SBJ/August 7-13, 2017/Opinion

Essentials of sustainability in sports: Protecting biodiversity

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The social causes adopted by a sports organization provide a window into its institutional soul. When it comes to the environment, three main drivers motivate leagues and teams to adopt sustainability as a cause: 1. Financial gain; 2. Brand enhancement, and 3. An authentic desire to promote ecological healing.

Financially, sustainability programs in sports are proven winners. Cutting costs and increasing revenue — by operating venues more efficiently, enhancing measurement, and broadening sponsor opportunities — have been the most forceful drivers of the sports sustainability movement. Sustainability initiatives have collectively reduced operating costs by tens of millions of dollars across hundreds of sports venues throughout the world.

As for brand enhancement, how can you go wrong supporting a policy that the pope has made one of his top priorities? Sustainability programs enhance brand morale with fans, staff, sponsors, and host communities, confirming opinion polls that consistently show consumer support for environmentally responsible companies. A survey performed a number of years ago by Turnkey found that 81 percent of sports fans express concern about the environment and 58 percent expect teams and leagues to be environmentally responsible. And according to a consumer trends survey published by Sustainable Brands, “Near-universal in their demands for companies to act responsibly, nine in 10 consumers expect companies to do more than make a profit, but also operate responsibly to address social and environmental issues … 84 percent of consumers globally say they seek out responsible products whenever possible.”

It is widely known that branding and marketing a sustainability program requires ecologically meaningful content in order to authentically satisfy fan expectations. A sustainability program is judged by the issues it addresses and how effectively it does so. To avoid charges of greenwashing, sustainability programs need to provide authentic biological value. As I wrote in my previous column, sustainability programs should include tangible efforts to minimize climate change and biodiversity impacts. Our current political situation, combined with worsening biological realities, makes it essential that all sports organizations commit to addressing climate change and biodiversity loss, the two greatest ecological threats to ever confront humanity. Deferring work on these worsening issues is no longer a responsible option.

The 2015 Men’s Final Four floor in Indianapolis was sourced from FSC-certified forests.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES


Our planet is in the midst of the “sixth extinction.” This is not something a sustainability program can ignore. Earth has experienced five major extinctions since life first appeared almost 4 billion years ago. Unlike previous mass extinctions, the sixth extinction, the extinction event now taking place during the present Holocene epoch, is caused overwhelmingly by human activity. The current extinction rate is between 100 and 1,000 times greater than what it was before 1800. It is affecting diverse families of plants and animals, including mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and arthropods. Among all causes of terrestrial species extinction, it is the mismanagement of forests that is arguably the most consequential: Forests are home to around 90 percent of the world’s land-based animals, plants, insects and birds. Forests are essential to all forms of life on Earth, contribute to the food security of hundred of millions of people, and absorb and store billion of tons of carbon dioxide each year.

The good news is that it is easy to help protect forest-based biodiversity. How? By assuring that the forest-based products one buys — paper products, cardboard, and solid wood — are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

According to Debbie Hammel, director of the Land Markets Initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council: “Buyers of wood products should look for the Forest Stewardship Council label when making their procurement decisions. FSC certification is the most rigorous standard available in the marketplace, ensuring that critical forest ecosystem values — and the workers and communities that depend upon them — are protected. There are a lot of ‘pretenders’ in the world of certification standards, and buyers should beware, as none of them measure up to FSC’s credible requirements for performance, auditing and verification.”

Through FSC certification, companies are making a commitment to acquire and sell wood-based products that come from sources that are environmentally responsible, socially beneficial, and economically viable. FSC certification also advances core elements of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals agreed to by 193 countries in 2015 and supported by sports organizations internationally.

Media guides, game-day programs, yearbooks, concession napkins, toilet paper, paper towels — all of these paper products are purchased by sports organizations. Is your home team supporting deforestation or other inferior forest management practices? Shouldn’t you know?

Prioritizing the purchase of FSC certified wood is already an institutional priority for many sports organizations. For example, all products acquired by the organizing committee of the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games were FSC certified, from structures to stationery; London’s Olympic Park was FSC certified; UEFA’s official Euro 2016 tournament tickets were made of FSC-certified paper; and the 2015 NCAA Men’s Final Four flooring was sourced from FSC-certified forests.

If protecting life on Earth is the goal of sustainability programs, as it must be, then better management of forests is essential. Giving priority to paper and wood products with the FSC label helps provide market support for forests managed in an ecologically better way.

Allen Hershkowitz is a founding director of Sport and Sustainability International.

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