF students donated 5,500 pounds of food from their Nanook Grown gardens in each of the first two years of the program, in addition to hosting farm-to-table dinners.


UAF students in the garden smiling and holding kale

Even mom-and-pop shops have an interest in sustainability programs, according to Peterson. “I find that it sticks better if you focus on the local,” she says. “While it’s a noble cause to take up the whole world… break it down, start small.”

That approach is working so far for UAF. “Everything here is so student-driven, and it’s the primary reason we’ve been successful,” says Kemper. “It’s important to make sure that you have individuals who are really invested in sustainability and that you have buy-in from others.

“One person may want to start a project or program, but if others don’t buy-in, it’s hard to make it work,” she adds. “You also have to be really flexible as projects and people change along the way.”

Peterson agrees. “If it’s a fleeting fad—‘Oh, it sounds like it might be cool, but as soon as the cool factor is over, we’re moving on and I’m not talking to my employees anymore’—it’s not going to stick.” The key to a sustainability program, it turns out, is the sustainability of the program itself.