Young man smiling
Brandon Raco, University of Guelph’s manager, sustainability

To lead sustainability efforts at the University of Guelph, Brandon Raco has to be thoughtful, respectful, empathetic and appreciative of others. And telling good stories – sharing strong narratives that inspire and drive action – is at the heart of what he does.

“Trying to understand those very human issues and challenges when implementing a solution is so important,” said Raco, 26, who was named one of Corporate Knights’ 2019 30 Under 30 Sustainability Leaders.

As the sustainability manager in U of G’s Sustainability Office, Raco has been recognized by the Toronto-based media and research company for co-founding the University’s $26.2 million Green Gryphon Initiative while still an undergraduate, and for establishing the 30-year, $46.2-million Sustainable Campus Action Fund.

“I love my job,” said Raco. “It takes a lot of different partnerships and voices to make a project work. What I love is being able to come together, sit down with one another, listen to each other and then build out a solution that everyone can see themselves in.”

A student-engaged sustainability and utilities reduction program, Green Gryphon is dedicated to a cleaner and greener campus by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, finding opportunities for renewable and alternative energy sources, and the reduction of utility costs. The Sustainable Campus Action Fund, also funded through student fees and matched dollar for dollar by the University, aims to make U of G a zero-emissions zone by 2050.

The University’s Sustainability Office initiates many projects, including recent efforts to reduce single-use plastics on campus and improve access to alternative modes of transport.

While the pervasive narrative is that a younger generation is leading the charge on environmental sustainability, Raco said that is not necessarily the case. The foundation for current environmental action was built by past generations – generations that tackled the pressing challenges of their time, giving young people the opportunity to focus on what’s most pressing today.

“For me, looking back on the history of the environmental movement and what environmental sustainability is, young people are standing on the shoulders of giants,” he said.

“There was a time in our country when air and water pollution were serious concerns, when the ozone layer was a big problem, when smog days and DDT contamination were serious problems. People dealt with those issues thoughtfully at that time. We are really seeing the benefits of that today.”

Raco said the groundwork and inspiration for his work on the Green Gryphon Initiative came from Dan MacLachlan, U of G’s acting associate vice-president of physical resources at the time, and the people at Physical Resources who are committed to advancing sustainability at the University.

Soon after graduating with a BA in Environmental Governance from U of G, Raco joined Physical Resources as sustainability manager. His job includes integrating sustainability into long-term strategic planning, fostering partnerships with the City of Guelph and creating opportunities for experiential learning. In addition to his sustainability work, he is currently completing an MSc in Rural Planning and Development at U of G.

Corporate Knights Inc. is an organization that fosters an environmentally responsible business environment. It publishes the sustainable business magazine Corporate Knights and has a research division that produces rankings based on corporate sustainability performance.

“I think it’s really important that Corporate Knights is putting out a publication like this,” said Raco. “They are saying there is room to be optimistic and a place to recognize people who are taking action. While the problem is a big one, we just have to get to work.  When you see what others are doing, it inspires. You think: This is possible.”

The other 2019 30 under 30 recipients include a Vancouver man who connects youth in the Canadian North to youth in southern Canada to share and explore the mental-health effects of climate change; the founder of an LED lighting retrofit company; and an entrepreneur who produces organic, planet-friendly dog treats from food waste.