Using the Cultural Force of Sports for Good NRDC's Dr. Allen Hershkowitz

This episode originally aired on July 8, 2013 on Green is Good Radio.

Today on GreenIsGood: As professional sports are a huge cultural force, they are also a huge business. Sporting events provide many opportunities to positively influence fan bases around the nation.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to Green is Good, and we’re so honored and excited today to have back with us Doctor Allen Hershkowitz. Allen, welcome back to Green is Good.

DOCTOR ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: Great to be here. Great to be here.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, you know, Allen, last time you were here a couple years ago, you started laying out your vision for greening the whole sports industry and you gave a fascinating statistic a couple years ago as to why and how you were gonna do this and the why was you had to go to where America was with regards to loving the sports industry. Can you give a little bit of that highlight again with regards to how America loves science versus sports, etcetera?

DOCTOR ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: Yeah, sure. Thanks for doing this show. Basically, 13% of Americans say they follow science. Sixty-one percent of Americans say they follow sports so if you want to change the world, you don’t emphasize how different you are from everybody else and the nice thing about professional sports is not only that many more Americans follow sports than science; it’s that sports is non-political. It’s non-partisan so it takes the dialogue about global climate disruption or biodiversity laws, water scarcity, all the issues that we’re trying to deal with through greening sports, it takes those issues out of the political debate and puts it into the business implementation debate about how to basically move these issues forward in a cost-competitive way. I don’t want to get political because this work is not political but there’s some folks who try to politicize this issue of global climate disruption and they can attack the National Academy of Sciences seemingly with impunity, maybe looking themselves look foolish, but they can’t attack the commissioner of the National Football League or the commissioner of the National Baseball League. That’s a whole nother pun. That’s a whole nother ball game, so when Commissioner Bud Selig or Roger Goodell, commissioners of all professional sports; soccer, baseball, basketball, hockey, football, tennis, all of them, have come out in public and said that global warming is real and it’s not good for their sport and they’re gonna initiative initiatives to help address global climate disruption basically through energy efficiency initiatives or turning to renewable energy.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow, so a couple years ago, you lay out what you’re gonna do and now I happen to be so honored to be invited to your amazing event a couple months back over at the Mandarin where you had the Green Sports Alliance, a huge event where you honored all the leaders in the sports industry and of course, Allen, I’ve got to say this for our listeners. Not only is the NRDC doing great work, but you’re considered now truly one of the few great leaders of the green movement now around the world and what you’ve done with this whole green sports alliance and the NRDC is just truly remarkable and when I looked around the world and the room and say all the leaders you had in there, so talk a little bit about what’s happened the last couple years. Talk a little bit about the successes you’ve had with our audience.

DOCTOR ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: Well, the greening of sports has started with Major League Baseball. Actually, the very first on purpose stadium greening was done by the Philadelphia Eagles football team and I worked on that and we gained some insights about how to shift to renewable energy and how to integrate recycling at large scale events. We started to look at food and see if we could introduce more local and organic food. We certainly looked at the paper, the game day program, the media guide, the concession napkins, the yearbooks. Obviously as you know, the paper industry is one of the largest global warming polluting industries so shifting to recycled content paper made a big difference there and then we took that program that we started with the Philadelphia Eagles to Major League Baseball and you’ve gotta hand it to Bud Selig. He’s one of the great environmental advocates in the history of professional sports. He embraced this issue. We worked with him distributing information to all professional baseball teams about how they could incorporate more renewable energy and shift to recycled content paper and introduce more recycling programs. They then shifted to National Basketball Association and the NBA shared us with the National Hockey League so the NHL, NBA, Billie Jean King got involved. We started working with Billie and we started to green the U.S. Open tennis championships, all the jewel events, the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the NBA playoffs and finals, all of them have incorporate environmental initiatives and fan engagement. Right now, out of the 126 professional teams out there, 68, so only half of them, have engaged in some kind of energy-efficiency initiative. More than half have recycling. Composting is growing. People who go to sporting events now will start to see greater opportunities for composting, which by the way, is resulting in a shift in the way plastics are manufactured because now you’ve got the NFL and the Major League Baseball and the NBA asking for compostable cutlery, legitimately compostable cutlery, so we’re starting to see products designed with composting in mind, again, because the leagues are asking for it. Remember professional sports is not only a huge cultural force. It’s a huge business. All businesses meet on a basketball court or a football field or baseball field. The paper industry is there. The plastics industry is there, the textiles industry, the chemical industry, the auto industry, the food and beverage industries, the energy industries. All of these industries are either sponsors or suppliers to professional sports so when you get non-partisan professional sports league commissioners, T-boners, saying that they want to enhance the environmental profile of their team or their league, these industries pay attention.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, you really do get to move the needle because the domino effect is truly amazing, you’re saying?

DOCTOR ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: Yeah, and remember, John, we really need a cultural shift in the way people think about the planet and we really need to change the way people think about the planet that gives us air to breathe and water to drink and cultural shifts, they’re not led by government. Frankly, the Civil Rights Movement was not led by government. It was a cultural change in the United States. Millions of people fled to the streets. Government was forced to deal with race relations, same thing with gender equality in athletics, Title Nine. The same things is happening right before our eyes with marriage equality. We’re starting to see these cultural shifts which force government to act and clearly, what we know is that government is not adequately addressing climate change, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, waste management, so government needs to be encouraged to do that and by getting professional sports to educate literally tens of millions of people around the country, if not hundreds of millions of people- and remember, sports is the top watched show on TV. Half the planet watched the Beijing Olympics. Half the planet watched the London Olympics. These are very popular events. People pay attention them and when they’re messaging about recycling, about global warming, about energy efficiency, they start to take this stuff for granted. This is the way things need to be done.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so well put, Allen, so you’ve already had the major success the last couple years. Your vision has been executed and started to be executed but obviously, guys like you and your great organization at the NRDC- and for our folks out there that aren’t familiar with it, please go online and check out what Allen is doing at www.nrdc.org and also, GreenSportsAlliance.org but Allen, what’s ahead now? Talk a little bit about the challenges, the new mountains that you want to climb with regards to greening of sports and some new agendas and new goals that you have in the years ahead?

DOCTOR ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: Yeah, I’m glad you asked and if people go to NRDC.org/sports, they’ll get a very good, comprehensive overview of the work that we’re doing. Well, we still have work to do on energy efficiency. We’ve got about half of all stadiums and arenas engaged on that issue. We still have half to go so we need to deal with that. We’re also starting an initiative to help concessionaires gradually phase out the use of meat products that are saturated with antibiotics. As you know, 80% of all the antibiotics consumed in this country are not consumed by humans; they’re consumed by animals and most of those antibiotics are given to animals prophylactically to prevent them from getting sick because of the poor conditions in which they are kept and what’s happening is these antibiotic saturated meats are affecting human health. We’re getting mega doses of antibiotics in our meats and the Food and Drug Administration and the courts, the National Academy of Sciences have all concluded that this is affecting human health. Little by little, we’re gonna start with poultry products. Remember, concessionaires at stadiums and arenas see tens of millions of people every year and if we could offer menus that educate people, that they could get poultry without antibiotics, my holy grail is to get a antibiotic-free hot dog at baseball games. The hot dog is such an iconic food and if we could get that message that we got antibiotics out of hot dogs, I think that could help move the market. We are also starting to look at the way some of the clothing is produced. Some of it is textiles. Obviously, recent catastrophes in Bangladesh and other parts of the world have alerted people not only to the social conditions, but to the ecological conditions that are associated with the manufacturing of clothing so there’s still a lot of work to do and we have fan education. We’re still producing public service announcements. We’ve produce public service announcements for the NBA, the National Hockey League, Major League Baseball. These have been seen by 50 million people on broadcast TV. which educated them about the league’s initiatives on renewable energy and solar energy and reduced packaging and water conservation. We still have water conservation initiatives to do. There’s still a lot of stadiums and arenas that are flushing drinking water down the drain. They are flushing it down the toilet, the urinal. That doesn’t make sense. We think we can save them money and serve water at the same time so there’s still a lot of work to do. It’s a big industry and we’ve taken it global also. We have stadiums in South America and Europe.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners that just joined us, we’re on with Doctor Allen Hershkowitz, and Allen is one of the amazing human beings who has done so much. And, he’s been called the Godfather of Greening and for those who want to see more of his great work at the NRDC, go to www.nrdc.org/greenbusiness/guidesandsports and Allen, I’ve got to tell a little secret about him. If he doesn’t get you in the sports industry and if he doesn’t change your mind with regards to the greening of sports, he’s gonna get you somehow. He’s also in charge of greening the Academy Awards. Sports or entertainment. Doctor Allen Hershkowitz is gonna get you. Doc, tell a little bit about you talked about great people and leaders that have totally bought in and totally work with you like Bud Sealing, etcetera. Talk a little bit about is this only pro sports or are you also now starting to spread it into other types of athletics like college and minor leagues?

DOCTOR ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: Oh yeah, thanks for that question. Yeah, absolutely. Environmental initiatives at college athletic facilities, yep, we’re working with them. We are the principal advisors to the Council of Ivy League Presidents. We’re working with colleges around the country. It’s growing like wildfire and it’s so satisfying. College students are into sports. They’re very much into environmental stewardship. When you mix the two, it’s very exciting. College students these days, athletes, and there’s 400,000 college athletes just in the MCAA and as we know, there’s a lot more college athletes that are playing intramural that have nothing to do with the NCAA so sports is rampant throughout the country and sports management is a growing. Science, environmental policy is very popular major so merging sports and the environment at colleges has been a very successful initiative. Last year, we filed a report called Game Changer. That document is one of the leaders in professional sports at stadiums with green around the country. This August, we’re coming out with a report, a follow-up to game changer that focuses on leaders in college sports. If people want to see copies of Game Changer, they just have to go to NRDC.org/gamechanger or they can go to NRDC.org/sports and they can find Game Changer, the pro sports document, on the web and this August, we’ll be releasing a similar document with college athletics. Yes, the minor leagues and spring training facilities are also incorporating environmental stewardship into their operations. This is a movement that we helped launch literally more than 10 years ago and it has just taken off around the world. I’ve been doing this work, environmental advocacy work, environmental research, for about 35 years and I have to tell you this is the most satisfying initiative I’ve ever worked on and certainly one of the most successful.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s amazing. Allen, I want to step back a little bit just from the topic of just plain sports, which are just so compelling and when you first came on and spoke about this, we got more response and more emails and more contact from your one show than any other show we’ve ever done. That’s why we’re so excited to have you back on but a lot of the questions also come up around the next generation and there’s so many college students, not only in the United States, but around the world, that listen to this show, and high school students, and they all get inspired by great leaders like you so I want to step back a little bit and talk a little bit about your journey. How did you become an environmental advocate? Where did this come from in your background and how did you end up where you are today? And turn towards the future after you explain that to our listeners. Are you hopeful about where we’re going on this path?

DOCTOR ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: Well, yeah. I mean look, we’re facing some great, great issues. I don’t know that these are resolvable in my lifetime frankly but many people fought for the abolition of slavery and it wasn’t resolvable in their lifetime and of course, suffrage and voting rights for women, many people fought for a long time on that and didn’t see accomplishments or success in their lifetime either so all of these things are big journeys. Let me remind your listeners that the best careers are unplanned.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well put.

DOCTOR ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: Yeah, so there’s a lot of need for people to work on the issue of Environmental stewardship. NRDC, my colleagues and I, we are now developing collaborations with the Ward Business School, with the Percey Graduate School of Business to develop curriculum for greening of sports management and some people will have sports management degrees that also incorporate environmental considerations. I would just advise people to follow your heart. Certainly a good grounding in some science is important, good grounding in policy, good grounding in philosophy, in ecological theory. My own journey, I did my Ph.D. work back in the late ’70s, early ’80s on electric utilities and started to study waste management. John, as you know, I do a lot of work on waste management issues and I’ve been doing that for decades and frankly, started to study paper and the paper industry because that’s such a big part of our waste stream and that’s when I started to look at the toilet paper that was used at stadiums and arenas and we started to see that toilet paper was often coming from ecologically irreplaceable forests that have existed for hundreds of years. We were cutting down these forests for a product that we use for five seconds so we try to promote the use of recycled. Right now, the use of recycled bathroom tissue at the Oscars, at the Grammys, at stadiums throughout the country is widespread. It’s very valuable because toilet paper cannot be recycled so if it’s the end of the consumer chain, it should be made from a waste product. There’s many ways to get into this. You can get into it through water issues. You can get into it through waste issues. You can get into it through food issues. Food is a gigantic issue, a growing issue. We need people to work on the issue of safe and healthy food, certainly trying to reduce the amount of antibiotics that are saturating meats, getting people to think about alternatives to meat also, eating low on the food chain, textiles. We need people in the clothing industry that are bringing environmental consciousness, certainly, of course, the energy industry. Every industry; energy, water, food, textiles, beverages, transportation, all these industries need environmental stewardship so for your listeners out there, anything you do, you can incorporate an overlay of environmental progress.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, the next generation behind you, the message is there’s lots to do. Roll up your sleeves if you want to be involved and you want to be a green leader one day. It’s all out there to be done.

DOCTOR ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: It’s urgent work, and actually, everybody needs to do something and there is no one big undertaking that we can carry out that’s gonna deal with global climate disruption. There is no one big initiative that we can carry out that’s gonna stop ocean acidification or bring all the fish back. Small initiatives lead to big changes. We can’t do big things. We can only do relatively small things because we’re talking about the planet so there’s nothing too small. There’s nothing too small. Everybody should do whatever they can.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re gonna have you back on, Allen. You’re always amazing. Doctor Allen Hershkowitz, the Godfather of Greening, you are truly living proof that green is good.