The word ‘sustainability’ may conjure images of polar bears and green frogs and, in most cases, is seen by the public as a social issue addressed by activist groups, government and businesses. High-profile, media loved industries can be added to this mix to improve
ecologically conscious public awareness, attitudes and action. The highly influential cinema (through the likes of George Clooney) and music (through the likes of U2’s Bono) industries have shown interest in social and environmental causes while sport has long been a participant in social movements, with stars such as Jackie Robinson and Cathy Freeman making stands on racial equity, and Margaret
Court and Billie Jean King taking action on gender equity.

Sheila N. Nguyen is concerned at the reluctance of sport in Australia and the Asia Pacific to engage with environmental issues. The newest frontier, the environmental sustainability movement has come on the scene in light of the global concerns related to growing populations and diminishing resources – where sport is affected and contributes. To address these issues, there are two major opportunities for the sport industry: the built environment (in areas such as construction, water efficiency, waste management) and stakeholder engagement (such as policy making, awareness and education). As noted in a feature in the New York Times in 2011, entitled ‘Sports Rally Around Green Projects’, “environmental activists applaud this marriage of bottomline vigilance and civic-mindedness, not just because huge amounts of energy, food and other products are consumed at sporting events, but because teams and athletes are so influential in their communities that fans and companies may be more inclined to follow their
lead”.

It’s happening

There is an immense effort being made by the North American sport industry – sport teams, leagues and venues to show that they are ready and willing to improve their environmental impact on their communities. Evidence of this importance in the USA came in June 2011 when President Barack Obama invited key sport industry leaders to discuss strategies to combat and address climate issues, concerns that were later highlighted as a priority in his second inauguration speech. Procurement policies, recycling and composting, sustainable development and construction, and better waste management strategies, to list just a few actions, are only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of the great things the sport industry is doing. And while both North American and Australian sport industries are excelling in environmental stewardship, the North American sport industry is just better at talking about it. They are educating their fans in very visible ways and are proactively connecting with their commercial and community partners in exploring strategies to reduce their environmental footprint.

Consider the NBA’s partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Indian Premier League (IPL) and United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) joint efforts, and in action, Lincoln Financial Stadium (home of the Philadelphia Eagles, NFL) adorned with wind generators, the solar panel roofed ‘all-you-can-eat hotdog’ stand at the Cleveland Indians’ Progressive Field, and the now well recognised recycling mascot at Safeco Field to rally the Seattle Mariners’ fans to be more eco-conscious.

These are the type of visible ‘doing’ that we could learn to adopt in an Australian environment ripe for a small push in that direction. Barriers and opportunities in Australia. Having observed the North American professional sport landscape and their heralding of environmental sustainability, it was disappointing to see that our fans don’t share the same worldview. In 2010, my research team at Deakin University explored Australian sport fans’ attitudes on sport’s role in environmental stewardship; finding that for them, the
link between sport and environment is unclear. What makes this so ironic is that globally, the Australian market is perceived as one that embraces and protects its natural environment, but when sport fans are asked should sport be part of this effort, the answer was a
resounding ‘no’. Why was this the case? What is stopping our fans and sport administrators from seeing this as a worthy and high-priority cause? The answer is in the politicising of environmental issues in Australia, although I believe the environment is a human and not a political issue that we must consider without stigma. Notwithstanding this opposition, Australia is the perfect place to start the
conversation. There are national building industry standards for sustainable practices (initiatives such as Energy Star and the National Australian Built Environment Rating System [NABERS]), industry bodies that care about these issues (such as Parks and Leisure Australia), and there are sport venues already taking action, including Sydney Olympic Park, Metricon Stadium and Simonds
Stadium. But while the built environment practices are underway, the fact that the Australian sport community and its stakeholders are either unaware or apathetic is a concern. All-too-often, the answer to whether or not sport should be part of the environmental conversation is ‘no’, ‘no, it’s a government issue’, or ‘no, it’s an Australian Greens Party issue’. As long as I’ve lived in Australia, I have experienced a number of environmental strains to our communities (such as extreme temperatures, drought and floods). In situations such as drought, when restrictions were placed on the watering of grounds, resulting in affected practice and competition use of fields and facilities, the link between sport and environmental protection became especially salient.

The opportunity we have is found in our national readiness, but our barriers are linked to lack of education and unassigned empowerment.

The start of the conversation…

Awareness, education and action are key to inspiring the industry and ultimately strengthening the link between sport and environmental protection. The conversation to bring awareness to our ready and able community began at the Sports Sustainability Summit held on March 25th and March 26th in Melbourne and Sydney respectively. The Summit hosted a number of delegates representing a cross-section of our industry alongside partner industries.

The summit days were led by inspiring leaders representing the US in the discussion of its proactive stakeholder engagement and Australian leaders representing examples and their contribution to the long history of built environment innovations. Stories were exchanged with the hopes of leading, inspiring and educating our sport industry on how to work towards being an environmental change agent from grassroots to elite sport.

Influential keynote speakers and panelists including Greg Swann (CEO, Carlton FC, AFL) in Melbourne and Richard Griffiths (COO, GWS FC, AFL) in Sydney; Panellists: Kevin Carr (National Basketball Association, USA), Brad Mohr (Cleveland Indians, Major League Baseball, USA), Brian Thurston (Waste Management, USA), Simon Gorr (AFL), Natalie Valentine (Simonds Stadium, City of Greater Geelong), Roy Depczynski (Patersons Stadium), and Darlene van der Breggen (Office of Public Works, NSW) were among the leaders that shared their perspectives.

Now where to?

We have made giant steps since the conversation began and there are existing models to replicate, but the biggest hurdle will be in the decisions made at the administrative level to make environmental sustainability an agenda priority and a public issue.

The positioning of the issue alongside other social issues of importance will help make the link clearer and in strengthening this industry’s participation in environmental stewardship, we can convert the unaware and apathetic into committed ambassadors.

Not only will the ship be built on the strength of our national standards, but the pilots (sport fans and administrators) will be educated to drive us to the next level of ecological consciousness to position Australia as the Asia-Pacific thought leader, contributing to global benefit.