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Sandra Goldmark of Barnard College: “Take the extra time to build trust in working relationships”

The most important thing a parent can do is teach by example. Show your children the importance of living sustainably by practicing what you preach. Teach them that you don’t have to throw something away just because it’s broken or outdated. Think carefully about what you buy, where it comes from, and who made it. […]

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The most important thing a parent can do is teach by example. Show your children the importance of living sustainably by practicing what you preach. Teach them that you don’t have to throw something away just because it’s broken or outdated. Think carefully about what you buy, where it comes from, and who made it. If it can’t be fixed, maybe it can be used differently. If you get a new one, does the old one still work? Can someone else use it? These are important questions to consider when you have little eyes learning from your every move.


As part of my series about companies who are helping to battle climate change, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sandra Goldmark. Sandra Goldmark is a teacher, designer, and entrepreneur. In her role as Director of Campus Sustainability and Climate Action at Barnard College of Columbia University, she is leading efforts to achieve net-zero emissions. In 2020, she published the book Fixation: How to Have Stuff without Breaking the Planet.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’m the Director of Sustainability at Barnard College. I’m also a theatrical designer, a professor, an entrepreneur, and an author, so my path has taken some interesting turns!

Here’s how I got here: About seven years ago, while I was home on maternity leave, a bunch of stuff broke in my house: the vacuum, a lamp, the toaster, my backpack — nothing special, I could have just ordered replacements, but I felt strangely stubborn. I didn’t want a new vacuum, a new backpack, a new lamp; I wanted the old ones to work. I remember calling the vacuum manufacturer and asking about repairs, and the representative told me that the nearest service center was in Hackensack, New Jersey, which is a long drive from my home in New York City. Needless to say, I was not about to drive to Hackensack with a newborn and a toddler to get my vacuum fixed.

So (perhaps a little sleep-deprived), I wrote a letter to Walmart recommending that they open a repair shop in every Walmart in the country. I felt sure that many people were, like me, frustrated with a broken system of consumption that forces us towards the cheap, the new, the shiny and makes it so ridiculously hard to simply keep the things we already have.

Long story short, it didn’t seem that Walmart would listen to me without a bit more data, so my husband and I, along with some help from our colleagues in the theatre field, launched a social enterprise pop-up repair shop. We wound up operating more than a dozen short-term shops around NYC, fixed thousands of objects, and diverted tens of thousands of pounds of stuff from landfills. More important than the statistics, however, were the stories we heard from our customers: they too were frustrated with our broken system, and hungry for an alternative.

Those stories from my repair shop customers intersected with my ongoing work as a theatrical designer and a professor at Barnard. As a theatre designer, I had been telling stories with stuff for years. I knew that objects placed onstage speak volumes — and in listening to my customers in the repair shops, I realized that the same was true for objects offstage. We speak with our stuff, and the stories we are telling are, too often, ones of waste, exploitation, meaningless consumption, and clutter. All of this turned into a book called Fixation: How to Have Stuff without Breaking the Planet, which explores these questions and charts a clear path forward to a more sustainable, equitable, and circular pattern of consumption.

My years in the repair shops also influenced my sustainability work at Barnard; I became interested not only in the stories we were telling as individuals, but also in the ones we were telling as a community and as a campus. I had taken on the role of Director of Sustainability and began to work with campus partners to reduce our emissions and incorporate climate considerations into our teaching, our operations, and our decision making. I was particularly interested in our “Scope 3” emissions: food, goods, travel, and waste. This very broad category is often undercounted, but it represents a very significant portion of any institution’s emissions — in our case as much as two-thirds. In many ways, these emissions are the ones that most directly relate to the way we live, our habits, our daily choices — our stories.

What is the mission of your company? What problems are you aiming to solve?

Barnard is a college for women in New York City with a singular relationship to Columbia University. We are a close-knit community, with an incredible faculty and a strong commitment to social justice. Barnard College joined the NYC Carbon Challenge in 2009 and, in 2013, became one of the first institutions in New York City to reach the initial goal of 30% emissions reductions from 2005 levels. In December of 2019, Barnard released a comprehensive Climate Action Vision, and committed to defining a timeline for carbon neutrality. This fall, we began working with consultants from Energy Strategies to lay out potential pathways, timelines, and order-of-magnitude costs for achieving net-zero emissions. This road map will focus on emissions reductions in Scopes 1 and 2 (largely electricity, heating, and cooling), and will also support our aggressive and innovative approach to Scope 3 emissions.

One key pillar of our strategy for Scope 3 emissions — which, again, includes food, waste, material goods, and air travel — is our “Circular Campus” framework. Barnard faculty, students, and staff have begun developing this systems-based approach to tackle emissions and waste while supporting student access to affordable supplies. Barnard was selected as the winner of the Build Back Circular competition, and will receive ideation support and technical expertise from Bloxhub, a Danish hub for sustainable urbanization, in developing this regenerative model.

One key component of our emissions reduction approach is the intersection of the Circular Campus model and our commitment to social justice. We believe that a holistic and circular approach will not only benefit the planet, but also support our students’ access to affordable supplies, our local community, and the communities around the world where our stuff is made. Emissions reduction isn’t just about greenhouse gases; it’s about rethinking the existing extractive model and building a regenerative one.

Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?

Barnard College is making it a priority to highlight the intersection of climate change and issues of race, gender, and class, both in our operational decisions and in our teaching. By offering an environmental humanities minor and a new political ecology track within the Anthropology department, along with courses like Workshop in Sustainable Development in Environmental Science and Climate Justice Observatory in Architecture, Barnard is giving our students a chance to explore the roles of race and gender when discussing climate change and developing responses to the climate crisis.

One of the first initiatives in our Circular Campus framework is to promote our new partnership with Rheaply, a reuse and exchange platform for the Barnard community. Starting with arts departments and Access Barnard, students, faculty, and staff will be able to post and exchange materials and supplies. In the long term, Rheaply can save thousands of pounds of emissions, thousands of dollars, and will facilitate access to affordable and sustainable materials for our entire campus.

This spring, the Center for Engaged Pedagogy, in partnership with the Sustainable Practices Committee, will hold four virtual workshops. These sessions are designed to support faculty in their efforts to integrate environmental issues, sustainability, and climate change into curricula while helping us come up with interdisciplinary ways to structure collaboration across departments, such as through funded, team-taught courses. These virtual sessions are open to faculty and students, and will explore a wide range of topics, including Environmental Justice, Theorizing the Environment, Design Decarbonization, and Climate Change and the Anthropocene.

Barnard faculty and students are also participating in the design process for a new climate school at Columbia University. For this initiative, members of the Barnard community will contribute to working groups and roundtable discussions aimed at developing a “school like no other” that will tackle the trans-disciplinary challenge of climate change.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

When I opened my repair shop in NYC, I discovered that people are holding on to broken things in a very interesting way; not just heirlooms or sentimental items, but humble plastic fans and greasy toaster-ovens. As human beings, we have an emotional attachment to our stuff. Just like food, our stuff is not only necessary for our survival, it’s part of who we are — as a species and as individuals. Market forces are constantly pushing us towards the newer, better ‘thing’ but what if we began to see our emotional attachment to our stuff as a valuable part of our economy? If businesses recognized our deep connection to the things we already own, and made reuse, repair, and service a core part of their business models, this would establish a healthier way to make money and grow the economy.

This is the core of the circular economy — a system where we no longer have “waste,” but where we value what we have, maintain it, and share it. This is a model where we can earn money while taking care of the stuff we already have, which would allow us to extract value from an object, in both an emotional sense and in an economic sense, more than once.

Just imagine, for example, if there was a reuse section and a service center at all the major retailers, like Walmart, Target, and Home Depot — whether online or brick and mortar. Every company that makes and sells new stuff can (and should!) shift its business model to also include maintenance or service of the products that are sold. Reuse, repair, and remanufacturing are crucial components of any credible climate solution because making new products requires an incredible amount of resources and energy. The three Rs are also a way to diversify and expand revenue streams while creating local jobs. It’s a win-win-win.

The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.

The most important thing a parent can do is teach by example. Show your children the importance of living sustainably by practicing what you preach. Teach them that you don’t have to throw something away just because it’s broken or outdated. Think carefully about what you buy, where it comes from, and who made it. If it can’t be fixed, maybe it can be used differently. If you get a new one, does the old one still work? Can someone else use it? These are important questions to consider when you have little eyes learning from your every move.

Find ways for them to be involved and engaged with their community so they see the connection between individual actions and collective action. For example, I do regular park clean-up days with my two boys. It’s a simple activity, but it’s a way to put ideas into practice in a concrete way that kids can understand.

Explain the benefits of a circular model of consumption that values more than just the latest, greatest product. Again, showing is better than telling. For my boys, we found a source for used legos (their main area of consumption). We’ve also discussed with them why we buy used instead of new, so that it’s clear to them that it is possible — and important — to find toys in a way that is more responsible.

This is a big one, but I think parents need to start helping children analyze the impacts of their actions and the motivations behind the decisions they make. What do we buy? How do we travel? How should we think about representation and policies? (Though for my kids, I might say rules or government instead of policies!) The best way to do this, of course, is use real-world examples — so take them to vote, explain why we are buying the used legos, talk about how we can’t eat red meat very often, etc. It’s more about instilling a pause — a moment of reflection to consider our impacts — than it is about instilling any one particular behavior.

Finally, children can get rather discouraged about climate change. They hear very depressing facts and figures all the time — in school, on the news, even in the cartoons and videos they watch. So it’s important to also build a sense of hope, and acknowledge that while these challenges are daunting and the future can seem scary, many of us are very blessed right now, and should be using the present moment to make things even better for everyone.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

  • Take the extra time to build trust in working relationships. It’s well worth it in the long run.
  • “It’s not ‘show friends’…It’s ‘show business’…” This is a theatre phrase reminding us that, at work, no matter how friendly people are, it’s still work, and the work comes first. We must invest in our working relationships, but we can’t lose sight of our goals.
  • Don’t worry too much. At some point I realized that life is long; there is always another show or another project, and I shouldn’t get too attached or too stressed out. I wish I’d had this insight when I was younger.
  • Have gratitude: I’m incredibly blessed, and I’m not sure I realized it early on.
  • I wish someone had taught me to actually hear and TAKE all the great advice people gave in my youth. So much good advice was wasted on my younger self!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Wow, so many people have helped me get where I am today. My husband, Michael Banta, is a Barnard colleague, a theatre collaborator, and my repair shop co-founder. He’s been a partner in everything I have done as well as a source of comfort and support. My husband also provides what we call “quality control,” from thinking through ideas, to slowing me down when I rush things, to helping with final line edits on a piece of writing. From making dinner, to figuring out a complicated bit of scenery, Michael and I have been very lucky to be able to work together, help each other, and grow together.

I also have an amazing network of friends, mostly women, two sisters, and amazing parents. I am incredibly blessed in terms of the people around me.

You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think the number one thing I hope for the world right now is that all of us, each and every one, begin to consider our fragile, shared planet in every decision we make. From the toasters we buy (and maybe repair) to the way we travel, the way we treat each other — especially those who are most vulnerable to climate impacts — and the policies we create. We don’t have any more time to waste, so we need to bridge the divide across groups, politics, and disciplines. We can no longer make decisions without considering the impact.

Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?

My background is in theatre, so when I came across this quote from playwright August Wilson I was very moved:

We can make a difference. Artists, playwrights, actors — we can be the spearhead of a movement to reignite and reunite our people’s positive energy for a political and social change that is reflective of our spiritual truths rather than economic fallacies . . . What we do now becomes history by which our grandchildren will judge us.”

Wilson was speaking about race in America, not climate change. But the injustices of race in America are deeply intertwined with the climate crisis; our history of exploitation and extraction is written both on the land and in our deeply unequal society. Wilson’s words are a call to action and a step towards empowerment. What can a theatrical set designer possibly have to say about climate change? How can one professor-turned-repair-shop-owner ever hope to make a difference? What does one small campus matter? Wilson reminds us that we can make a difference — and more importantly, that we must.

What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?

My website is https://sandragoldmark.com

You can follow me on Instagram and Twitter at @SandraGoldmark

Find me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/fixupnyc

This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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