Play Green: How Big League Sports is Leading the Environmental Charge

"Don't despair, but if you must despair, work on." That's the advice I give to colleagues every now and then when the environmental news of the day seems particularly dire. Such was the case last week when I read about the rejection of a ban on the international trade of polar bear parts by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES.

Conservation failures such as this confirm the need for a cultural shift in our thinking about how we relate to the planet.

History shows us that cultural shifts originate at the grassroots and become mainstream, accepted wisdom when the dominant culture-shaping institutions embrace the need for change. This was the case with the Civil Rights movement, the fight for gender equality or, most recently, the fight for marriage equality. Our government didn't lead the way. It followed the culture.

The same is true today. Our governments are not leading the way in addressing urgent environmental threats, such as climate disruption or the risks posed to endangered species. Luckily, others are.

I'm talking about Sports.

Over the past few years the sports industry has embraced increasingly visible and influential positions supporting sustainability and environmental protection. In fact, the Commissioners of each of the most influential leagues in the United States--Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, the National Football League, Major League Soccer and the U.S. Tennis Association-- have each made public statements encouraging teams and venues in their sports to address ecological issues like climate change, energy efficiency, water conservation and waste reduction.

And that means a lot when you consider that, among all culture-shaping institutions, the world of sports, professional, collegiate and amateur, has almost unparalleled influence. Sports attract literally billions of followers all over the world. And its influence in the marketplace is global, including some of the most influential industries on Earth.

Since NRDC began its work with professional sports teams in the five major North American leagues, 38 have shifted to renewable energy for at least some of their operations and 68 have energy efficiency programs. Virtually all have developed recycling and composting programs. Meanwhile, all major sports concessionaires have developed environmentally preferable offerings. The increased demand for sustainable products - like compostable serviceware and recyclable paper products - has resulted in competitive pricing and far more waste being recycled and composted rather than sent to landfills. And many have implemented water efficiency measures as well.

That's why I was honored to bestow an environmental award from the Green Sports Alliance on MLB Commissioner Allen H. (Bud) Selig last September, for his path breaking leadership moving his influential league, and the other leagues and teams that followed, towards greater environmental responsibility.

And now this week, on March 14th, my colleagues and I at the Natural Resources Defense Council will bestow four more awards on environmental leaders in the sports industry. At our Gala Game Changer Award event, hosted by WNBA legend Lisa Leslie, and co-chaired by four league Commissioners--MLB's Bud Selig, NBA's David Stern, NHL's Gary Bettman, and MLS's Don Garber--the following leaders in the sports industry will receive environmental awards from NRDC:

  • Steve Tisch and John Mara, Co-Owners of the NY Giants, and Woody Johnson, of the NY Jets, for the green development of MetLife Stadium and their collaboration with the US EPA.
  • Peter McLoughlin, CEO of Vulcan Sports and Entertainment, owner of the Seattle Sounders, the Seattle Seahawks, and the Portland Trail Blazers, for joining with NRDC to co-found the Green Sports Alliance, and Vulcan's work at the Rose Garden Arena, the first LEED Gold-certified professional sports arena in the United States.
  • Bob Nutting, Chairman of the Board of the Pittsburgh Pirates, for implementing environmentally responsible practices and fan engagement through the Pirates "Let's Go Bucs. Let's Go Green" Program and at the Seven Springs Ski Resort, which he owns.
  • Scott Jenkins, Vice President of Ballpark Operations for the Seattle Mariners, and Chair of the Green Sports Alliance, for his leadership role as a founder of the green sports movement, influencing teams and venues in all professional leagues, and making Safeco Field the most energy-efficient of all Major League Baseball stadiums.

All of them have leveraged the unparalleled cultural and market influence of their leagues, teams, and the professional sports industry more broadly into a powerful force to promote environmental stewardship, while educating millions of fans about urgent environmental issues.

The sports industry's growing embrace of energy efficiency, renewable energy, recycling, water conservation, safer chemicals and healthier food gives me hope that our culture will indeed mobilize effectively to address our urgent ecological issues. With its unique cultural influence the sports industry is leading by example, not waiting for government to act, and demonstrating to thousands of businesses and millions of people from all walks of life how to be better environmental stewards.

And in my opinion, given the desperate need to protect planet - from polar bears and their ice floes to our own communities, playgrounds and backyards - this cultural shift being led by the sports industry is happening not a moment too soon.

Allen Hershkowitz, NRDC Senior Scientist