Sustainable Innovation in Sport: leading the line in the battle against climate change

This month's Sustainable Innovation in Sport forum in Paris offered the sports industry the chance to show how it can lead the line in the battle against climate change.

Sustainable Innovation in Sport: leading the line in the battle against climate change

While environmental representatives from across the globe were engaged in high-level discussions at COP21, Sustainable Innovation in Sport offered the sports industry the chance to show how it can lead the line in the battle against climate change. 

By Adam Nelson

“People may not inherently see the connection between sustainability and an industry like sports,” says Omar Mitchell, vice president of corporate responsibility at the National Hockey League (NHL), speaking at the Sustainable Innovation in Sport (SIS) forum at Paris’ Stade de France in early December. “The challenge for all of us here today is to make sure that people understand that if we don’t stop climate change, then we will not have sports.”

A few miles north of the Stade de France, in Paris’ Le Bourget suburb, the 21st Conference of the Parties to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP21, is well underway. There, representatives from governments across the world have come together, with the aim of reaching a legally binding and universal agreement on how to limit global warming to below two degrees Celsius by 2100, as compared to pre-industrial revolution levels.

SIS is taking place alongside this, as part of Climate Action’s Sustainable Innovation Forum. Its goals might not be quite so lofty – though as Mitchell points out, climate change affects every area of life, and the overarching theme that emerges from all of SIS’s keynote speeches and panel discussions is to make the case for sport as one of the key drivers for both industrial and public-level engagement with environmental issues. 

“In the US, only 16 per cent of citizens follow science,” says Allen Hershkowitz, president of the Green Sports Alliance (GSA), the biggest environmental association in sports, consisting of 320 teams and venues in 20 leagues across 14 countries. “But 71 per cent of people follow sports. If you want to reach a lot of people, this is right where you need to be. Many of the climate change deniers in the US attack climate scientists, but they cannot attack the commissioner of the NHL, or the NFL [National Football League], or the MLB [Major League Baseball], because these are iconic organisations that have enormous reach and fans from all across the political spectrum."

Where COP21 itself is clearly politically charged, much of the discussion at SIS focuses on how sport can drive change by transcending societal boundaries – whether political, economic, religious or otherwise.

“Sports crosses all demographics,” says Hershkowitz. “All races, all economic classes – young and old, rich and poor, black and white, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, whatever. Everyone has an interest in sports. It can work as a unifier in a way nothing else can.”

It is not only the cultural visibility of sports that makes it a crucial player in the fight against climate change, but the fact that the huge industry supporting it reaches across all sectors of business and society. 

“The operations at sports events reverberate throughout the supply chain,” says Hershkowitz. “All industries support sports either as a supplier or a sponsor in one way or another: the food industry, the textile industry, the plastics industry, the chemical industry, the energy industry – all of these industries are at sporting events as either a supplier or a sponsor. So when professional sports says, ‘We would like climate-sensitive products, we would like climate-intelligent operations,’ that is noticed throughout the chain, and it’s noticed more effectively than if Greenpeace says it. Greenpeace is viewed as being an environmental advocate, but sports is just looked at as a politically neutral operation trying to do business.

“Frankly, I think that this conversation about sports and sustainability is one of the most culturally relevant and important conversations happening at COP,” Hershkowitz adds. “Yes, businesses have come together to talk about what they’re doing and governments come together for negotiations, but really, what sector is here that is going to change cultural attitudes? That is going to really reach hundreds of billions of people and change their cultural attitudes? This sports conversation holds the potential to be one of the most culturally influential conversations at the COP.”

Allen Hershkowitz is president of the Green Sports Alliance (GSA), the biggest environmental association in sport.

Hershkowitz’s career is a testament to his belief in sport’s power. Unlike many of the other participants here – who by and large come from rights holders, sponsors or suppliers to the sports industry – he had no vested interest in the sports world previously to founding the GSA. Until 2004, he worked for the Natural Resource and Defence Council (NRDC), one of America’s largest environmental advocacy groups, but saw sports as the perfect opportunity to spread the message. 

“Moving into sports was an entirely strategic decision,” Hershkowitz explains. “The idea came to me about 11 years ago to try and use sports as a non-political platform. I live in North America where the issue of climate change is still a political football, if you’ll excuse the pun. We’re facing issues that are far too important to be torn apart by political partisanship. The question I was confronting is: ‘How do I get beyond the politics? How do I break through the political stalemate that is interfering with us addressing this issue?’”

He quotes the actor and NRDC trustee Robert Redford, who told him: “If you want to connect with Americans, you have to connect with sports.”

Hershkowitz adds: “It wasn’t because I’m a big sports fan. I felt this was the perfect strategy. The question is: ‘How do you instigate a cultural shift?’ You have to tap into trusted networks. You have to connect with people where they feel comfortable and are willing to change their minds. 

“That does not happen in political debates. But if you are in the church together talking to other members of the same church, or if you’re talking to people who like the same music, if you’re people who connect with sports, then you might be willing to listen to one another. If you go to a sporting event and see they’re using solar panels or recycling, you get a message but it’s not preachy, it’s subtle and it implies, ‘This is the way civilised operations should proceed.’”

"Most of us would be tempted to just throw our hands up and say, ‘We can’t do anything about that.’ But we can’t afford to have that thinking. We have to stand up."

The Green Sport Alliance began after the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles contacted Hershkowitz in 2004, with a view to developing their own green platform. As he was primarily working on the paper industry at the time, he first turned his attention there.

“This is the Philadelphia Eagles, and they were getting their paper from forests that were eagle habitats,” he laughs. “So their supplier was wiping out eagle habitats to supply toilet paper for the Eagles. Which we thought was a branding liability and obviously not a good thing.”

Being able to hang a climate change campaign on these kinds of media-friendly hooks is another part of sport’s appeal. The GSA’s recent ‘Mascots Forever’ campaign uses the fact that of the 50 different animals used as mascots by North American professional sports teams, 31 are from endangered species. 

“People are very loyal to their team mascots, but they generally don’t think about the ecological, biological conditions of these species in the wild,” says Hershkowitz. “The idea is to work with all the leagues to provide merchandise and education to fans about what they can do at home to protect the species.”

Similarly, the NHL is leveraging the need for a natural habitat of its own in its efforts to go green. Mitchell’s assertion that there will be no sports if without action on climate change is no mere abstraction for his game, whose grass roots, so to speak, are icy lakes: “One of the most important things about ice hockey is that a lot of our players learn to play growing up on frozen ponds,” he explains. “Therefore our sport is directly impacted by climate change and freshwater scarcity. 

“We need winter weather, and we need fresh water in order to have frozen ponds freeze. So this is very important to us and it goes down to the roots of our sport; the future of ice hockey is actually jeopardised if we don’t take action.”

To that end, the NHL has really taken up the cudgels, leading the way among American sports rights holders in developing its environmental credentials. Commissioner Gary Bettman founded NHL Green in 2010, since when the NHL has become the first major professional sports league in American to release a sustainability report, including measuring its carbon footprint.

“That was significant because we’d never done a carbon inventory before, we’d never done a carbon footprint report before,” says Mitchell. “So we had to learn how do to that, and we did it in partnership with non-profit partners like the Green Sports Alliance and the NRDC, as well as outside expert scientists who came in and discussed and validated our information.”

This led to another first for the NHL, when they became the first US sports league to sign a marketing partnership with an energy utility provider, Baltimore-based Constellation Energy.

“Constellation were a green company that wanted to show to their consumers that they were going green and they wanted to do that by partnering with the NHL,” Mitchell explains. “As part of that partnership, they offset the league’s carbon footprint, through the purchase of renewable energy certificates and carbon offsets, and they help our clubs promote energy efficiency in their buildings. Where we want to go in the next five years is see how we can advance those kinds of corporate sponsorships so it goes beyond just energy and goes into water, building materials, effective waste management – get those types of corporate partners so that we can really tell that story in an authentic and meaningful way.”

Lewis Pugh aims to raise awareness for environmental issues by swimming in areas most affected by climate change.

Lewis Pugh, patron of the oceans at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), is hoping to tell those authentic and meaningful stories by raising climate change awareness in the most extreme ways, demonstrating its effect on our waters by putting himself through them. In 2007, for instance, he became the first person to complete the 140km swim across the entire width of the Maldives, the lowest-lying country in the world and thus the most at risk from rising sea levels. 

“I did a swim in 2005 near the Arctic, just 1,000 kilometres from the North Pole,” Pugh says during his closing address at SIS. “The water then was three degrees centigrade. I went back this year, just ten years later, and the water was 7.8 degrees centigrade. Most of us would, I understand, be tempted to just throw our hands up and say, ‘We can’t do anything about that.’ But we can’t afford to have that thinking. We have to stand up. Every single person in this room, every single federation, every single sports body, every single sponsor. Together, we can make the change. But we can’t afford to not be proactive.”

Pugh’s message echoes several like-minded calls to arms at SIS, with the likes of Gretchen Bleiler, Olympic snowboarder and founder of Protect Our Winters, and Uefa’s sustainability office Neil Beecroft repeating similar ‘all in it together’ mantras, with much of the day’s discussion concerned with a younger generation of active, engaged sports fans.

Speaking to SportsPro after the final panel discussion of the day, entitled ‘Engaging Fans and Creating A Sustainability Movement’, Arab Hoballah, chief of the sustainable consumption and production branch at UNEP, expresses his scepticism toward the sports industry’s focus on ‘millennials’ and its faith in shifts in cultural attitudes being the solution to climate change. What is required, he argues, is top-down change that addresses the systemic causes of global warming, something he is unsure sport is best placed to provide. 

“It is clear that we are making progress, that good work is being done,” says Hoballah. “But how can we ensure that what sports is doing can instigate a trickle-down from the very top to the consumers? We cannot focus on engaging people to recycle, to buy responsibly sourced sneakers. This is not a solution. I have just come from China, where we are going to have in the next 20 years two to three billion additional middle-class consumers. If those consumers consume just like the middle-class Europeans and Americans, we are all going to hell. 

“I don’t want to be completely negative, but I see little hope, even though I’m still fighting for it. How can sport really lead by example, and make sure it is driving the change from top to bottom?”

“Obviously,” Hershkowitz counters, “the holy grail is to change everybody’s attitudes about the planet. There are three pillars to our work. One is to change on-the-ground operations, to make the operations of sports venues more efficient: to reduce their energy use, to reduce the water they use, to reduce the waste that they produce, to make them more efficient and lower emitters of carbon. The second component is to change the supply chain of sports, to make venues and governing bodies more conscious of where they are getting their energy, their water, where their food waste is going. And the third pillar of our work is to engage and educate fans and instigate behavioural changes.”

And whether or not sport can be the ultimate driver of global sustainability, he says, it has made a difference in the small changes it has been able to make. “Through our efforts we have reduced energy use throughout the world of sports to the extent where millions of pounds of carbon have been reduced or avoided, we have instigated hundreds of recycling programmes where millions of pounds of waste have been diverted for recycling instead of going to a landfill,” he notes. “It goes to feed the poor, and the food that can’t be redistributed becomes composted. We’ve helped instigate the procurement of safer chemicals. A lot of the janitors who work at sports venues are at risk from dangerous chemicals, so by getting sports venues to use safer chemicals we can protect them.

“We have to keep making these changes, keep doing what we’re doing,” Hershkowitz adds, “because there is no big ‘solution’ to this problem. And I believe that sport is leading the way in making that change.”

This feature appears in the upcoming February 2016 issue of SportsPro magazine. Order your copy today here.