Results from the 2020 Pitt Sustainability Literacy & Culture Survey

The Pitt Sustainability Literacy & Culture Survey was administered to assess the sustainability knowledge, practices, opinions, and preferences of Pitt students, faculty, and staff. The results of the survey are being used by the Pitt Sustainability Team to create future offerings related to sustainability opportunities and challenges. 


During Spring 2020, the Office of Sustainability administered the triennial Pitt Sustainability Literacy & Culture Survey to assess the sustainability knowledge, practices, opinions, and preferences of Pitt students, faculty, and staff at each of the five campuses. The Pitt Sustainability Team is already using results to create future offerings related to sustainability opportunities and challenges.

The survey also satisfies requirements for 2 credits in the Association for the Advancement of  Sustainability in Higher Education’s (AASHE) Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS): AC-6, Sustainability Literacy Assessment and EN-6, Assessing Sustainability Culture.  The University of Pittsburgh earned its first AASHE STARS rating in 2018 as Silver under STARS v2.1 and working to submit STARS v2.2 documentation in 2021.

The survey consisted of four distinct parts:

  • Collection of demographic information (e.g., affiliation, school, department, major, etc.)
  • Assessment of sustainability literacy via 20 multiple choice questions (each with only 1 correct answer)
  • Assessment of sustainability culture via 10 questions relating to practices, opinions, and preferences (each with no correct answer)
  • Opportunity for respondents to submit sustainability initiative or activity ideas for campus

Demographic Results

The survey was administered for three weeks, from April 6 through April 24 2020, and received 1,033 responses from all five University of Pittsburgh campuses (Pittsburgh, Bradford, Greensburg, Johnstown, and Titusville).

Demographic responses indicated that the survey assessed close to a representative sample of all five campuses. Despite the survey being administered during the COVID-19 pandemic, an almost representative sample of the main Pittsburgh campus population was achieved.  A large percentage of responses were received from staff and a representative percentage from faculty, but more undergraduate and graduate student responses were required to hit representative percentages. Responses were collected from 20 academic schools/centers, 22 operations offices, and 80 majors, as illustrated.

Sustainability Literacy Results

The sustainability literacy portion of the survey consisted of 20 multiple-choice questions, each with only one correct answer. The questions in this section assessed respondents on a variety of topics, including defining sustainability, the scope of sustainability, climate change, LEED, ecosystems, wealth, poverty, the triple bottom line, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Sustainability Literacy Questions

Overall, 92% of respondents answered half (10) or more of the questions correctly, but only 43% answered three-quarters (15) or more of the questions correctly. Figure 2 showcases the score range breakdown by the number of questions.

Response analysis indicates which questions had higher correct and incorrect responses, allowing for the conclusion that the Pitt community has a general solid understanding of what sustainability is. However, topical areas for future educational focus include:

  • The full and broad scope of topics sustainability covers
  • Climate change and its affects
  • Wealth/poverty and its impacts
  • UN Sustainable Development Goals

Sustainability Culture Results

The sustainability culture portion of the survey consisted of 10 questions, each with no correct answer. Questions queried respondents on a variety of topics, including what sustainability means to them; their opinion on Pitt’s commitment and role as a leader in sustainability; how often sustainability is incorporated into their lives; and what campus sustainability activities, organizations, and initiatives they are aware of. This section also asked respondents to select the top three most pressing sustainability issues at Pitt, academic or engagement initiatives Pitt should pursue, and how they would be willing to personally contribute to sustainability on campus. Portions of this section were asked previously in 2017, so results are comparable over time to measure change.

What Does Sustainability Mean to You?

The first question in the sustainability culture section was open ended, allowing respondents to explain what “sustainability” means to them. As seen in Figure 3, a word cloud was generated to show the most common words and phrases that appeared in answers.

Practices, Opinions, & Preferences

Overall, the majority of respondents strongly value Pitt’s commitment to sustainability, with over 81% of respondents indicating that Pitt’s commitment to sustainability is “very important” to “extremely important” to them.

A little over half of respondents (51%) agreed that Pitt is a leader in sustainability practices, relative to other universities.  This response was a notable increase from 2017, with 21% more people in 2020 choosing “agree” to “strongly agree” that Pitt is a leader in sustainability practices compared to other universities. While there is a marked increase in this percentage since 2017 (pre-Pitt Sustainability Plan),  is still much work to be done across Pitt in communicating and celebrating sustainability initiatives and accomplishments.

Accordingly, in 2020, fewer than 13% of respondents think sustainability is “rarely” or “never” incorporated into their daily lives, indicating that over 87% think sustainability is “sometimes” to “always” incorporated into their daily lives. Comparatively, in 2020, over 16% more respondents think Pitt “sometimes” to “always” incorporates sustainability into the daily lives of students, faculty, and staff (as compared to 2017).  These results are both good indicators that the sustainability initiatives on campus are noticed in the daily lives of students, faculty, and staff.

As illustrated in Figure 4, over half of respondents indicated that they are involved in recycling and/or composting; walking, biking, taking the bus and/or carpooling; using less energy; promoting diversity and inclusion; and purchasing environmentally friendly products. In addition, more than 20% of respondents are involved with sustainability through teaching, attending events on campus, and advocating for certain practices (also shown in Figure 4). However, fewer than 10% of respondents were involved in leading a sustainability project or initiative, conducting sustainability research, or employed by Pitt in a sustainability-related field, indicating ample room for engagement.

Top Pressing Issues & Initiatives

According to 2020 survey respondents, the top three most pressing sustainability issues at Pitta are provided in Figure 5.

The highest percentage of faculty indicated that “Energy use, efficiency, and conservation” was a pressing Pitt sustainability issue at Pitt; conversely, faculty were the lowest percentage in prioritizing waste diversion, recycling, and composting. Although not in the Top Three list overall, faculty and staff collectively indicated that “Equity and Access” was the third top most pressing sustainability issue for them. Undergraduate students were, by far, the largest percentage indicating reducing dependence on fossil fuels was a pressing issue. In 2017, respondents indicated that climate change/reducing greenhouse gas emissions was the third most pressing issue, but in 2020 it dropped to number four.

In the academic and engagement category, the top three sustainability-related initiatives respondents said Pitt should pursue, are provided in Figure 6. Overall, undergraduate students want sustainability integrated into student/residential life most, while faculty and staff value enabling and promoting sustainable behavior most. Faculty also value connecting research, curriculum, and practice.

Overall, the top three ways respondents were willing to contribute to campus sustainability are provided in Figure 7. Faculty, staff, and students shared the top three actions. Respondents overall were least willing to pay a premium for sustainability (i.e., for a new product or service, a mandatory fee to boost campus initiatives).


Overall, responses to the 2020 culture portion of the survey indicate several opportunities for better Pitt Sustainability communications, marketing, and integration into everyday life at Pitt. These conclusions also align with the Plan for Pitt 2025, which is currently in development.

  • Reflecting the university’s leadership in sustainability
  • Advertising university sustainability initiatives and accomplishments better
  • Incorporating sustainability into the daily lives of students, faculty, and staff
  • Educating and encouraging people to participate in sustainability activities and organizations on campus

Ideas for Sustainability Initiatives & Activities

At the end of the survey, respondents were given the ability to share initiative and activity ideas with the Pitt Sustainability team. As shown in Figure 8, all suggestions were categorized to align with an Impact Area of the Pitt Sustainability Plan and placed in a word cloud to show the most common words and phrases used in ideas and suggestions. Ideas were also further classified by Topics, with the top three topics in each top three Impact Area summarized below:

  • Materials and Waste – Recycling, Composting, Zero Waste
  • Engagement and Awareness – Education, Incentives, Communication
  • Equity and Access – Investment/Divestment, Work From Home, Housing

The Pitt Sustainability team and related advisory bodies continue to dig into these copious recommendations to further develop existing and future Pitt sustainability initiatives and activities.

2020 Results Summary

The Pitt Sustainability team continues its cross-campus work to educate students, faculty, and staff on the broad scope of sustainability, along with Pitt’s sustainability efforts, commitments, and leadership in Pittsburgh, the United States, and around the world..

Additional opportunities are also required for every member of the Pitt community to become an active contributor to the university’s growing culture of sustainability, both via adapting personal decision-making and enhancing the university’s many sustainability commitments. Additionally, the need for additional communication about sustainability events, activities, and initiatives to all campus populations is very strong, providing helping every member of our community take advantage of existing and future opportunities to incorporate sustainability into their daily lives — and especially into student/residential life.

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