Greening the Sporting World with NRDC’s Allen Hershkowitz

May 2, 2011

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored today to have Allen Hershkowitz from the NRDC with us. Allen is one of the rock stars of the green revolution. Besides being with the NRDC now almost 25 years or so, Allen has written many books and he is in charge of greening the sports world. Welcome to Green is Good. ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: Hi. Great to be here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, Allen, what does it really mean? Your work is vast at the NRDC and all the writings that you’ve done with regards to solid waste management and everything else. You’re truly really one of the true leaders in this whole greening of America and the environmental and sustainability revolution. Now this interesting segue into the greening of professional sports. What does that really mean? ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: Well, first let’s define greening. Greening is basically looking at your operations, looking at your procurement, how you buy things, with an eye towards reducing environmental impacts. It’s not a destination we can arrive at. It’s not like you can be a green company or live a green life. It’s an ongoing process of better practices, constant improvement. Needless to say, professional sports are iconic and culturally influential. Fifty-six percent of Americans say they pay attention to sports. Only 18% of Americans say they pay attention to science. So, if you want to communicate about environmental issues, about global warming, pollution, about biodiversity laws, do you want to reach out to the scientific community? Absolutely no question about it. But do you want to ignore the vast potential that professional sports has in influencing the supply chain? Remember, every industry meets on a football field, on a baseball field, on a basketball court. The auto industry sponsors professional games. The chemical industry maintains the fields. The food concessionaires choose local, organic, or not, they choose hundreds of millions of napkins every year for distribution. As you know, the paper industry is the third largest industrial generator of global warming and pollution, so getting millions of napkins, as we did at the U.S. Open, we switched 3 million napkins for the 100% natural forest to 100% recycled content. Looking at energy use, looking at water use, using the visibility of professional sports to educate fans. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow, so here we go. You’re using the sports world as a platform, which then can really move the needle on a comparative basis with regards to other things that capture people’s attention. ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: If you want to change the world, you don’t emphasize how different you are from everybody else. Basically, if you want to change the world, you’ve got to go to where the world is. Literally 66% of Americans say that they watch a football game over the course of the year. Forty-three percent of Americans say that they attend church on a regular basis. Religion is a powerful force, government is a powerful force, sports are a powerful source. Sports should not be ignored when it comes to an opportunity for making environmental progress. When we get the auto industry to show more fuel-efficient vehicles instead of trucks at sporting events, when we get the game day programs and the media guides and the concession napkins to be made from recycled. Staples Center has solar panels. U.S. Airways has installed solar panels. Fenway Park has installed solar panels. These teams are reaching out to youngsters. Major League Baseball is looking to inform little leagues around the country about the benefits of using non-dangerous chemicals on little league fields. 30 million people play organized baseball every year, separate and apart from professional baseball. There’s a basketball court and a baseball field in every neighborhood. JOHN SHEGERIAN: OK, so now we get it. So, now we understand the proposition. So, now, when did and how did the NRDC decide to get involved? Was it one of you had an epiphany? All of you were in a group? Were you approached by sports, or did you approach the different sports leagues? ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: I was approached back in 2003 by a consulting firm that was advising the owners of the Philadelphia Eagles football team. Actually, I was approached by Chuck Savitt, the publisher of Island Press. I had just finished writing Bronx Ecology, and the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles was looking for somebody to help green his stadium, improve it environmentally. He reached out to the publisher of Island Press who contacted me, and I helped advise the Philadelphia Eagles back in 2003-2004. I was part of a team that greened that new stadium. About two years later, I was at NRDC’s board retreat at the home of one of our trustees, Robert Redford, and we were discussing how to reach out to non-traditional allies. How do we reach out to folks who would not normally embrace activism, environmental advocacy? Redford said, “If we want to reach Americans, we’ve got to go to baseball games. We’ve got to go to football games. We’ve got to meet them on the sports field.” So, he and I, with one of my other trustees, Bob Fisher, who’s an owner of the Oakland Athletics, we came together and put together a project that basically reached out to Bud Selig in Major League Baseball, who immediately embraced it. And then from baseball, David Stern, the NBA commissioner, embraced it, and the NBA shares about 11 arenas with professional hockey, so hockey embraced it. The NFL picked it up and Major League Soccer. Billie Jean King reached out to us, and we started working with the U.S. Tennis Association, and before you know it, we were working with all the professional leagues, putting together environmental information about everything from what kind of environmentally preferable laundry detergent to use for the opposing team’s jerseys to putting solar panels on stadiums and installing recycling bins throughout the leagues. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Now it sounds like you’re advising all of the different leagues. If you were to handicap them, who is ahead of the others? Do they share best practices? Are they in competition with each other? Is the NBA greener than the NFL? How does that work? ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: They’re all moving forward on this issue. As you know, this is a lengthy process. 90 million tons of global warming pollution had come out of our society every day does not result from one single source. All industries need to be considered as culpable in this. Getting the adjustments made is a lengthy process. There is collaboration, as you probably know. Recently, NRDC and a few others caused the formation of the Green Sports Alliance, which is actually a consortium of representatives from every league, from football, basketball, hockey, soccer, and baseball. This is the first time that there’s this intraleague consortium formed to advance information about environmental better practices. We work with all the leagues and, frankly, Major League Baseball has, right now, the best data collection program. The other leagues have looked at Major League Baseball’s program and are all actively looking to implement one themselves. What Major League Baseball has developed in collaboration with us at NRDC is a tool that reports on energy use, waste and recycling, water use and conservation, and paper use, paper procurement and recycled content. Those four attributes now are measured consistently by all stadiums in professional baseball using the same database. We know, for example, that 32% of all the waste generated at ball games last year was recycled. That’s a result of getting better data. We know that the number of recycling accomplishments has been growing. It’s grown from 25% three years ago to 32% to 35%. Some teams are doing over 60-70%. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Interesting. So, what’s measurable is manageable. What you’re saying is the whole data issue is critical to the measuring, which then flows back up to the managing of this, as you say, lengthy but important process. ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: When you measure, you change. I don’t go in there and ask companies to change. I go in there and ask them to measure. In doing this work for almost 30 years, what I have found is that you never have a situation where somebody measures their energy use who hasn’t been doing that, who does not find an opportunity for improvement. The same goes for water use, and the same goes for waste and recycling, and the same goes for paper use. When people start to measure, they say, “Maybe we can have motion sensors. Maybe there’s a way for LED or compact fluorescent bulbs. Maybe we should have an energy efficiency audit.” We try to instigate energy efficiency audits. We’ve done one at the Louisiana Superdome and the New Orleans Arena. We’ve done them at the Staples Center. We had water conservation audits done at the Staples Center. We’re instigating these things throughout the country. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Allen, since you said baseball leads with this database collection network they’ve put together, are they licensing it to other sports leagues, or is it theirs only, or are the other sports leagues developing their own using their model? How does that work? ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: The MLB has offered to license it, yes. MLB has, to its credit, offered to license it. The other leagues are considering it, but there are differences between a basketball and hockey arena and a baseball stadium. What’s happening now is other options, in terms of what tools they’re going to use, are being considered by NFL, hockey, and basketball, as well as major league soccer. The goal is that hopefully, within the next year, all the leagues will be measuring consistently among their teams somehow. We don’t necessarily need baseball and hockey to be using the same measurement tool, but we do need all the hockey teams to be using the same measurement tool, so we can make general statements about hockey. Ideally, we would like to be able to make cross-league comparisons and have them all using similar or compatible tools. We are working with the EPA, the WasteWise program, and the Energy Star program, to harmonize the data with Major League Baseball. We’re hoping that all the other leagues will also tap into the resource provided by the EPA, which is very, very valuable. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What you’re doing and the measurable changes that you’re making, Allen, with the NRDC to all of the leagues, does it eventually filter down to the athletes who are the modern day heroes of this generation, who then can influence our next generation behind us, our children and our grandchildren? ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: That’s a great question because outside of the family, the most influential role models in our society are athletes and entertainers. Getting athletes and entertainers brought into environmental intelligence is really a critical goal. Actually, we’re getting a lot of education done with the players by having the teams and the leagues embrace environmentalism. A lot of these guys coming up, they’re kids, frankly, 20, 21, 22, 18, 19. They’re focused on building their career and getting in shape to compete in professional leagues, so maybe they haven’t been able to really pay attention to social issues as much or political or financial issues. Having them show up at the stadium and seeing the Jumbotron or being asked to do a PSA on recycling actually educates them. I remember myself working with Venus Williams, talking to her about this issue and educating her before she did a PSA for us, and she became very engaged in the environmental issue. That’s true for the Bryan brothers and John McEnroe and Derek Jeter and Billie Jean King. So, little by little, we are getting the players to pay attention to this, but really who we want to get to pay attention to this are the sponsors and the vendors, the Coca-Colas and the Pepsis and the Chevrolets and the food concessionaires, the Aramarks and the Levys and the Delaware Norths, the people who supply the paper. Companies pay millions of dollars to have their logo put next to the logo of these leagues or near these teams, and they do so because they know it has a market influence, a market shaping, culture shaping influence. They want to pay attention to what baseball is asking regarding environmentalism. MIKE BRADY: Allen, too, a follow-up to that, wouldn’t team owners have a vested interested also for their triple bottom line in embracing a more environmental tack? That, in turn, could also drive the conversation with potential sponsors, yes? ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: Absolutely. There’s many benefits. First of all, one obvious example is St. Louis. They reduced energy use by 24% in the last two years. That saves them money in terms of the bottom line. The Seattle Mariners saved $800,000 in the last five years between their energy and their waste modifications. The Boston Red Sox are saving money on heating and hot water because of their solar panels. There is that bottom line consideration, and as you point out, there’s a social component. Many companies seek brand loyalty. The New York Times want repeat readers and IBM wants repeat buyers, but there’s nothing like professional sports when it comes to cultivating brand loyalty. Brand loyalty in professional sports is passed down in families generation to generation. Some of these sports businesses expect their customers to get into fistfights with the customers of other sports teams. So, people go out and buy the clothing of their favorite team, and that’s another area that we’d like to educate, the apparel industry, the textile industry. So, this has global potential. It’s a long-term project with a lot of facets to it. We want everybody to get involved in it. The more people doing it, the more colleges that teach sports management programs, who integrate environmentalism into their curricula, I speak at colleges to those types of groups. It’s great for sports management people, arena operators, stadium operators, to start to think about efficiency and recycling and fan education. To get the fans to pay attention, also, is enormously valuable. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Let’s go back to sports and colleges and also the branding issue. I read your recent blog on how you had the NCAA Final Four go green. Talk a little bit about what that meant and how you brought into the whole process LG and Waste Management and how that worked. ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: That was actually a great event. That was down in Houston, of course. The NCAA, to its credit, established a sustainability committee and invited me to join because of the work that I’m doing. Basically, we got energy supplied. We set up a committee about 10 months ago that met every week by conference call and sometimes live onsite, and we went over every issue with the city of Houston, with the NCAA, with the representatives of the hotels, with representatives of the convention center, with representatives of people who supply the transportation buses and the paper, and every week we said, “OK, let’s take an issue at a time. This week we’re going to talk about paper, or this week we’re going to talk about energy.” And then we kept following up with tasks and assignments, and lo and behold, we switched to paper with recycled content. We got the convention center to be powered by wind and solar and we bought offsets for all the energy at Reliant Stadium, saving a couple hundred tons of pollutants just that weekend. We put in 600 recycling bins at Reliant Stadium that will be there permanently. We did an environmental performance assessment at the whole arena to look at water use and waste generation and energy use. We worked with the hotels to increase the availability of organic food, local food. About 15-20% of all the food at the event was local or organic. Is it going to change the world, save the world? Not by itself, no. Is it very informative? Yes. Everybody has to do something. Everybody has to contribute because there’s no one single solution to the ecological crisis we face. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s an amazing event you just did, what you did at the Final Four. I know my son watches the Final Four. I try to watch it. Like you said, it influences all of us. How do you, then, go out and message all this great work and all these amazing partnerships which you crafted and put together with the NCAA? How is that messaged, then, to the athletes and even the students that are watching and the people watching? How do you go about that? Is that critical to this whole process also? ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: Yeah, and that’s why doing radio interviews with people like you is so enormously helpful. Businesses start to see the good PR value. When we first started this work with the Academy Awards and the Grammys as well, I remember meeting with the President of the Boston Red Sox, Larry Lucchino, and he was like, “We have a big carbon footprint. I’m kind of nervous about getting in front of this issue. How do you think it’s going to play?” I said, “I think it’s going to play wonderfully. You’re teaming up with an environmental group known for being hard-nosed litigators to figure out how to reduce your carbon impacts and your water use and your waste generation.” Civilization has its costs. It’s not like we could do away with water use or waste generation entirely. Matter can be transformed but never 100% efficient. There’s always going to be some waste that we have to manage, and baseball is not alone in producing waste. All industries do. Baseball is not alone in using water or in generating employee transport impacts. All businesses do, but what baseball is doing, what the NBA is doing, what the NFL is doing, is they’re saying, “As responsible members of our community, we’re going to start looking at these impacts and seeing how we can gradually begin to reduce them.” JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s great. Do you feel that one day you can also have athletes and entertainers on the NRDC’s behalf and also on the league’s behalf, doing PSAs for all the great work you guys are doing? ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: We’ve had Venus Williams who’s done PSAs, Billie Jean King. We’ve had athletes do them for us, but typically say all this work, NRDC does not take anybody from the leagues or the teams. We’re a 501(c)(3) charity, and we get funded by our 1.2 million members and online activists and great foundations, important benefactors, so we don’t take any funds for this, although we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on this project because making sure that professional sports ask the right question of the marketplace is incredibly important for us. We don’t want any of these iconic, culturally influential, market influential organizations to be accused in any way of greenwashing. We look out to make sure that they engender no environmental liabilities, and what they do is real and authentic. When they say that they’re looking at alternative chemicals for fuel maintenance, they’re looking at the right chemicals. When they say they’re looking for biodiesel, that they’re looking at the right kind of biodiesel. When they say they’re buying recycled paper, we tell them which is the right kind of paper. This sends environmentally correct messages to the marketplace from some of the most important industry leaders in our culture. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Allen, I just want to pause here. For all of those who just joined us, we’re so really honored today, a special honor, to have Allen Hershkowitz with us on the line from the NRDC. Allen, take a pause here for a second. For our listeners not only in the United States but around the world, because we track our listeners also online, if people want to donate to the NRDC, it’s nrdc.org. How do they go ahead and donate? Because when people listen, sometimes they’re compelled to actually act. How do we ask our listeners to donate if they want to? ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: If they go to nrdc.org, they can find out more about our organization, www.nrdc.org. They’ll see the many wonderful things that we all do. Thank you. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Allen, we’re down to about the last four minutes or so. You have got such an amazing visibility and window into where we’ve been historically, environmentally, in this world, and where we’re going. These are just fascinating times, and I know that’s a little bit of an overused old adage, but with what’s going on right now in the Middle East and oil is somewhere about a buck six a barrel today and all the social and political changes that are literally evolving right in front of us, talk about where this goes. Where does the movement go from here? Are you hopeful? Share with our listeners what’s the next generation supposed to do. They want to grab the mantle from you and run. How do they do that? ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: Thank you. Look, of course I’m hopeful. I’m always hopeful, and that’s why I do the work that I do. Do I expect to solve the global warming crisis in my lifetime? Do I expect other people to solve it in my lifetime? No, I don’t. It may be a problem that’s almost unresolvable, it’s so big. The numbers are huge on that issue. What I do know is we all have to try to solve that problem, that at the end of the day, it’s not whether we protected all the forests or saved the biodiversity. It’s what are we trying to do. Are we trying to protect those forests? Are we trying to save biodiversity? Are we trying to reduce global warming disruption and pollution? Because the impacts on our efforts come from so many sources that we can’t control. If I work my butt off to try to get renewable energy used by government agencies and the auto industry or the oil and gas industry is fighting me with a lot more resources than we have in the environmental community, if they beat us, is it a failure on our part? Are we not successful? No. We have to be judged by our intentions and what we’re trying to do. People will have to deal with these issues for generations. Global warming is a multigenerational issue. Toxic waste, a multigenerational issue. Water scarcity is going to rival sea level rise as one of the effects of global warming, a multigenerational issue. Sea level rise, the environmental refugees, as a result of coastal erosion and droughts and storms that global warming is going to instigate. These problems are going to exist for generations, and we need people out there just doing the work daily to see what little progress they can make. If they can change some napkins sold by a concessionaire, there’s no one big solution to the problem. Everybody has to make a change. Everybody has to use their toilet paper from recycled fibers, energy efficient bulbs, energy efficient cars. There are many, many things that we can be doing. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We get a lot of e-mails from America’s youth and also from all parts of the world, asking about our guests and how they can be the next Allen Hershkowitz. We’re down to two minutes. Do you want to share some pearls of wisdom to the next generation as we get ready to sign off? What are they to do? How do they get educated or get experience so they can fill your shoes one day or try to fill your shoes? ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: I think the most important thing for people to do is to follow their heart, to be what they are supposed to be, to be authentic and to be truthful to themselves. That’s what the world needs. The world needs people who are following their soul, who feel connected to other people and humanity. It’s important to remember that as a species, Homo sapiens are poor. Half the planet lives on $2 a day. Two billion people live on $1 a day. Five-hundred-million people have no water to drink. So, we’re very blessed, and we should basically just feel more empathy towards those around us and do the work according to our heart and feel connected to people as we do that. Take the right path and recognize that we’re all interdependent, that the roads that we use, the paths that we walk on, the schools that we attend, the books that we read, these are all happening because of a larger community and connectedness. How should we treat the organism that gives us air to breathe? How should we treat the organism that gives us water to drink? We should be revering that organism and protecting it. Literally, our lives depend on it. Life is very, very rare. We’ve sent telescopes far into the universe looking for life elsewhere. As far as we know, life only exists on this planet, three miles up, two miles down, in this biosphere. Life is one of the most rare things in the entire universe, one of the most rare phenomena, so we have to protect life and not destroy it with global warming and pollution and toxic waste. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Allen, thank you so much. We’re going to, of course, invite you back again whenever you want to either speak about one of your new books or to speak about anything you’re doing at the NRDC with sports or anything else. It’s just an honor to have you on. For all those listening out there, please go see all the great work of the NRDC. Go to www.nrdc.org. Allen Hershkowitz, you are truly one of the brilliant thought leaders of the sustainability revolution, and are living proof that green is good.