Mike Morrice and Priyanka Lloyd from the Sustainability CoLab.

Change Agents

A network-building movement is making a no-brainer business case for cutting GHGs.

At first it can be tricky to pin down what Sustainable Waterloo Region does. That’s not to say the volunteer-fuelled non-profit doesn’t share its own success story well. It’s that SWR’s influence is naturally understated, an unseen support beam to the goals and achievements of other businesses trying to cut their greenhouse gas footprints.

At first it can be tricky to pin down what Sustainable Waterloo Region does. That’s not to say the volunteer-fuelled non-profit doesn’t share its own success story well. It’s that SWR’s influence is naturally understated, an unseen support beam to the goals and achievements of other businesses trying to cut their greenhouse gas footprints.

SWR has spent nearly five years convincing companies and organizations around Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge, Ontario, to instigate a cultural shift that would help sew environmental responsibility into the way Canada’s 10th most populated urban area grows and evolves. In early 2013, SWR proudly claimed that one-seventh of Waterloo Region’s workforce was now turning this vision into reality, and that local businesses had already made public commitments to reduce GHG emissions equal to taking 10,000 cars off the road. In January it created Sustainability CoLab, an offshoot social enterprise that aims to inject the same momentum into other communities.

But let’s back up a little. To grasp what SWR does, we need another analogy. So imagine this organization of five staff, three interns and 65 volunteers as a shape-shifting hub of behind-the-scenes role players: personal trainer, dating service, investment adviser, highly specialized tutor and, most importantly, everyone that is counting on you to make smart decisions.

Just as a trainer records people’s athletic vitals and pushes them for better numbers, SWR gets companies measuring their baseline footprints and building action plans to make them leaner. Rather than romantic wayfinding, it hooks up companies with common challenges to learn from each other’s strategies and experiences. SWR helps those companies evaluate their options and the benefits of investing in GHG reduction, and it holds technical and educational workshops that double as great networking opportunities. The pressure to choose wisely is SWR’s payoff for getting commitments from a broad spectrum of Waterloo Region businesses to take sustainability more seriously.

The focus always comes back to enabling organizations to convert interest into action.
– Mike Morrice


SWR’s flagship program is the Regional Carbon Initiative (RCI), a guided set of milestones designed to turn companies’ GHG reduction goals into reality. As of March, there are 64 RCI member companies that occupy some 2 million metres2 of office space – design and engineering firms, energy services and utility providers, social support and health care providers, environmental advocacy organizations, educational and cultural institutions, retailers, manufacturers, consultants, construction companies, foundations and software developers. SWR supplies GHG accounting software and other tools, technical and strategic expertise, help organizing employee-led green teams and the growing support and wisdom of the rest of the RCI network. It has also shrewdly crafted that network with a strong culture of recognition and a rising bar for achievement.

“SWR’s role ultimately is to be really good at listening and convening, then setting direction and reporting back to the network and the wider community as progress is made,” explains SWR founder and Sustainability CoLab executive director Mike Morrice. “The focus always comes back to enabling organizations to convert interest into action.”

Sustainability CoLab represents the next leap forward in that conversion effort. CoLab takes SWR’s networking and knowledge-sharing model and will begin by expanding it to a handful of southern Ontario urban areas: Ottawa, Kingston, Durham Region and Niagara Region. Over time those communities will be able to share new insights with other CoLab communities about how to get local businesses to commit to lowering their GHG footprints. The plan is to add three more member municipalities in 2015, and ultimately, as that groundswell transcends into deeper commitments and gains a critical mass, Morrice hopes this green grapevine will influence more political and economic leaders to stop stalling and make their own networks commit.

The research project that became SWR was conceived when Morrice was an undergrad at Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU), in collaboration with another student, Chris DePaul. Although Morrice was spurred on by professor Barry Colbert (who remains an important SWR contributor), membership was a tough sell at first, at least in part because he was pounding pavement while a global economic crisis was unravelling. Morrice says more than 100 companies hadn’t bitten on his pitch by late 2008.

Yet his idea had resonated with many business leaders in Waterloo Region. After an immensely well-attended gathering of possible stakeholders in January 2009, SWR quickly landed more than $200,000 in funding and launched the RCI in June with three members – Athena Software, VeriForm Inc. and Enermodal Engineering. The latter two have committed to reducing their GHG emissions by 100 per cent (by 2016 and 2018, respectively), as have a few other members.

RCI membership has climbed each year, and 90 per cent of the companies that pay to join (for between $500 and $5,000 annually, depending on staff size) have stuck with the program. There are active green teams at 41 RCI member offices, or about 200 employees volunteering their time to encourage uptake and upkeep of new initiatives.

Through its countless conversations and by helping develop dozens of action plans, SWR has put together best practice guides and polished its expertise. Morrice says attendance at RCI events keeps getting stronger, and as the network expands it produces more cost-benefit case studies, more leadership examples and more meaningful conversations. The network’s breadth also makes those conversations go from interest to action faster – one Cambridge-based textile manufacturer joined in late 2013 and set a GHG reduction target within two months.

SWR has also deployed two other collaborative projects that underpin its goals. A partnership with the Region of Waterloo called TravelWise works with 21 local organizations and their 20,000 employees to rethink commuting. It deploys carpool matching and measurement tools, offers transit pass discounts and other services, and advocates for better biking, walking and transit infrastructure. Borrowing from the RCI approach, ClimateActionWR inventoried the region’s GHG emissions in 2012 and last year brought those data to public workshops in Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo to take stock of locals’ priorities. CAWR then used both pools of information to win a unanimous commitment from all three city councils and the Region of Waterloo to reduce the area’s total GHG footprint by six per cent below 2010 levels by 2020.

Morrice calls his work “a constant learning experience.” One reason is that as the concept and potential of SWR matures, its ideas come from people thriving in its network. At a workshop in January, for example, VeriForm president Paul Rak shared financial strategy insights about how his company quantifies the return on its sustainability investments, which includes tracking its sales against kilowatt-hours of production power. The Cambridge-based precision metal fabricator has invested about $250,000 in more than 70 energy-saving measures, cutting more than $160,000 out of its annual operating budget.

Appropriately, SWR’s events hinge on interaction. At ClimateActionWR’s community consultations in 2013, guest panelists and presentations led to group brainstorming and discussion activities, encouraging strangers to mingle and soak up different perspectives. Morrice describes a recent RCI technical workshop similarly, at which some GHG reduction cases and best practices were presented to facility managers and green team leads (many from the same sectors). Afterwards they formed smaller groups to discuss how the ideas might apply to their organizations.

“So, 45 people, sitting maybe seven or eight to a round table, having conversations about how to improve each of their own sustainability efforts – that’s an example of what knowledge sharing looks like,” says Morrice. “And what’s special about that is both that you have competitors sitting around a table with a genuine interest in learning from each other, and then on the competitive side, they’re going to bring that back to their company or organization and ideally attempt to differentiate based on their core assets and capabilities. But they all recognize that we have much to learn from each other, and that we’re stronger as a cluster.”

RCI members are also able to recognize this same potential in their employees. Enermodal’s LEED-Platinum-certified head office in Kitchener offers its staff financial incentives to buy hybrid vehicles or transit passes, organic lunch options and free low-flow showerheads, compost bins and rain barrels for home use. The engineering firm holds a summertime commuter challenge, rewarding teams of colleagues for getting to work by not driving solo. Many RCI members have customized these ideas and others – at Mennonite Savings and Credit Union, for instance, employees take the company’s organic waste home for compost.

One of SWR’s first financial supporters, Ernst & Young, uses ‘hoteling’ to reallocate desk space at its Kitchener office to make incremental energy savings. “Our people spend a lot of time working with our clients at their premises, so we don’t need to have a slew of empty workstations whose owners are only in the office periodically,” explains associate partner Elizabeth Pringle. Staff now simply book desk space as needed. Likewise, the insurance company lends its expertise to the network – one of its managers recently joined SWR’s technical working group on emissions reporting, and Pringle sits on its policy advisory board.

SWR’s influence is also thriving at the university where it began taking shape. Wilfrid Laurier is baking sustainability into its physical and cultural infrastructure in many ways. WLU campus has multi-stream waste bins and MOLOKs (high-density trash collectors), water-bottle-filling stations, an e-waste drop-off, an “Eco Take-out” container system, a farmers’ market and community gardens, a green roof and solar panels, a repair station and storage options galore for bicyclists, plus other projects that range from rainwater harvesting to sub-metering student residences and having them compete to cut GHGs.

Primarily spread around a 33.9-hectare quadrilateral of land in Waterloo and a smaller (albeit expanding) campus in Brantford, Ontario, WLU is midway through a five-year sustainability action plan that puts it on track to reduce GHG emissions by 25 per cent (against 2009 levels), well ahead of its RCI commitment to do so by 2022. In 2012, WLU diverted 63 per cent of its waste – an 11 per cent GHG savings – by overhauling its disposal, collection and recycling systems to be more efficient, accessible and extensive.

In 2009, WLU students voted to pay for a sustainability coordinator position to ensure this kind of attention to environmental detail was a lynchpin in Laurier’s strategy to stay competitive and relevant. Claire Bennett landed that gig and hasn’t looked back. She wrote WLU’s action plan, and manages and reports on the university’s ongoing progress. She’s been given money to create outdoor gathering spaces – among them a community garden that opened last summer in the Aboriginal Student Services building’s backyard, which grows medicinal plants and vegetables for soup and fry bread Tuesdays. Bennett’s many on-campus collaborators have also included a group of MBA students who forecasted the long-term costs of Laurier’s design inefficiencies and deferred maintenance practices, then presented the results to the university’s finance VP in 2012.

With that knowledge in hand, WLU administration is now evaluating proposals from environmental services companies (ESCOs) to tackle all of its energy efficiency and deferred maintenance needs over a 10-year period. This type of third-party financing arrangement will allow WLU to budget for a range of projects with price tags based on the energy savings guaranteed by their chosen ESCO. “If they don’t get us the savings, they have to eat it,” explains Bennett. “It’s going to be huge. We’re going to be able to increase our commitment to SWR significantly. It’s very exciting.”

Bennett says SWR has really helped focus her one-person-office’s efforts by supplying GHG-accounting tools and other resource support, and by plugging her into the RCI network. SWR’s technical and educational forums “were key for me to be meeting the right people,” and would later allow Bennett to share knowledge based on WLU’s progress. “The whole idea is to be making partnerships to spread your impact and be institutionalizing it. You need that community-wide, and I needed to know what others were doing to help my experience at Laurier.”

The operations manager at Conestoga Mall, a nearby shopping complex of comparable size to WLU’s Waterloo campus, was one such connection. Bennett says their frequent information sharing was particularly helpful to managing their green teams. “That was a useful experience for both of us I think, because ours was a little more established and theirs was just starting, so I was able to communicate what we’d done, and I needed a refreshing look at how we were doing things too,” says Bennett. That input led her to restructure WLU’s green team, which now operates more efficiently “because it’s more self-sustaining.”

The RCI network has also informed Bennett’s own academic research. She’s almost finished a master’s thesis in Planning (at University of Waterloo) about integrating a triple-bottom-line approach into the management systems of large institutions. She’s reciprocated by sharing her ideas and research with the network and a few regional committees that deal with climate action, waste management and re-urbanization. “I’ve gone through the very onerous process of creating an action plan and implementing it, which isn’t easy at all,” says Bennett. “You have to ensure a detailed assessment is done, which for us is using STARS [Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System; stars.aashe.org]. That legwork is key to developing good metrics to report on, which include associated targets and indicators.”

Bennett has pushed WLU to lead by example – in January, it became the first university on the planet to go through the STARS version 2.0 evaluation process, and bumped its rating up to silver. She credits the WLU community’s passion for involvement, its centralized campus and amenities, and the hefty value that educational institutions put on reputation – plus at least some obligation to back up a university slogan like “Inspiring lives of leadership and purpose.” Bennett credits SWR for getting WLU involved at a community scale, opening the door to her committee contributions and profiling the university’s efforts.

Recognition is a keystone in the RCI strategy. “Ideally part of the network and the knowledge sharing is that they get inspired by one another – not in a competitive way, but just by seeing more ambitious sustainability action as more doable,” says Morrice. As other universities become aware of WLU’s targets and progress, the risk of taking similar measures becomes lower, even for larger and less centralized campuses. SWR’s aim is to collect and share enough positive experiences that more members of its network open up to the possibility of larger projects with longer time horizons, and so new businesses and other sectors get involved.

Morrice says repositioning sustainability as a benefit rather than a barrier means going beyond the cost-savings argument and brand value – the RCI is about buying into a DIY community-building strategy that is driven by healthy self-interest. “By enabling and empowering the network and helping these organizations see the opportunity for themselves, they can build their own capacities, get some early successes and then look at bigger projects they may not have considered at first.”

If you had eight communities across Ontario, each setting targets with 15 per cent of the work force, how much more palatable is it to then look at getting larger change at the provincial, national and even international level?
– Mike Morrice

Municipalities are directly or indirectly responsible for more than 40 per cent of Canada’s GHG emissions. Certainly there are many across the country whose local sustainability movements are as remarkable as the one in Waterloo Region. But putting a dent in that national portion requires coordination on a bigger scale.

Morrice poses a good rhetorical question: “If you had eight communities across Ontario, each setting targets with 15 per cent of the work force, how much more palatable is it to then look at getting larger change at the provincial, national and even international level?”

Sustainability CoLab has enough of a trajectory mapped out and enough financial backing (from corporate partners and both government and private foundation grants) to spend the next three years trying to determine an answer. SWR, Niagara Sustainability Initiative, Durham Sustain Ability, Sustainable Kingston and Ottawa-based EnviroCentre – the first five members of the CoLab network – unite a group of municipalities with a total population of more than 2.5 million Ontarians and a GHG emissions footprint of about 20 million tonnes. These particular non-profits were tapped as founding members because they all have established clusters of support that include utility companies, chambers of commerce, municipal legislators, other regional stakeholders and proven operational capacity.

CoLab does not set up SWR franchises. Much like the RCI network, it guides members through a milestone process and shape-shifts between trainer, matchmaker, adviser, tutor and support group/pressure cooker. Each CoLab partner has a strong footing in its municipality or region as a change-instigator, and each organization manages its own momentum to hit whatever benchmarks are achievable and meaningful to its community.

“The neat thing about not franchising is that it allows us to nicely integrate our work into sustainability efforts already underway in different communities,” says Priyanka Lloyd, CoLab’s managing director. “Many communities are running educational events and providing resources to help businesses become more environmentally sustainable. By tweaking that traditional model to include helping businesses to set and achieve GHG reduction targets, it takes the engagement and potential impact to a whole other level.”

CoLab has set up a two-tiered membership system. Niagara Sustainability Initiative and SWR are ‘Affiliate’ members because they have active GHG commitment and reduction programs for businesses in place. The non-profit groups in Durham Region, Ottawa and Kingston are ‘Emerging’ members because their reduction programs are still in development. The two types of members focus on different milestones. Emerging members work through 10 steps that begin with stakeholder engagement and cover baseline data gathering, drafting an action plan, building resources and awareness for the program and finding money to sustain it.

Affiliate members are plugged more deeply into existing RCI networks and are able to use more resources from SWR’s experience. They’ll be included in the provincial and national partnerships that CoLab hopes to orchestrate. They’ll also receive tailored mentorship, which is basically what catalyzed the creation of an Ontario-wide network.

It was impossible to ignore other communities’ interest. They had been contacted by people from Victoria, BC, North Carolina and the Ukraine.

Evan DiValentino, a professor of environment, media and technology at Niagara Collage, attended SWR’s first annual ‘Evening of Recognition’ in 2010 and was inspired by what was happening in Waterloo. He asked if Morrice would share his business plan and provide some coaching. So they began talking on the phone about enlisting volunteers, convincing the business community and other challenges, and those soon became conference calls with other interested organizers from London and Hamilton, Ontario. Morrice agreed to speak at the Niagara Sustainability Initiative’s launch event in January 2011 – and it’s worth noting that NSI received double the startup funding (from Ontario Trillium Foundation) that SWR did, using Waterloo’s initial progress as proof of concept and Morrice as a first reference.

Morrice realized at the time that he couldn’t concentrate on both SWR and other communities. But it was also impossible to ignore other communities’ interest. They had been contacted by people from Victoria, BC, North Carolina and the Ukraine. So Morrice, his colleagues and the SWR advisory board began hatching a new business plan and sought financial backing to create CoLab, and wrapped up the long, careful process of finding a new SWR executive director, Tova Davidson, to replace Morrice in late 2013. 

Morrice is very excited to now be grappling with a question that “could change the way businesses participate in the solution to climate change: Does this program actually work anywhere else?”

“And what are the critical success factors?” adds Lloyd. “The communities we’re working with are all so different. What roles do population size, municipal support, volunteer engagement and the make-up of the local business community play in driving the program’s success? We’ve got some sense of what’s working in Waterloo Region, but it’s too early to tell whether those are the right success factors across all communities. It’s exciting to think about how much we’ll learn just in this next year from the first five CoLab members, not to mention how much our members will learn from each other.”

Taking advantage of that knowledge is the core challenge and objective. CoLab’s volunteers (currently two, six by summer 2014) have created primer documents with case studies and templates, and its staff and advisers are wary of not becoming a hub to the spokes of those other communities.

Ottawa’s EnviroCentre (envirocentre.ca), for example, brings a pile of applied learning and achievement to the table. The organization of 20 employees has completed more than 26,000 home energy audits over the last 15 years. It has extensive experience with tracking GHGs already, and this year it is rolling out additional energy assessment services to both new and existing housing sectors, as well as exploring ways to engage larger clients like condominium associations.

“We were really interested in what we could provide to local businesses as a natural extension of our expertise from working with the residential sector,” explains EnviroCentre’s Jessica Wells of the attraction to CoLab. “There is potential for this program to really be a supporting feature for many of the environmental- or businesses-focused organizations trying to connect with each other here.”

The timing is particularly good. This year the City of Ottawa is refreshing its air-quality action plan and setting new standards for individual communities and corporations. A downtown ‘eco-district’ is also being organized to showcase sustainable construction, infrastructure and living solutions – a hub created by and for developers, owners, residents, employees, and social innovators to both ground and inspire the capital’s environmental community.

“The risk mitigation strategies that CoLab and a GHG reduction target program would offer to businesses and organizations that have to reduce as part of a provincial air quality mandate – there’s a great opportunity to sync with that,” says Wells, EnviroCentre’s energy strategies and technical services manager. “And the eco-district is looking at what they can be offering members or businesses within the zone it encapsulates, and this program is right up their alley. It’s a natural fit with what they’re trying to accomplish.”

Wells and her colleagues put together an application to join CoLab at least partially out of a sense of obligation. “It’s the nation’s capital and I’d like to see us taking a leadership role,” she says. And beyond the obvious advantages the network presents, SWR’s experience is of particular interest because they’ve already sold the concept to a similar cast of companies. Ottawa also has many engineering firms, large institutions and technology product and service providers, but not a lot of representation from the manufacturing sector, which Wells calls “low-hanging fruit” in terms of energy reduction potential.

She’s equally excited to contribute to CoLab’s network. Wells highlights EnviroCentre’s technical and practical experience reducing GHGs, and its organizational capacity and systems for quality assurance and control, which have allowed it to continually improve how well it serves customers.

It’s up to Lloyd and Morrice to find ways of capturing those skill sets and experiences and the conversations they lead to, so all CoLab partners can benefit. “One of the things we’ve learned time and again at SWR is how important it is to focus on the connectedness of the community and the trust that is built through its many relationships,” says Morrice. “By staying true to this as we scale, we expect to be most effective at sharing knowledge across the larger CoLab network.”

The big takeaway from SWR’s experience (and CoLab’s promise) is that sustainability’s secret ingredient isn’t some emerging technology, an irrefutable calculation or an activist global leader. The ingredients are communities like yours or mine, measuring progress against their own performances and forcing change with straightforward science, common sense and the support and pressure that comes with sharing a commitment to an offer we can’t afford to refuse. 

Watch our exclusive interviews with Mike Morrice, Priyanka Lloyd, Claire Bennett and Elizabeth Pringle about why they’re excited by both projects.

Eric is the founder and executive director of Night\Shift, downtown Kitchener’s nocturnal adventure festival, and he helped craft the rebranding of A\J as its editor-in-chief (2012-2014). He has a dusty Bachelor of History from uWaterloo and has worked as a journalist in Canada since 2000, holding editing positions with up! Magazine (WestJet Airlines’ in-flight publication), AdbustersReader’s Digest and other publications, and contributing as a writer to Canadian GeographicMaisonneuveCanada’s HistorySwerveSaturday Night and others. He also used to curate a blog about great Canadian record cover art at lpwtf.tumblr.com.