Sustainable Living with Magnus Thorsson

Growing up in Iceland, a country whose economy has been mostly powered by renewable energy for over 40 years, Magnus Thorsson, Ph.D., '94 became interested in energy efficiency and sustainability at a very young age.

“It was part of the culture for me growing up,” said Thorsson. Surrounded by geothermal heating, hydro-powered electricity and naturally-sustainable local foods, it’s no wonder he grew up to become passionate about teaching and practicing sustainability. What is a wonder, though, is how he found his way to Providence, Rhode Island — over 2500 miles from his homeland.

A man on a cliff

THORSSON ON THE SOUTHWEST COAST OF ICELAND IN 1991.

“I came to the U.S. specifically to attend Johnson & Wales,” Thorsson revealed. While studying at a hotel and catering school in Iceland, he and his classmates were introduced to JWU by an international admissions representative. Shortly after, he packed his bags and headed to Providence to study Hotel Management. After graduating, he worked for Hilton in New York and Washington D.C. before purchasing his own hotel in Southern Vermont in 2000.

One of the first things he did as a new business owner was change all the lightbulbs to energy-efficient lightbulbs. Reducing the electric bill every month became a fun competition, and a way to measure the efficiency and sustainability of the inn.

A man and girl on a motorcycle

Magnus Thorsson and guests at his inn

TOP: THORSSON AND HIS DAUGHTER, EMMA THORSSON '23, IN FRONT OF THORSSON'S HOTEL, THE GRAY GHOST INN. BOTTOM: THORSSON WITH A GROUP OF GUESTS AT THE HOTEL.

His own home in Barrington, Rhode Island would later get entered into similar competition with neighbors for energy efficiency. After purchasing the bungalow, which was built in the 1920s, he immediately made improvements to the insulation and installed a woodstove. Then came the radiant heating in the floors, top of the line gas boilers, and an on-demand hot water heater. His house now outperforms the most efficient neighbor by a wide margin.  

But, the sustainable nature of his home isn’t confined to the indoors. Stepping out into his yard, one will find a garden full of vegetables, a composter, natural vegetation in the place of a traditional lawn, and – most notably — a large coop housing six chickens.

“Replacing the lawn with indigenous vegetation eliminates the need for watering, using gas-powered lawnmowers, and applying chemicals,” Thorsson explained. “As for the chickens, one of the best ways to recycle food waste is to turn it into delicious eggs!”


And, when he isn’t outside gathering eggs, picking vegetables or charging his electric car, Thorsson spends a lot of time hiking the local trails in Barrington with his dog. Not only does he walk the trails, but he also helps maintain them as a chair of the Barrington Trails Committee. This maintenance includes trailblazing, updating directional signage and creating interactive ways for people to learn more about the trails.

“Making the trails easier to use and providing more information that people can have easy access to is going to bring people out into nature and make them think about sustainability,” he said.

Magnus Thorsson hiking

Magnus Thorsson hiking in woods

Besides the literal trailblazing in nature, Thorsson is also blazing figurative trails at JWU.

“I returned to JWU to teach in 2011 because I wanted to come back and share my experiences and education with JWU students,” said Thorsson. With his background in hotels, teaching in the College of Hospitality Management was a great fit. He brought lessons of sustainability and energy efficiency into his strategic management and hotel operations courses. 

However, he has now recently transitioned to the College of Business to help facilitate the creation of new entrepreneurship programs that focus on climate change, sustainability and cannabis.

“Climate change has pushed us to adapt and learn new systems and new ways to manage operations,” he explained. “There was an opportunity in the College of Business to bring sustainability to the practice of management, so I am engaged right now in both working on turning some of the coursework towards corporate social responsibility and sustainability, and also developing courses and a major in climate change adaptation.”

Thorsson hopes to bring several new majors to the College of Business for 2021. In the meantime, he has enjoyed watching the university become more sustainable as a whole. “I think it's important for our students as more municipalities, states and federal governments move towards installing sustainable practices in their operations that we have the workforce trained by JWU to match those demands,” he said.

There is no doubt that Thorsson has been one of the driving forces for sustainable changes at JWU. Beyond the classroom, he has worked closely with JWU’s Energy Conservation Office and continues to be a prominent voice in the sustainability conversation.

With new programs on the way and continued progress with sustainable efforts, the future is looking very bright for both Thorsson and JWU.