education marketing media

Sustainable messaging

Every student needs to understand that no matter what their life passion is, they can find a path to sustainability through what they’re doing.


Ferris Kawar is Sustainability Project Manager at Santa Monica College.  With a background in marketing, Ferris offers an insight into sustainability messaging both on and off campus.


Sam: Welcome to Sustainable Lens Resilience on Radio. A weekly show on sustainability topics brought to you by Otago Polytechnic. The show is co-hosted by Shane Gallagher, and me Samuel Mann. Shane’s not here because I’m in Santa Monica, at Santa Monica College, indeed. Each week we talk with someone making a positive difference. We try to find out what motivates them, and what it means to see the world through a sustainable perspective, through their sustainable lens. Tonight’s sustainable lens is that of Ferris Kawar – who is the Sustainability Project Manager at Santa Monica College. Thank you for having me.


Ferris: Thanks so much. I’m glad you’re here.


Sam: What a pretty amazing building.


Ferris: Yeah. Thanks. It’s a unique little space here on campus that we’ve had for over 20 years because a set of professors really recognised that environmental issues were important enough back 20 years ago. They wanted a hub on campus that we could really talk about these things, and cultivate interest with the students, and build it into curriculum. A few years ago they were able to get some funding to make it as sustainable as possible. We can demonstrate energy efficiency, and reuse, and recycling. It’s a zero waste office. It doesn’t have air conditioning or heat in here. We have some very innovative ways of keeping ourselves comfortable and making it a very useful space with a lot of people coming and going. It’s a very effective place to work. It’s great to show off all the time.


Sam: It’s a retro-fit in 1920’s bungalow.


Ferris: Yeah. Something like that. Maybe 1940’s. Yeah. It was old, draughty, bungalow that is actually replicated down the street. It’s nice to be able to look at our energy, gas, water bills. Then look at the one next door that really houses the same number of people working for the colleges. It’s apples to apples. Yet, our electric, water and waste bills are so much lower than everyone else’s. It’s a great model to show off.


Sam: We’ll come back to what you do in your job. Let’s do some bigger picture things first. Where’d you grow up?


Ferris: I grew up actually in the Middle East originally. In Amman, Jordan. Moved to the United States when I was 11 years old up to Northern California San Mateo. Went to college in Sacramento. Did my studies in business marketing. Then moved to the Bay Area shortly after that. Worked for an advertising agency for a number of years. Before I realised a really wanted a change. Didn’t see myself in advertising for the long term. Started to look around to what else I might want to do.


Interestingly enough, 15 years ago when I moved to Los Angeles to think about what I really wanted to do. I found myself here in Los Angeles. I ended up taking a workshop at Santa Monica College that was a sustainable living workshop. That was funded by the city. Taught you really how to reduce your foot print in every area of your life. I ended up taking that workshop. It blew me away. Opened up so many doors to possibilities. I said, that’s what I want to do. That’s where I want to focus my attention, and use my knowledge for creating messaging. I come from a marketing advertising background. I said, “That’s what I really want to do. To get the word out about sustainability.” That was 2001.


I actually ended up teaching the course here on sustainability. I outreached it to residences in Santa Monica. Then I went on and did some other work around Los Angeles in other areas. A year ago, I had an opportunity to come back and be the Sustainability Manager for the college. It was a nice full circle story. To be able to come back and see how the college has grown. Really built on it’s sustainability credentials. It’s fun to be back.


Sam: Let’s step more slowly through some of those shall we.


Ferris: Sure.


Sam: John.


Ferris: Right. Now they did go way back.


Sam: I’m going way back.


Ferris: My father’s Jordanian. My mother’s American. They met in college here. My father was a hospital administrator. He had an opportunity to open up a hospital in Jordan, and return to his home company. They thought, well, what an opportunity to raise our children there. Have work for him. I went to an English speaking school. That’s why you don’t detect much of an accent. I never really had one. I lived there until I was 11. I think it is such a great opportunity to live in another country. Learn that other people learn different ways. That’s really helped me be patient with people. I realised everyone really wants the same things. They might not have the same background, and social norms. They may not understand the value of recycling the way we were brought up to once I came to the United States. I know that doesn’t make them bad people.


When I go back to Jordan I notice that the recycling is not something that happens. There’s no system set up. That doesn’t make them bad people. They also reuse the heck out of everything. Far better than we do in the United States. I get to have that view from both sides. That view helps me understand people within the United States and my LA California. To see how different cultures see sustainability or don’t see it, but that they’re still probably interested in it. You just have to make it accessible to them. Introduce it to them in a way that makes sense.


Sam: It’s interesting how America, in particular, has jumped to the lowest form of the reduce, reuse, recycle pyramid.


Ferris: Yeah. That-


Sam: It doesn’t mean you can get away without reducing your consumption.


Ferris: That’s right, but recycling has been the best thing that people can really do. My last job actually was a Recycling Specialist for the city of Burbank, here in Los Angeles. I did that for six years. I was constantly surprising every group I spoke in front of saying, “Recycling should be synonymous with trash.” That’s the worst thing that you can do. You really want to focus on reduce and reuse. That’s why those two things were first. When you ask people, “Well what does that mean?” So few people really understand how important it is to not create the trash in the first place, even if you go and recycle it. They don’t understand the long journey these items have to take to get recycled. The amount of embodied energy it takes to create this thing in the first place. It’s going to create all sorts of pollution in the processing of the material. It’s quite a task we have to educate them.


Sam: From Jordan back to Northern California.


Ferris: That’s right. When I was 11. Went to finish my schooling there.


Sam: Had you been coming backwards and forwards until then?


Ferris: I had. Every two years we would come to the United States. I knew a little bit about American culture. Back in Jordan, my school was filled with expats and their kids. It wasn’t too much of a culture shock coming here, but it still was.


Sam: As you were a young teenager. What did you want to be when you grew up?


Ferris: That’s the problem.


Sam: Young teenager get you past wanting to be an astronaut and whatever else …


Ferris: Honestly, sadly, I didn’t have any strong calling. I went into business because my dad was in business. It just seemed like a nice, safe thing to go into. You can apply it to anything. I really didn’t have any strong calling. It wasn’t until I was 30 when I stopped and said, “You know what? I don’t see myself in advertising.” This was fun for a while. Was really interesting. It made me feel like I was contributing. It wasn’t until I took the Sustainable Living workshop that I realised, oh my gosh, how much damage I had created? Creating ads to some things that people don’t need. That are just fueling the consumptive society. I always say this is my penitence for all those years.


Sam: I’ve talked to some people in advertising and marketing who are quite defensive of their role in sustainability. That their role is actually not necessary to sell more stuff, but to add value to stuff.


Ferris: They’re telling themselves that to make themselves feels better. Certainly there are some products, more and more are making their way onto the shelves, to give people options from the conventional products. I know the industry. I worked in it. I know that we all tell ourselves things to justify what we’re doing for a living. I think it’s important that we understand how powerful advertising is, but media as well. Not just advertising. They are very skilled practitioners in understanding the human psyche to make sure that they are getting people to buy a product even if they don’t really need it.


I think we saw, if you look back just after World War 2 the idea of modern day consumption really took root in this country. Before that people really purchased things on how sturdy was that product. How long was that going to last you? Not, how does it make you feel as a person. How does that product give you some kind of a value in terms of how you feel? Does it make you look good or not? Modern marketing has made people forget about how well made is this? What was it made with? How does it benefit my community? Now it’s just use it up, tosses it out, get the next season’s cover and repeat. They’re very masterful.


Sam: For someone with a background in advertising, who is not going to be defensive of marketing and advertising then…how real, how blatant is green washing?


Ferris: Green washing it’s definitely out there. You have to be very careful with it, but there are plenty of places to go to find products that have been vetted by organisations that you can trust. I mean, for me Environmental Working Group is an organisation that vets cosmetics, suntan lotions, underarm deodorants. All sorts of other beauty products. I will turn to them, because I am not a scientist. I am not going to be able to really look at … It’s too time consuming for me to try and figure it out on my own. You have to sometimes trust others, but really turn to ones who you can trust. Just be cognizant of it.


Even with green washing there is some value in it. It pushes that company. They’re always running the risk that they’re going to get caught. If they do, people are pretty diligent to call them out on it. Then force them to live up to the expectations that they put out there. 10 years ago, no one was even trying to green wash. It’s actually progress that we’ve got green washing, unfortunately. That’s sad to say. At least, it’s now part of the conversation and something we have to watch out for.


I find it interesting. I helped start a guide of green businesses. We started on Los Angeles. We researched every single business in Los Angeles that was consumer focused, not business to business. We had to walk in as secret shoppers. Figure out who was offering some kind of a sustainable alternative to your conventional products. When I first did it, this was 2005. Sustainability just wasn’t part of the conversation in the media. Every business owner was just completely honest whether they had something or not. You didn’t have to be really guarded about were they going to try to sell themselves as green. We did that guide, and released it.


Then we redid the guide two and a half years later. It was really interesting. In just that period of time. From 2005 to 2007, 2008, businesses had realised, wow, people really care about this stuff. I want to be a part of this movement. They were willing to embellish and to misrepresent or over represent how green their product lines were. You had to really start to pick through who was being honest and who wasn’t. It was a good sign. It made us have to be far more vigilant.


Sam: Somewhere between marketing, and you didn’t call it an epiphany, maybe you did, a workshop you went to here…


Ferris: Yeah.


Sam: Did you just stumble in through the door or was it something that was niggling or something?


Ferris: I knew that I enjoyed the outdoors. That was as close to an environmental direction that you can get. I had been thinking, well, what can I be doing? Where do I want to spend my energy? I just happened to read this course list. I think I was going to take Spanish and something else. I saw, oh, a sustainable Living workshop. I thought of myself as a pretty green guy. Lived in San Francisco for eight years. I recycled. Really once I took this workshop realised how little I knew. That’s really true of most people. We all think of ourselves as pretty environmental. Really, I’m doing everything I can. I don’t want else I can possible be doing.


That’s just human nature. People see themselves in a more favourable light than most people see them. Studies show, especially if you talk about recycling. If you asked the average person, 70% or 80% of people think that they recycle everything, all the time. Then you go through their waste bin. You realise, okay, only 30% are actually doing it right. Only, maybe 50% are actually doing it. Then only 30% are actually doing it right. That’s just human nature.


Anyways, I realised how much I had been missing. How deep this rabbit hole goes. I always say, “It’s like peeling back an onion.” You find out oh, I didn’t know about this issue. Then you peel back that layer and oh, there’s a whole other level of issues below that. You keep peeling it back. I’m not even half way through the onion right now. I’ve been working in this field for 15 years. It makes decision making really difficult. My wife looks at me and goes, you can’t just make the simplest choices. I said, “No!” There’s consequences to every choice. Once you know you can’t go back. I would rather be an informed citizen then to be blindly going through life, and creating damage. Not willing to address it. I think that’s what we kind of do. It’s better to hold that stuff at arms length so that you can just plead ignorance. Not feel guilty.


Sam: That’s the deal isn’t it? There’s the catch. The ignorant choice, let’s just carry on having a party and buying stuff, is a simple choice. We’re not offering people a simple choice.


Ferris: No. It’s complex. It is. I wish there were a way to bottle this, and/or package it in a simple term. One catch phrase. We’ve been working on cracking that nut for a long time. It just, we’re not there. No one’s really done it very well. Yeah. I deal with that all the time. I do messaging for the campus. For the students. In terms of transportation. To professors in terms of the curriculum. After a while, they start out and they’re pretty interested. Quickly their eyes can glaze over and they’re overwhelmed. It’s frustrating.


Sam: We’ll skip over some of the things you’ve been doing between now and then. Focus on what you’re doing now. You mentioned that you were at the City of Burbank and other things. Now at the Santa Monica college. You’re a Sustainability Project Manager.


Ferris: Correct.


Sam: Is it just you?


Ferris: I have an assistant. I have 14 student workers who really run five different eco-clubs. Those clubs range from a gardening club, a bike club, a plastic free SMC trying to get disposable plastic off campus. One that’s looking to get more vegetarian and vegan options in our food service. Each one of those, one runs a garden where it’s students teaching other students how to plant and be self-sufficient with your food. We have a bike club that’s really helping students become self-sufficient with their bikes. We hold a bike repair clinics. We fix bikes a couple of times a week at no charge. Constantly trying to get people back out on those bikes. Just because the chain comes off they don’t use that as an excuse to start driving again.


We have another one called Eco Action. Where we hold events. It’s using week long events to teach about sustainability. Like Earth Week. On sustainability week, we do massive beach clean ups where we have 600 plus people come down and clean up our beaches. You know? During these weeks we’re holding workshops. Do it yourself workshops. Debates. Movies. Events where we hold a free farmers market for students. Give away 1,000 pounds of produce.


These students are really my outreach arm. They re using their clubs to introduce sustainability to students in all sorts of different way from, like I said, transportation biking, to growing your own food, to food in the cafeterias and this such. It’s not really just me and my assistant. We have our minions.


Sam: That’s quite some commitment from the institution.


Ferris: It is. That’s not something that most universities really have. It’s been fantastic to have them supportive and allowing us to cultivate it over the years. The student association which is the student governing body, they have a sustainability director. It’s terrific because their president, vice-president, and treasurer…among their top leaders they have created a sustainability director position which is quite another commitment from the college. That they want to see sustainability infused throughout the campus.


One of their biggest coups I thought, was they hold the purse string for a lot of college departments. Through the year, as departments want to hold an event that is focused around students. They go to the student association and ask them for money to hold it. Generally thousands of dollars. They said, “It’s now our policy, if you hold your event it has to have recycling and composting. You have to use compostable materials for your servings.” From your folks, cutlery, to plats, and cups. It all has to be compostable. That’s, I think, overnight changed the way that people thought about throwing an event on campus. It caused all the departments to stop and think how they spend their money. When you throw an event it doesn’t just mean you’re going to create a massive amount of waste that day. All of that material can either get recycled or composted. Just with the stroke of a pen, there power as a leverage point to get the whole college to really think differently about events and waste.


Sam: How high up in the Santa Monica structure, physical structure or in terms of policies and mission statements and whatever, where do we go to see sustainability?


Ferris: Well, we have a brand new president. Only a couple of months old. Our previous presidents have been big supporters. The president, two presidents ago, signed what we call the ACUPCC American College President Climate commitment. That person signed this letter saying that our college will make every effort to reduce its carbon footprint over a period of years. That was 2009. That is really driving what we do for the years forward. Since then, we have been able to have one of the five ILO’s, which is Institutional Learning Outcome. Those change every few years. They are kind of also our guiding principles of what our college wants to have our students get out of these years that they’re with us.


One of them has to do with sustainability. That they will become sustainable in their actions. They will learn to live as sustainable citizens. We talked a little bit earlier about global citizenship as a requirement for graduation. It’s a series of classes students or a set of classes students need to take to be able to graduate with an AA degree here. They have offered at least some of those classes their sustainability focused. They recognise that to be a global citizen you should be knowledgeable about sustainability.


Sam: Is that all students have to do a compulsory sustainability course?


Ferris: No. Not all students. They have a choice out of a set of classes to take. A few of them are sustainability oriented classes. They could take classes that deal with other cultures. They don’t have to just take sustainability classes. They are offered as an option. You’re talking about-


Sam: It’s alongside, things like social justice…


Ferris: Correct.


Sam: They can’t avoid this sort of thinking.


Ferris: Yes.


Sam: It might not be specifically sustainability.


Ferris: Yeah. I would like to see it infused as a mandatory lass across the board everyone needs to take. There’s so many other courses that are mandatory. How hard it is to get to add another one to the list. There’s really three ways that we have sustainability in our curriculum. One of them is we have a Sustainable Living workshop. Very similar to the one that I took 15 years ago right here at this college. It’s still being taught here. It’s an eight week workshop that teachers students how to reduce their personal footprint. It’s a non credit course. It’s just for extra credit. We have about 70 professors who offer that to their students.


It’s really great because you get students who are not self-selected environmentalist. Typically, when you say hey, we have an environmental course. Why don’t you come and take it. Most of the students who show up are the ones who already know this stuff, who just want to go deeper. Well this particular course, you’re getting students who may be getting a C, and they just want to make sure that they pass. They’re taking the extra credit. It is a life changing opportunity because they’ve never heard this material before. It’s an hour and a half each week. We talk about energy, water, waste, chemicals, transportation, food, and shopping. We have experts come and talk. We have films and field trips. It’s a really, really robust course. That’s one way. You get a lot of professors who support it by offering extra credit.


Then you have a whole subset of professors who are weaving sustainability into their curriculum. Such as english professors, business professors, art, anthropology, psychology, sociology, public policy. That’s terrific. I’m constantly trying to expand that. Get other professors to recognise that they can use sustainability as examples in whatever course it is. We have a fashion design course, and a cosmetology course. Those professors just recently came to me, because I held a green career fair recently. They were actually interested in having some speakers come to their classes that they have never thought about. Oh! Nontoxic nail polish. Wouldn’t that be interesting to talk to our students about. Fashion design that took into account the damage that seasonal changes in fashion create.


It’s actually expanding quickly. That’s the subset. Then there’s another area that we call it the Sustainable Technology programme. We have an Energy Efficiency certificate. A Recycling and Resource Management, and Photovoltaic Installation certificate that you can get. This is more for students who really want to change careers. Who know exactly, they just want to get into this field of work. They can come. They can get a certificate from us. We help them get out into the working world. This is one of those, we call it CTE programmes. Where they are certificate, technical, education. Try to get them out into the workforce. Then we also have an Environmental Science, and Environmental Studies degree that students can take, and to transfer with.


Those are all the areas of curriculum that we offer.


Sam: Do you think that students coming through now getting it?


Ferris: More and more. Definitely. They are getting it. They’re getting it from other areas. There are plenty of studies that show that this is what students are really interested in. I wish that the professors would get it. That there students are getting it and they’re looking for those examples. They really are. I think the students have heard it long enough. They just need it to be applied in a way that’s accessible in each programme. Whether they’re a business student or in fashion design. They need it to be made accessible so that they can say, “Oh! I see now.” Because, yeah, sure recycling. Great. Well, that’s bottles and cans. When you talk about recycling in dollars and cents. How much it can save a company in an accounting course. Then you go, oh! Okay. These things really do matter. Waste is not just the cost of doing business. It is an opportunity to make the business more money by being smarter about it. I don’t know. I’m constantly fighting to get more professors to embrace these examples. They’re usually the hardest to change the minds. They’ve been doing this for years.


Sam: With a background in advertising, how are you using those skills in this job?


Ferris: Well, it’s was using what I know about messaging really. It’s a lot of promotional material we create. Understanding that you need to simplify your message as much as possible. It’s a complex message, but as much as we can we try to break it down so that it lands. Most people are overwhelmed with emails and messaging all around them. When we put out any email, or brochure, or posters, or banners, all that kind of stuff, we try to distil the message down as simply as possible. That they can get our top line message and then if they need to drill down offer them the website to go to.


Sam: That works when the message can be simplified. Can you simplify wicked, complex, messy problems? Which is the essence of sustainability?


Ferris: No. It’s very difficult. It’s not easy. Say for our transportation campaign, we have 12 different options that we offer for getting to campus without your car. From apps, to bus, and trains, car-pooling, websites. All of these tools that we give people. We really focus the message on reduce stressed, and time, and money. That’s what people really care about. I don’t really mind if take a bike, or carpool because it actually saves them money, not the environment. The end result is they are saving both. That’s what matters to me. I try to play down the environmental aspect of it. I know that 80%, 90% of the people really care more about how long does it take me to drive, and fight traffic, look for parking. How expensive is it to fill up my tank every week. Be the one responsible behind the wheel. I try to focus the message on those things that I know people care about universally. Rather than, hey, this is better for our air, and for our kids, and for our future. That’s just too amorphous.


Sam: Does it matter if they’re changing behaviour for the wrong reasons?


Ferris: At this point, no. Ultimately, I would like them to change for the right reasons but I feel like we have tried to get them to change for the right reason. People really are not responding that much more than they were 10 years ago. A little bit more. We’re making some gains. There’s some other things that need to happen in society before we get to wholesale, real, tangible changes. You almost need to do it in other ways. Get them to change for other reasons, or to just institute mandates. Just go that route. Say, well, okay, we’ve used the carrot forever. We have to use the stick a little bit. You know? Maybe. I don’t know. I actually can’t think of an example that we would use on campus here.


The City of Santa Monica has an example where they said, by mandating that residents can’t put in spray irrigation anymore. They have effectively gotten rid of any new lawns going into the city. You have to have spray irrigation for lawns. You can’t drip or these other targeted irrigation techniques. They pretty much just said, “You can’t have a grass lawn in our city anymore.” Or they said, “You can’t use plastic bags.” We tried to get people to let go of plastic bags for a very long time. At one point, they just said,”Well, that’s enough.” If you want, to pay for a bag. You will get a paper bag, but you will have to pay 10 cents for it. They mandated getting rid of styrofoam. All of these things. After a while, you can try to educate people about the dangers of having all the stuff in our environment.


At the end of the day if they are just not going to make those choices on their own. Sometimes just having to mandated it just works very well. In each one of those cases that I mentioned, the sky didn’t fall. Business adjusted. It didn’t really cost anymore to your meal or to your shopping trip. People started to remember their bags. Get used to other packaging materials. That was that. It all passed very quietly.


Sam: Putting in place systems that offer a better alternative, so that people aren’t able to use the…


Ferris: That’s right.


Sam: This is better life not a lesser life argument.


Ferris: That’s right. They’re doing it in transportation by narrowing streets. They call it street diets. Widening bike lanes. I agree with all those measures. We’ve for so long made it so easy to drive. Where parking was free. Streets were wide. We’ve filled up all those parking spots and those streets with cards. It was so convenient. Gas was cheap. Now they’re saying, well, let’s not make it so easy for people to make that choice. Let’s incentivize other options. People are finding other reasons to love getting out of that car. Being freed of the constraints of just having cars as your only option to get around. Now that people are forced to try other options they’re realising, wow, this is great. I don’t have to be the responsible one behind the wheel. Deal with parking tickets. Paying for parking passes and all that kind of thing.


Sam: Is all that enough? When you said that you opened a door, went through a rabbit hole, are we challenging ourselves far enough? I’m thinking of the student events that require to have compostable cookery. Wouldn’t we be better off having china?


Ferris: Yeah. We do that here at our office. It does become problematic when you have an event for 2,500 people. That can be a big cost to rent all of that. Yes. That is ultimately where we need to go. Every department on campus should have place settings for 20 people. At least everyone in their department. There’s always going to be a birthday party. An event that they have throughout the year. They should have their own. You’re absolutely right.  We are still taking baby steps when we need to be moving in leaps and bounds. We are not moving fast enough to keep up with the pace of the closing window of opportunity to keep the climate somewhat stable. We know it’s not going to be what it has been for so many generations. To keep it livable by our standards.


Sam: what’s it going to take to move an institution, or society, or even a family, to that leaps and bounds side?


Ferris: I think it comes back to media having a responsibility for their messaging. I think that most people get their cues for living from the media they consume. Whether it’s magazines, TV commercials, the news, music videos, films, TV shows. They are all putting out the message that life is fine. Everything we’re doing is fine. Continue as you have been. Even though, once in a while, they’ll do a news segment on ocean acidification is a real problem. They’ll cover that topic. Then they’ll be a commercial for a seafood chain. Or Oprah will talk about a real important environmental issue. Then turn to the audience and say, “Now for Oprah’s favourite things. Look under your seat and see all the things you get to go home with today.”


We put 2% into, hey, here’s some really important issues happening to us. Then 98% of the time, people are lulled back into a sense of security that everything is going to be fine. No one has changed their tune anywhere else in society. I’m surrounded by the message that things are fine. Don’t worry about it. Let government take care of it. We’ll figure it out. Don’t worry your pretty little heads. People are constantly lulled back into that feeling about how I don’t really need to make any changes. I think media needs to realise they have a real responsibility to society to work into their TV shows, into their messaging, actions that represent where we want to be. They’re always trying to represent exactly reality.


Unfortunately, the people who are writing the scripts are not, what I think. are the most conscientious people on the planet. Most of them live here in LA. You see them in a coffee shop writing their next script. They are very, you know? I don’t think they are who we really want to be emulating our life after necessarily. They want the next big car. They want a big flashy house. They think everyone can live in a 5,000 square foot mansion. Everyone now aspires to the live a life of the rich and famous. Instead of having what really matters to people. I think when you get down to people really want time. They want their health. They want time with friends and family. That’s not what people seem to be going to work for. They tend to take on extra jobs because they have to pay for the extra house. The condo they have in the mountains. The boat that they bought. The accumulation of things.


Instead of reflecting the way life is, well, let’s try to reflect the life we should be living. Put some ethics back into our journalism, and the media that we produce.


Sam: Has the switch to social media given us a window to catch up that fast moving window that you talked about before?


Ferris: Yes, it has, because people are not just limited to the corporate owned news giants. Just even the regular TV shows that are produced by NBC, CBC, ABC. We have the opportunities to be entertained by a while new range of people. Which is good and bad. We have the potential for being able to be exposed to better messaging. Is that what we’re actually getting? Not necessarily. Sometimes. I use my Facebook page to constantly enlighten my friends about issues that I think are very important to me. I’m not taking pictures of my meal and posting them. I’m using that to hopefully get through to some people.


Sam: With the exception of people that are your friends, and probably mine, the danger of social media is the ability to tailor your feed. To only stuff that you want to hear about.


Ferris: Yeah. That’s true.


Sam: It’s not challenging us at all.


Ferris: That’s true. Even in news, they’ve shown that if you’re interested in this range of politics they will tailor your news feed to that. That is dangerous.


Sam: Do you think it’s important that students on campus are challenged?


Ferris: Yes. Absolutely. Up ‘til now, we’ve been coddling our youth. Protecting them. They are going to be living in to a world that is very different than the world you and I grew up in. They need to be ready for the realities of that. Be proactive in helping to change their future. I’m sure every commencement speech has had similar words. I feel like it’s never been so true. Everyone, this is the most important decision in their life. How are they going to contribute to, get involved, in the decision making for their future. If they want to have the easy living that they had growing up? They’d better get active. We have not set them up very well for a nice, easy life. I’ve got two young kids. It really hits home for me. It’s a distraction. Knowing that they are not going to have the same opportunities that I had.


Sam: What’s your go to definition of sustainability?


Ferris: Being able to take care of your needs without sacrificing the needs of future generation. Pretty basic.


Sam: If you could have a sustainable superpower, how would you like your sustainable superpower to be described? What is it that you’re bringing to this hero action?


Ferris: Are you saying like a sustainable super hero or a … got you. Well, I’d say that person was able to, with a single blow, knock the senses into all media giants. Knock the money out of politics. Those two are to me some of the biggest hurdles. Those are the heart of the problem. The reason that we don’t make more headway is because of the money interest in power that don’t want things to change. People don’t see it because the media doesn’t give it much credence. The majority of the people don’t really see the connection. I think that if those two were addressed we could actually make some quick progress. Everything that we need to survive into the future is off the shelf right now. We’re not waiting for a magic bullet to be created. We don’t need a super hero to come and save us. It’s off the shelf technology. We just need the political will. To have the political will, those two things really need to change.


Sam: What’s the biggest success you’ve had in the last couple of years?


Ferris: I’ve seen in California, the biggest success we’ve had are some new laws that are mandating organic recycling. There are two laws that said, first of all, businesses of over a certain size and apartment buildings over a certain number of units have to start recycling. Then there was a compositing law that said if you are a business that generated a certain amount of organic waste, you have to start composting as well. There’s a third one actually said for all cities and municipalities who had been taking the green waste, you know? The green cart … Up till now, that all had been used as cover for landfills.


This sounds asinine that people would take the time to separate their garden clippings, grass, and leaves. Put them in a greet cart. A separate truck would pick all of those up. Put them all together. Then they would take them to a landfill. Instead of turning them into compost, they were being used as what we call alternative daily cover. They would be used as covering on a land fill. It would keep down smells, birds from landing and picking up trash and carrying it off into neighbourhoods. That was somehow okay. They would get credit for they diverting that green waste from a landfill, but it was being used. They said, “Well we have to cover the land fill with something every day.” Instead of tarps, they used green waste. That’s still stuff that turned into methane and leachate.


Anyways, they now have to find a way to compost all that stuff. In just a couple of years, those have been the biggest wins for me. Composting to me is one of the most elegant solutions to so many different problems that we have. It’s the quickest way to get from a stack of negatives to creating something positive in the environment. They are now going to have to create a whole bunch of jobs, and composting facilities throughout California that are really going to change the amount of Methane gas that’s being distributed. All sorts of other things.


Sam: Have you got the food waste from the food halls on campus sorted?


Ferris: Not completely. We compost 250 pounds of organic waste from our cafeteria through the digestive tract of about 40,000 worms on campus. We have compost piles that are organic learning garden. Here in our office we use worms to eat through our food waste. Now we have a green waste collection system also for all the other campus green waste that goes to be composted. Still some is making it into the garbage, but it’s relatively small now.


Sam: Your building’s got lots of clever things like the solar tubes for the lights. You don’t have the actual lights turned on. You’ve got a very, very clever heating system. Powered essentially from the heat of the CPU’s from the computers.


Ferris: Yeah.


Sam: Are you seeing those things leaking out into the rest of the campus?


Ferris: No. I’ve only been here a year. I focused most of my tours on students. Just figuring that most of the campus had experienced this building. Now I realised over the last year, that every time a new faculty or administrator or facilities person came through here, they were looking at it like it was the first time they were seeing this. I really need to focus on getting open houses happening here, so that they really realise what the potential is for their offices. Especially in terms of zero waste. What they could be doing. Yeah. There’s a lot that we could do. Although, every new building on campus is going to be LEED Gold. Which is one down from Platinum. One down from the highest rating. That’s our commitment. At least the shell of the building will be built pretty sustainably. There is how you fill it, and how much paper you use, and all of that stuff can be done better. I think I can have more influence there. Our facilities in our college has committed to building green. Every new building from here on out.


Sam: Do you consider yourself to be an activist?


Ferris: I do.


Sam: In what way?


Ferris: Well, I am not just doing my job and fulfilling my stated goals for the year. I really think that the students can be a big influence. I can be a big influence on the students and how involved they get in the politics on campus, or the politics outside of campus. I definitely have my opinions, as I stated, about campaign and finance reform, and media reform. That those are two real key areas that need to change for my job to get easier. Even though those two areas are well beyond the scope of my job. I think, well, wait a minute. Why continue to nibble around the edges of this problem when the real heart of the matter is we’re being stopped by too much money in politics. People not learning about any of these issues because of the failure of media.


Sam: You have students on campus that are right across the political spectrum.


Ferris: Sure.


Sam: How do you message it so that it’s, not down the middle, but clearly, particularly if you’re seeing sustainability as including things like social justice it veers it off to the left. How are you not disenfranchising the right from the sustainability thing you’re trying to do?


Ferris: Well, quite honestly, first of all … This is something I want to do. I have not been really been an activist and putting this into my messaging out there. Having said that, I think if I just plainly said to people there’s too much influence on our politicians by organisations. Almost, everyone will nod their head. Some people would be saying, Yes! Those unions have way too much influence on our politicians. Yes! The corporation gives the $100,000 cheque has too much influence. They both agree with my statement. My statement is still true. Then I say that those unions and corporations shouldn’t have that much influences on a politician. A politician should be freed up to make their own decisions. Vote from their heart and their minds, rather than from whose going to give me the next campaign contribution. I think that it’s possible to have a message that is a political and be true at the same time, and you will strike the chord with everyone across a political spectrum.


Sam: What motivates you? What gets you out of bed in the morning?


Ferris: I am blessed that I get to come to work. Get paid for the work I would be doing anyway. I get to have the best conversations from facilities people, to the students, to faculty. Then interviews like this. Obviously, I can talk forever on this topic. I frequently do. It gets me up everyday. I would be out there doing this for free if someone wasn’t paying me for it.


Sam: What challenges are you looking forward to in the next couple of years?


Ferris: I’m done with challenges. Okay. In terms of my job, one of the biggest challenges is transportation. Getting people on and off this campus. Doing it without a single person, in a single car. I’m really excited actually to see some new things developing. We just got the new train that came to town. That is serving all the way into Santa Monica and taking people downtown. Have never had that in the last 60 some odd years. We have just a whole new array of technology and services that have just surfaced in the last year. That are filling the gaps of what we call the first last mile. That has kept people from using an alternative form to get to campus. You know? So many people remain tethered to their automobile.


They drive it because they’re afraid. Well, what if I get to campus and I have to leave unexpectedly? My kids gets sick or I have to leave early or stay late. I just want it as a safety measure. Now we have car share parked right on campus here, so that people can rent a car. We have bike share. They can use it to go to lunch or go to another campus for a different class. Go down to the beach. Go to the bank. We’ve got new apps that tell you exactly when the bus is coming. It takes the guess work out of am I just going to waste part of my afternoon waiting for the next bus.


It’s all these little things that have popped up and are making it really easy to say, you know what? I’m just going to leave that car at home. Make it a bit of an adventure. If something comes up, which 98% of the time it doesn’t, but if it does, I got options. I can take an uber home. I can rent one of the cars if I need to. They’ve even got a car on the street that is an electric car. Doesn’t cost anything to drive for the first two hours. You can get most of your errands done in essence for free. You’re driving around in an advertising wrapped car which I have a little bit of a problem with. But, hey, that’s the only kind of advertising that I’m really supportive at this point.


Sam: If you could wave a magic wand and have a miracle occur tomorrow morning. What would it be?


Ferris: Okay. It would be to have the President say, “Every professor has to use some kind of sustainability examples in their course work.” I think that it’s easy enough to do. There’s plenty of great examples out there. Every student needs to understand that no matter what their life passion is, they can find a path to sustainability through what they’re doing. They don’t have to give up feeling good about what they do just because they love to design clothing. The days of leaving your values at home while you go to work are over. We can do both now. We need to show our students that it’s possible. That they need to just get a little bit more creative. Continue to follow their heart, but also their mind. The ethical part of their mind.


Sam: That’ll be an interesting Presidential directive. Some people would argue you couldn’t do it because of academic freedom reasons.  But you couldn’t get away with teaching in a racist way, or in sexist way.


Ferris: Right.


Sam: How can we let them get away with teaching it in an unsustainable way.


Ferris: Right. I’ve been saying the same thing. We don’t allow people to yell fire in a crowded theatre. Yet, we can allow a news channel to call itself a news channel when they have an agenda. They are omitting facts, or cherry picking facts, or manufacturing facts. You know? How do we allow one thing under our first amendment right, right to free speech, and say, oh, we can’t limit people’s speech? Yet we do. We do it for good causes. I think this is a good cause. I think we have to change our … Well. Let’s see. We have to really consider how much damage our current system creates. How we can best address it in the quickest way.


Sam: Lastly, do you have any advice for our listeners?


Ferris: My advice is always vote with your dollar. Every single dollar counts to help drive the right kind of investments, but think bigger. Don’t just think of the things that you buy at the store, but your investments. Then think even bigger than that. How is your local government spending its money? Up to the national level. Where are we putting our incentives? Is it for things that are truly beneficial to society or not?


Sam: Thank you very much.


Ferris: Thank you.


Sam: You’ve been listening to Sustainable Lens Resilience on Radio. A weekly show on sustainability topics brought to you by Otago Polytechnic. The show is co-hosted by Shane Gallagher, and me Samuel Mann. We are broadcast on Otago Access, and podcast on  On we’re building up a searchable archive of conversations with people from many different fields who are playing their skills for a sustainable future. In our conversations we try to find out what motivates them, and what it means to see a world through a sustainable perspective through their sustainable lens. Tonight’s sustainable lens was that of Ferris Kawar who is the Sustainability Project Manager at Santa Monica College. You can follow the links on Sustainable Lens to find us on Facebook, and you can listen to Sustainable Lens for iTunes and other places for free. That was Sustainable Lens. I’m Samuel Mann. I hope you enjoyed the show.




This conversation was recorded in May 2016 at Santa Monica College.