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Volume 22 No. 48
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Sports can be the leader for sustainable initiative

The sports green movement holds the potential to be the most influential initiative in the history of the environmental movement,” Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, tells me in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Santa Clara.

It’s the first afternoon of the Green Sports Alliance Summit, and the longtime advocate of sustainability is in his wheelhouse, reciting facts, figures and anecdotes of how sports is taking the lead in this important movement. “If the sports industry wants it and promotes it, the world can change. Sports has led to change in race relations, inclusion and in so many areas, it will now change the world in the environmental sphere. We are seeing a culture shift in sports. There is no turning back.”

This is the theme from the fourth annual summit over three days last week. Attended by more than 600, it serves as an incubator for ideas and professional networking, all with designs on helping teams, venues and leagues enhance their environmental performance. From Hershkowitz, to Levi’s brand President James Curleigh to San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York, the message is clear: Sports can serve as a driver for environmental efficiency.

York impresses with his understanding of and commitment to the efforts, and he is thrilled to announce that Levi’s Stadium was certified for LEED Gold for new construction last week. He stresses the efforts were not cosmetic or simply green-washing, but instead rooted in business. “We are functionally green because it makes business sense,” he says. He also sounds a cautionary note to organizations that aren’t as progressive. “You’re not going to be relevant to consumers if you’re not sustainable.” One common denominator throughout is of “little wins.” York declares, “It’s not that difficult to do these efforts. Take little wins and build from that.”

Levi’s Curleigh stresses simplicity in his company’s messages to consumers, such as touting line-drying blue jeans, fewer washes and washing in cold water. But he also declares the role sports can play in changing the landscape. “The sports industry has the most powerful platform on earth to influence the future. It will be felt for generations to come.”

You can’t help but feel and appreciate the same type of passion after only a few minutes with Hershkowitz, as he encourages, implores and pushes behind a likable demeanor. Over his 26 years consulting on such issues, he’s worked with various industries, but sees sports as the group most willing to lead change in a space that can be marred by partisanship and politics. “The most responsible organizations I have dealt with when it comes to environmental efficiency are sports leagues,” he says. “They are embracing it. Walking the walk. Now, it’s a long river to row. This stuff takes years. We need environmentally intelligent behavior; sports are leading that. It’s not going to be the politicians that save us from this. It will be the sports industry, because it will change the way people view the planet.”

Omar Mitchell, the NHL’s director of sustainability, Hershkowitz and I sit at a small round table, as they walk me through the results of a four-year study that resulted in the release of the NHL Sustainability Report last week. The study offers data and details of the energy and environmental issues affecting hockey. “Major environmental challenges, such as climate change and freshwater scarcity, affect opportunities for hockey players of all ages to learn and play the game outdoors,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman says in the report.

Mitchell and Hershkowitz hope the findings can have lasting impact. “No other sports league has ever produced a sustainability report,” Hershkowitz says. “This report and others like it will serve as a wake-up call. It will move through the supply chain of hockey and its global marketplace. The biggest industries — food, auto, paper, telecom, plastics, and others — all of these industries are vendors and sponsors of the NHL. Hopefully, they will see this as an issue, and will try to address it in their businesses as well. The NHL is showing the business case that will lead the way.”

Mitchell, who has spent years visiting with NHL teams and facilities sharing best practices and ideas, says many clubs are still ambivalent about how to introduce sustainability programs. His advice, similar to York’s, was to not worry about size, but to start it and watch it grow. “Clubs are sometimes apprehensive to come out with any type of program because they are afraid they will be perceived that they aren’t doing enough, that they could be doing more. But you have to convince them that it’s a start and then build off that.” He relays example after example of teams building off initial programs. “Once it starts, it can really snowball. We are trying to stress to organizations how they can save money and grow revenue.” Hershkowitz nods, “It’s not a moral or ethical play. It can be a revenue builder. Environmental measurement is smart business.”

> WHERE IT WORKS: A discussion of team presidents confirms to me that successful sustainability efforts are directly related to organizational leadership and creating a culture of sustainability within that organization. After that, each says that fans in their respective markets are expecting some form of environmental efficiency. Trail Blazers President Chris McGowan says such advocacy runs throughout the city of Portland. “Our employees live it. We have a lot of our people who bike to work, and we have around 300 fans who bike to games. They are passionate about it, and they expect it from us,” he says.

Panelists implore the audience to think of authentic and organic efforts tied into community. Kings CEO Chris Granger notes that the organization is reaching out to Sacramento’s vibrant farming community and plans to source 90 percent of the team’s concessions at their new venue from food within 90 miles from the team’s arena. “We’re trying to showcase sustainability in the arena and in the community,” he says. “We’re looking to be authentic and really making a difference, not just checking a box.”

Panelists throughout the event suggest sustainability programs targeted to children, using a stadium as a laboratory, for example, to showcase effective gardening, water conservation or food programs.

But all admit to challenges, such as the various ways an organization can approach sustainability, and the difficulties of figuring out exactly what the focus should be. In addition, it generally comes down to spending more money. More than one executive notes the pressure to sign off on a greater upfront expenditure that is projected to pay off in the long term, all under the pressure of current budgets.

McGowan notes that more successful case studies and data points would help bolster funding and resources. 

“There needs to be more examples and data on successful programs,” he says. “At the team level, maybe some owners that are on the sidelines need a story to help them provide resources.” He also wants more internal fan data and says that the organization would start surveying fans on what type of sustainability programs they’d like to see the organization stress. “We ask them about everything else we do,” he says. “Why not ask fans more about these efforts?”

Finding like-minded, similar-valued partners will only increase efforts around environmental efficiency. There’s a strong belief system among attendees that sports can and should lead here, but there are still big pockets of inertia and resistance. 

Curleigh takes the stage citing The Beatles’ “Revolution.” The people who filled these halls may not be looking for a revolution, but they are clearly doing what they can. It was impressive to see the progress so far.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at