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Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016 Person of the Year: sustainable brands

Notable about their advocacy is the focus on the third and most often under-developed muscle of sustainability: social justice.

By Dave Newport, LEED AP

Greenwash. I can feel the glare of greenwash growling at me when I even write the words “sustainable brands.”

I’m flashing back to 2004. The 23 year old Sierra Club president-wunderkind Adam Werbach was being torched by criticisms he was a greenwashing, hypocritical sell out after he abdicated his office, told environmentalists their movement was dead, and went to work for Walmart building their sustainability practice.

So, declaring “sustainable brands” my 2016 Person of the Year will hopefully not require me to hire his bodyguards so I can go out in public. Yes, that really happened to Werbach after numerous death threats.

Death threats? Greenies aren’t peaceniks?

In hindsight, maybe Werbach and, before him respected enviro-author, Paul Hawken were onto something that is now showing signs of happening.

“Business is the only mechanism powerful enough to produce the changes necessary to reverse global environmental and social degradation,” Hawken wrote in 1992.

Indeed, Hawken’s now famous 1993 classic, “The Ecology of Commerce,” offered that hypothesis--and detailed how business must evolve these attributes or perish, along with all of us.

Hawkens and Werbach envisoned and pushed for the evolution of “sustainable brands,” big businesses that embrace sustainability principles and practices. Is that vision playing out? Are sustainable brands coming of age in 2016?

My sense of 2016 is a good number of big businesses became some of most positively influential forces on the planet—and are beginning to deliver Hawken’s vision of sustainable brands.

For proof, we need look no further than North Carolina. North Carolina?

Welcome to a world where everything is opposite.

“Just look at us. Everything is backwards, everything is upside down. Doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, psychiatrists destroy minds, scientists destroy truth, major media destroys information, religions destroy spirituality and governments destroy freedom.”
― Michael Ellner, author, Hope is Realisitic
Consider North Carolina’s anti-gay legislation HB2. In addition to the usual suspects, who opposed that bill? Not just in words, but in actions?

Businesses, lots of them. In addition to lobbying against the bill and writing in the press against discrimination, many businesses burst forward to protest and/or repeal the bill.

Big businesses left North Carolina. Others that were planning to build there went elsewhere.  It is among the most compelling stories of business advocacy for human rights I can remember. And it will be effective at forcing change upon a belligerent state legislature and a now defrocked governor, sooner or later. However, the damage to North Carolina’s brand will not heal for years.

Big time sports biz showed up large too. Obviously, the NBA and NCAA are big businesses. Both organizations pulled major events out of NC. Numerous coaching legends and heavyweight sports heroes sounded off in opposition to discrimination, including NC’s own NASCAR. The awesome power of sport, the world’s biggest platform for change, teamed up with business in support of Hawken’s vision.

It’s an incredible moment that would have been even more notable were it not against the backdrop of the ugliest political year ever.

Notable about their advocacy is its focus on the third and most often under-developed muscle of sustainability: social justice. If you’ve read me before, you get the short shrift sustainability often gives to the most important sustainability element: people. But not this time. Not in North Carolina. Business is bodying up for people.

It’s not just social do-gooder stuff either. Over 300 companies—including many Fortune 500s-- have implored the Trump White House to stand pat on the Paris Agreement that took effect in 2016. Scores of big names, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, etc. are hooking up to 100% renewable energy and will be all green by 2020 or sooner. Bill Gates, along with big philanthropy, is putting a billion business bucks into clean energy R&D as a hedge against potential federal cuts in climate action funding.

Santa’s list of who’s been nice is getting longer.

But surely it’s greenwash. It’s all fake, right? They are just doing it to make a buck?  These companies are dirty, right? I mean, look at some of the brands. They have major problems...


“The cold hard truth is that businesses will invariably want to explore any potential commercial benefit of more ethical operations, looking at opportunities to “sell” sustainability either by charging a slight premium (“renewable only” energy tariffs) or by outcompeting a rival (two bars of chocolate at the same price, but one is Fairtrade). But ultimately, it boils down to whether operating sustainably pays.”
-Anonymous confessions of a Corporate Social Responsibility Director

Greenwash has a storied and chilling history in the oft shabby annals of corporate history. Decades of deceit and misdirection don’t quickly give way to fuzzy feelings of “it’s all good”.  Just as North Carolina will now long be remembered for its “state-sponsored discrimination,” a history of cynical, self-serving corporate greenwash has—and should—temper people's palates so that our first taste of new corporate wine should always be skeptically spat out.

Corporate Social Responsibility has long been seen as another incarnation of corporate “sound wash” meant to portray do-gooder intent from the top of Big Business’ gleaming skyscrapers--while they do bad elsewhere. AKA, better greenwash. Is NC activism just reputation risk-management and HR recruiting plays for these big brands? Is their Paris Agreement activism just conceding that the vast majority of nations are working on climate action—and they are a big market for brands? Are brands hooking up to renewables just because they are now cheaper?

Well, that doesn’t hurt.

I can easily concede that CSR is about brand reputation. Fair enough. And that’s the good news. Because who defines brand reputation? We do. All of us. So, if big brands are worried we will think less of them—and spend less with them—they are recognizing the power of people. Yes, we can be conned—but not forever. There’s a long list of brands that tanked because their reputation went bad. Indeed, while we’re in NC, do you remember what happened to tobacco giant Phillip Morris?

HB2 was so counter to emerging societal norms that it forced the hand of many brands. And they responded, showed up, and have made an enormous impact. In a year full of reversals, those brands told their normally influential GOP conservative business leader friends: “no.” In public. Vocally.

And in force.

Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray): “This city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions…Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling! Forty years of darkness!...Earthquakes, volcanoes......The dead rising from the grave!...Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!”

So what defines a “sustainable brand” anyway?

For starters, there is a big expensive conference about all this called, you guessed it, “Sustainable Brands.”

Confession, I attend this event and have blogged about it before. As I wrote, there’s no shortage of sound wash there—but most content is high quality, valuable and creative, IMHO.

Anyway, SB contends that these brands are a “global community of business innovators who are shaping the future of commerce worldwide... [and] our goal has been to inspire, engage and equip today's business and brand leaders to prosper for the near and long term by leading the way to a sustainably abundant future.”

So much for definitions. Here are some important characteristics of a sustainable brand, in the world according to Dave, the more of these fit an enterprise, the better:

  • Robust carbon emissions reporting across their value chain (e.g. CDP, GRI reporting)
  • Progressive employment practices (e.g. diversity and inclusion, fair wages, etc)
  • No association with known bad actors, (e.g. ALEC, Right wing NGOs, Qatar, etc)
  • Elimination of waste and polluting practices (e.g. zero waste, zero emissions, etc)
  • Employee owned, B Corporations, democratic decision making, (e.g. New Belgium Brewing, et al)
  • Social justice and enviro advocacy built into the business model (e.g. Patagonia)
  • A sincere and positive purpose for the enterprise that’s not spin (e.g. Justin’s Nut & Butter)
  • Strong, implemented and checked supply chain standards, especially regarding human rights.

Probably none of the brands that showed up in NC meet all these tests perfectly. Some more than others. And none of them have a perfect past—or present. Certainly, somebody is polluting or conning somebody somewhere. Some of them have their own very significant ethical issues going on as we speak (you know who they are). Granted. Few of them were “born good.” They may aspire to noble purpose--but they are mired in a business purpose that is something short of “save the planet.”

So, should we recognize them, do business with them, take their money, praise them? Or eschew them because many have a checkered past—or present?

When faced with this “green purity” test by ardent enviros I ask: “who do you want to change? The hippies or the dirties?” Indeed, if you have to be perfect for us lofty greenies to agree to work with you and appreciate you when you do good, how long is that list?

So short.

The envelope please

Notwithstanding the fair concerns of greenwash, motives and actions, the brands that showed up on HB2 showed up. They made a difference—big time. And they made it in the most impactful yet underserved aspect of sustainability: social justice.

So, for the purposes of this award, if a company is listed here as part of the HB2 resistance, they are, by the power vested in me unanimously by a committee of one, accorded the title of The Department of Changed 2016 Person of the Year, and shall be shown all the rights, privileges, and benefits befitting such title, whatever those are, at least by me.

I sincerely thank you for all you have done—and look forward to seeing more good work in 2017.

Happy New Year!


Sunday, November 20, 2016

Sustainability and The Art of War

“On dispersive ground, fight not. On facile ground, halt not. On contentious ground, attack not. On open ground, do not try to block the enemy’s way. On the ground of intersecting highways, join hands with your allies. On serious ground, gather in plunder. In difficult ground, keep steadily on the march. On hemmed-in ground, resort to stratagem. On desperate ground, fight.”
-       “The Art of War”, Sun Tzu. 544 BC

By Dave Newport, LEED AP

This is one of the very rare occasions when it’s good to be old, a well-used punching bag, or an old Timex watch (takes a licking and keeps on ticking).

Or a paratrooper.

“We’re paratroopers; we’re supposed to be surrounded,” said Major Richard Winters during the US Army’s historic defense of Bastogne, France in WWII.

Or a sustainabilista.

I survived watching solar panels being uninstalled from the White House by Ronald Reagan, the EPA and Clean Water Act being dismantled, and Reagan’s EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch telling enviros they were “nothingburgers.”  She later had to resign EPA in disgrace after multiple scandals. 

But President Reagan looks better every day.

I survived Jeb Bush becoming my governor and remodeling Florida higher education literally on the back of a cocktail napkin and gutting affirmative action in a failed attempt to create “One Florida.” But after he installed a Board of Regents trained by Lynne Cheney’s right wing American Council of Trustees and Alumni they left sustainability alone because it made economic sense. 

Jeb Bush is looking better every day.

I survived being told by my chancellor that our proposed zero-waste goal was “duplicitous” and that he opposed carbon neutrality as “unattainable.” He’s an ardent advocate of both now—and president of a university that is a STARS Gold sustainability leader.

And then this happened

No doubt the Trumping Of America presents a clear and present danger to many of the things sustainability stands for and aspires to. We are all heartsick over the current and future impacts being felt by people of color and all under represented folk. The violence and hatred on campus and in our communities is sickening. I have told several of our now terrified students of color that I have their back. FEELS SO INADEQUATE. I am trembling with anger over what they are facing, and what they will face. And Earth itself is giving strong signals that we are entering a red zone as the planet moves to fry the infection (us) in less time than Stephen Hawking’s predicted 1,000-year Hospice for Humanity.

There’s no “but” coming here. This is among the darkest of times I’ve ever seen. And I suspect it will get worse before it gets better.

So when in the darkness, turn to history for light.

Sun Tzu’s guidance above is among many wise lessons his "Art of War" has taught leaders of all stripe over the centuries. But today’s battlefield is complex and not well understood.

For instance, I know—we all know—good and intelligent people that are neither racist nor deny climate change but voted for Trump or de facto equivalent. And we are all, left and right, looking within our own souls, talking to our friends, family, and scanning the horizon for signs of the correct path forward.

Yet the outward indicators of which battlefield we’re on, how to respond, and even who we are struggling with present complicated, conflicting, and contentious signals.

How did the same people who voted for Barack Obama twice and still give him high approval ratings install Donald Trump and his kind? Did sustainability and other liberal causes contribute to Leftie overreach? Are we truly the elitists the Right condemns? Did we learn everything we think we know from our insular Facebook echo chambers and so eschew substantive dialogue?

We have met the enemy, and he is us?

Among the most troubling question for me: what does sustainability have in common with Donald Trump’s supporters? Answer: both factions are overwhelmingly white.

So we have to ask ourselves if sustainability’s much criticized white-centricity is a fatal flaw in our doctrine, one we have not significantly addressed, and is among the causative maladies contributing to where we stand today?

Yes, there are "bad guys" and bad motives on "the other side" too--and I am angry about that and fight back the urge to punch someone's lights out every day. But a clearer head tells me to focus on what I can change. And there are plenty of faux pas on "my team" too.

Personally, I gave myself 48 hours post-election to grieve and be angry (still working on that), through the holidays for soul searching (this blog is at least helping me…), but I started inventorying tools in the toolbox right away. 

As an old friend always said, “every morning people wake up looking for breakfast.” Get back to work.

And this is where sustainabilistas’ history of being able to take a punch pays off. We’ve been struggling uphill since the beginning and have the scars and survivor skills to prove it. 

Putting them to work is key.

Surveying the carnage

First, sustainabilistas' lack of diversity combined with the increased threats facing underrepresented people place us firmly on Sun Tzu’s “ground of intersecting highways, [so] join hands with your allies.”

For instance, a few years ago we transformed our Energy & Climate program into the Energy & Climate Justice program and hired an incredible leader who is steeped and skilled in that sphere. First up was an Eco-Social Leadership training that drew white students together with students of color to look at Van Jones et al leadership and historical perspectives. We got a big response.

Of the many positive results are improved mutual respect and understanding across cultural perspectives—and more students of color working with us—and more white students working in cultural communities. The white students remark, “I didn’t realize how much the black students knew about environmental problems.” The black and Hispanic students remark they “didn’t appreciate how much the white kids knew about social justice.”  


Also left standing on the battlefield is the nation’s biggest and most diverse demographic group: Millennials.  Add to them Gen-Zs, also still standing. Together, they are our undergrad and grad student base.

And their vote was overwhelmingly blue. We already know their values and vision are defined by positive purpose, rejection of business as usual, concern for and action on climate change, and personal integrity. We survey our incoming freshman every year and are finding ~90% are concerned about their carbon footprint and that of the universities—and want to do something about both.

These are higher education’s customers for the foreseeable future. And as a nation, we grow more diverse every day. More “intersecting highways.”

Structurally there are many positive systems that have survived and may even prosper going forward. Clean energy systems aren’t going away; there are too many market forces driving down the cost of renewables so that they are even cheaper than fossil fuels in many places. Too many state mandates that the Feds can’t change. And frankly too much consumer demand—even in Florida where Trump won the presidential vote those same voters rejected a sneaky anti-renewable energy amendment the fossil pushers were trying to slide into law. 

Word: many Trumpers are not climate deniers or racists. Deal with it.

Tools in the toolbox

AASHE is working on a summary of largely business case arguments that we have probably all used over the years--and need to refresh anew. Even in the best of times, failure to cover the business aspects of any sustainability pitch quickly—and correctly—will doom it to the dustbin. The good news is most sustainabilistas are practiced at drawing out how:
  • Sustainability improves organizational efficiency, decreases operational costs, and reduces risk.
    • The staple of resource conservation’s business arguments: cost savings, reduced maintenance, and increasing focus on resiliency. All are solid and largely credible arguments campus administrators respond to well.
  • Sustainability catalyzes increased giving and new funding sources.
    • Campus advancement, research and even athletics are seeing new money and donor/sponsor intent in this quickly growing development arena. Indeed, if donor intent matches the huge spike in enviro group memberships post-election, this is a major emphasis going forward.
  • Sustainability helps attract, retain, and motivate top students and employees.
    • The Princeton Review has for several years surveyed prospective freshman and found about 2/3 make college choice, in part, based on their sense of campus green.
  • Sustainability strengthens community relations and facilitates new partnerships.
    • Every campus is mindful of its town-gown relations and the need to leverage efforts across community groups. Sustainability is a big focus of most US local governments. Community groups love partnering with campus folks. Go get 'em.
  • Sustainability education including exposure to diverse voices and people prepares students for career success and responsible citizenship.
    • Campuses get the double benefit of engaging students where they want to learn—sustainability—and fostering better cross-cultural relations through a diverse sustainability conversation that gives voice to perspectives from diverse backgrounds so everybody learns more. Likewise, those students are more successful navigating increasingly diverse workplaces--and global markets-- when they move into their careers. This is the place where sustainabilistas need to double down: we have got to bridge our diversity and inclusion gap or risk irrelevance, period.
  • Sustainability research and education demonstrates relevance in addressing grand challenges and helps unify the campus around a shared sense of purpose.
    • Back to the Millennials and Gen Zs: They are shopping for purpose, relevance, and a way forward in a world beset with life threatening challenges. Universities that don’t respond to their customers will decline. Smart campus leaders get all this—and are looking at how to respond to the new political climate without getting run over. Delivering relevant content to your customer is always a good idea.

“In the midst of chaos, there is opportunity.”

One thing campuses are not good at, in my experience, is moving forward in times of uncertainty. Risk aversion can be a good thing generally, but campuses take that to an extreme. In these very uncertain and damn scary times, sustainabilistas must present solid facts and compelling vision. Our nation is looking for direction. The structural constants are solid. The need is great. Our customers are aligned. The structures are in place. If we present as weak and troubled, we will be.

“Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”

We’ve all heard this Sun Tzu quote a million times. But we continue to hunker down on Facebook and scorn those with whom we disagree anyway. If there is good news from this election, it is we are talking with those we disagree with more than ever. Both sides are talking. The media is helping facilitate that convo in more effective ways. They better. They are taking fire from all sides.

“In difficult ground, keep steadily on the march.”

And here we are on very, very difficult ground. If we surrender, it’s over. If we freeze we’ll be frozen. If we go back, we can’t. There is only one way to go: forward. It may be a terrible slog. Bad things are going to happen to good people. We will have to fight off bad things, bad attitudes and crippling despondence—or worse—along the way. But "we will never surrender," Winston Churchill reminds us.

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

If we hate those who are hateful, we become haters. I fail that test regularly and catch myself doing it. Gotta stop. An old political colleague of mine with whom I have survived many battles always asked those with whom we were struggling to explain their positions simply so he could understand them. In so doing he signaled humility and respect. He was very good at extracting their core perspectives. He never hated opponents, he sought to understand them. Then he was better at being understood. Stephan Covey framed it, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

We are right where we are supposed to be

Sustainabilistas are paratroopers too. We floated down into the middle of campuses 10-15 years ago to take on the status quo. We’ve been surrounded ever since; we signed up to be. A few of us have broken through the lines in some places, but we are trying to create change in the institution of higher education that does not change well. We have used the tools we created or found to get this far. Now we need to create new tools and find new allies.

This election delivered both.

It’s really shitty now for our underrepresented brothers and sisters. Terrifying and awful. We must stand with them, reach out to new friends, forge new tools, and use the proven ones we have. The Entire Question is in the balance.

It's been in the balance before. Sadly, I'm old enough to have survived that too. I remember how distraught this nation was when the Soviet Union passed us in the Space Race, we danced with death in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the specter of nuclear war sent me as a grade schooler into the school basement rehearsing for the nuclear attack I grew up expecting. 

Then President Kennedy backed Russia off of Cuba and launched the US quest to "put a man on the moon, and return him safely to Earth." The nation was energized. JFK challenged us: "we choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

Turns out it was damn hard, but we did it. 

And even a year after JFK died, Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act after years of civil rights struggle.

We will rise again. New leaders are already emerging.

“Opportunities multiply as they are seized.”

Twenty five centuries later, Sun Tzu's wisdom continues to shine a very bright light on the most permanent truth from The Art of War: Peace is better.

Indeed, you are welcome in my house anytime, no matter who you voted for. You can find me here:

Peace be with you.


 - Unless otherwise noted, all quotes from Sun Tzu.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The problem with sports and sustainability

 Sustainabilistas have a solution

By Dave Newport, LEED AP

The late historian and mythologist Joseph Campbell often told of the State Patrol officer that came upon a wreck on a high mountain road where a car was teetering off a cliff, an injured man still inside.

As the vehicle slides over the precipice, the officer pulls the man out and the car plunges into the abyss.

When asked later why he risked his life for a stranger, the heroic officer immediately replied, “because I couldn’t live the rest of my life if I didn’t try.”

He’s not alone; zillions of cops perform countless acts of heroism and kindness every day. Sadly, there’s plenty to dislike about some cops too. No hyperlink needed here; you know who they are.

Big time sports can be just as brutal as bad cops.

Just ask the slaves in Qatar now being forced to build the next FIFA World Cup facilities. Indeed, sports and sports governance can be violent, corrupt, abusive, hyper-consumptive, and just plain stupid.

But there also is no denying the countless sports moments that bring joy to billions of people and inspire our better nature; sport is a place where ordinary and not so ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things. Do you believe in miracles? Attend a Special Olympics.

And there certainly is no denying sport provides a sometimes red hot spotlight that catalyzes major social change. 

Think about the many epic cultural moments and the legacies of sports figures like Jackie Robinson, Billy Jean King, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith (and Peter Norman), Jason Collins, Magic Johnson, Jim Valvano, the entire Missouri football team, the entire South African Rugby team and Nelson Mandela, Rick Welts, Abby Wambach, Ed O’Bannon, and Kaitlyn Jenner, to name just a few.

Add in a couple of NHL stars who are leading hockey’s reformation around sustainability, Andrew Ference and Mike Richter, and a new dawn of sustainability seeks to enhance the impact of sports on the world so as to minimize its darkness and brighten its light.

Sure, there is a lot to dislike about big time sports. But there’s a lot to love too.

So as Joseph Campbell counseled, “find a place inside where there's joy, and the joy will burn out the pain.”

But there’s a problem.

Turn on the lights

There is no bigger stage on the planet than sports. None. Not politics, the arts, science, medicine or even Donald Trump.

Consider that 3.2 billion people —nearly half the planet’s population at the time—watched the last World Cup soccer tournament at some point; one billion tuned in just for the final game.

Even more—over half the planet--watched the Beijing Olympics, 4.4 billion; the largest population to ever watch anything in the history of mankind.

In both cases, what people saw was sports. In both cases, the games featured major sustainability stories—and not even a fraction of the viewers knew about them.

In Brazil, the World Cup tried but failed to reach the sustainability goals within its grasp.

On the other hand, the Beijing Olympics broke many sustainability barriers, despite the challenging air pollution problems faced there. In the game's’ aftermath,  China has started to phase out all coal-fired power plants nationwide.

Likewise, in the US, a paltry 112-million watched Super Bowl 50 (go Broncos!). And outside the readership of this blog (way paltry) few know about the major sustainability achievements the NFL implemented at SB50. Was SB50 perfectly sustainable? Not even close, but it’s a start.

Not a day goes by without a stupid, tragic, or dumb sports story in the press. And yet, sports has failed to highlight its positive sustainability efforts. Big, hunky, muscled-up NFL studs will get all decked out in pink and run around giving each other concussions on a football field in the name of cancer research. 

But can ESPN, for instance, even run one feature on the fantastic sustainability systems they run for College Gamedays, the football bowl games, the X-Games, and the Espys?

Sadly, the sports leagues and TV networks tell us there is precious few seconds available during a TV broadcast for sustainability info-stories about the games. Believe it or not, they say margins are tight, even the sports juggernaut ESPN is struggling financially, and so all the TV spot inventory is sold to paying customers.

So while great work is being done to green the games, the unrivalved platform of sports is not being used to influence fans to be more sustainable in the own lives.

That’s the problem. But sustainabilistas have a solution.

Branding science through sports

A very telling poll reaffirms what we all probably know intuitively. We are a nation of sports-crazed people. Or maybe just crazed…

Source: According to a 2011 Marist Poll, 61% of Americans describe themselves as sports fans (, while a 2008 National Science Foundation report states that only 13% of Americans say they follow science (
Either way, as seen in the graphic, we follow sports, but not so much science. While it’s easy to say this is sad, it’s also an opportunity. Hitch our sustainability story to sports, just add water, and presto: societal change.

Sustainabilistas can hook the story to a platform even more durable than TV: sports fans. Building on fans’ brand affinity for their favorite college sports teams, sustainability leadership in the stadium is sparking take-home sustainability behaviors among fans. In fact, believe it or not, sports fans are hungry for sustainability, research shows.

Moreover, savvy sponsors have figured out that sustainability helps bundle sponsors’ wares for fans at home, work and play. Instead of asking fans to buy something at the game, sustainability firms are partnering with college sports brands to influence fans to adopt sustainability behaviors the other 365 days of the year.

This “fan engagement for sustainability” platform makes so much sense corporate giants like BASF, Pepsi, Eco-Products, and Wells Fargo Bank are signing on to sports marketing efforts designed to promote sustainability behaviors—not consumerism—and they are making money doing it.

BASF—the world’s largest producer of bio-polymers used in compost bags etc—promotes “Sustainable Gameday” composting in stadiums and communities so more fans will compost at home. They do it by supporting college sports brands with strong in-game compost programs and leveraging fans’ brand affinity to influence them to compost at home.

Pepsi supports in-game recycling programs that connect the dots between plastic bottle recycling and the manufacture of clothing made from recycled plastic. The “Bring Your Bottle Back to Life” campaign distributes logo apparel made from RPET every time a team scores a touchdown or drains a “3” in basketball. Patagonia is touting the same process. They are trying to incent fans to increase the woeful recycling rate of plastic bottles.

And the “Water for the West” campaign supported by Wells Fargo highlights water efficiency efforts in stadia and on campus—and then rewards fans for reducing water use at home. Again, fans are prompted to align with the college sport brand’s culture of conservation as a part of fandom.

This approach works even on those fans who are not inclined towards sustainability behaviors. In a study last fall of fans tailgating at our football games, some interesting data popped up. Among fans who think our campus sustainability efforts are “not very important,” over 71% recycled their tailgating materials anyway—more so even than fans who supported campus sustainability efforts!

Several similar data points in the study reaffirmed that finding. And the comments from those fans were telling: “Well, I don’t recycle at home much but here it is what you do” was a typical remark from the tailgaters. In other words, our brand’s recycling culture influenced their behavior.

The fan engagement for sustainability approach has a very simple methodology that aligns with the “Community Based Social Marketing” approach used by most sustainabilistas. It works like this:
  • Sports brand models sustainability in its operations.
  • Sports brand educates fans about its sustainability efforts.
  • Sports brand asks fans to adopt personal sustainability behaviors in order to be “on” the team.
  • Sports brand prompts fans’ sustainability behaviors by collecting/rewarding tracking-data or other communications.
  • Sports brand partners with local organizations (e.g. city, county, schools) that have allied interests to leverage, reinforce, and mainstream the messaging, prompts and incentives.

Bottom line, this approach socially norms sustainability behaviors as part of fandom. This is a more durable and potentially just as far reaching sports sustainability outreach platform as running a few PSAs on the telly during a game. And sustainabilistas are uniquely equipped and skilled at making this work.

Just add water.

The green playbook

One of the biggest paybacks to a college sports sustainability effort is the positive effect on all campus sustainability efforts. By becoming visible and integrated in college sports, we saw the perceived legitimacy and obvious impacts of all our other sustainability efforts flourish in the eyes of campus and community stakeholders who previously may have regarded us as cute little green hippies.

In short, campus sustainability becomes visibly mainstream through college sports.

When I sat at a trustees meeting and listened as my Provost read aloud letters written by industry big wigs/alumni who loved the sustainability efforts they saw in our stadiums and were therefore in support of a proposed new sustainability degree program, I knew we had arrived on “the front porch of the campus.” The trustees then unanimously approved a program they had previously been skeptical of.

So here’s a quick checklist for sustainabilistas and/or athletics folks who want to go green:
  • Memorize this entire blog and all its linked information. OK, maybe not.
  • If you’re a sustainabilista and hate big time sports, you have good reason, but get over it. You’re not going to woo new confederates from Athletics wearing a big ‘tude on your jersey. Instead, pick some athlete/team you can like and learn lots about them so you can at least make informed small talk. You need this skill!
  • Learn all about how your campus sells its “multimedia rights” in sports. These are the folks that handle marketing and sales inside the stadiums—and they are crucial to your success. Many campuses outsource these sales to for-profits like Learfield Sports and IMG College, the two biggest. Go talk to your campus folks that do this work. Look at other campuses that are selling sports sustainability sponsorships—and try to partner with your guys to help them sell too. They need your expertise on sustainability. Create a team.
  • Reach out to your Athletics folks than run the stadiums. They are really busy—offer to help them with horsepower (volunteers/students) to implement or upgrade existing recycling and related programs. Make them your best friends. Talk to them about how this makes money for athletics. Don’t be skeptical of their “we got no money” claims. It’s true. College athletics departments are very tight operations—yes, I know the coaches and ADs are paid too much. Get over it. The facilities guys don’t control that and they have to run operations for 20-30 varsity sports when only 1-2 make money. They work really hard. Give them a break.
  • Help AASHE and the Green Sports Alliance figure out what else to do to help leverage sustainability’s biggest platform: sports. Take the survey now being fielded to provide valuable intel.
  • Join the Green Sports Alliance. It’s $500 and full of support and great contacts to help build your campus sports sustainability program. Yes, I am a pro bono GSA Board member and this is a shameless plug. Sue me.
  • Sign up for the upcoming webinar, Creating a Winning Collegiate Sports Sustainability Program—it’s free and has great information.
  • Enter the giant College Sports Sustainability Makeover Contest and win $50K of valuable sustainability stuff for your sports venues, onsite expert assessments and recommendations, and big time visibility for your sports efforts. Just organizing to enter the contest will improve relationships and partnerships between campus sustainabilistas and athletics folks. Deadline to enter is May 1, 2016. Do it!

Just add water...

The short but sappy close

Sports and sustainability has a problem, and we can solve it. See above.

Sports and sustainabilistas aren’t so far apart on this work either. Both realms are populated by heroes. As defined by Joseph Campbell, “a hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”

This will sound immodest, get over it, but sustainabilistas are by definition outside themselves. The work is about making the world a better place for people we will never meet.

Sports has the same capacity—and occasionally flexes its muscles. See above recitation of heroic sports figures than have influenced the world in good ways far beyond their sport.

Sports sustainability brings together the best of both worlds on the planet’s biggest stage.

Just do it.