The Most Important Environmental Initiative in Pro Sports History

| by NRDC

By Allen Hershkowitz

Major League Baseball today announced what is arguably the most important environmental initiative in the history of professional sports, worldwide.

I know that is a big statement, but it is true.

As part of Major League Baseball’s ongoing commitment to environmental stewardship, MLB today announced its development of a comprehensive software system designed to collect and analyze environmental data related to stadium operations across the 30 Clubs. Moreover, this software tool will keep track of and distribute best practices related to environmental stewardship across MLB’s 30 Clubs as well. The full roll out of this path breaking program to all the Clubs will happen during this 2010 season.

This is the first time a professional sports League anywhere in the world has taken the step of implementing a software program to collect data for the purpose of documenting environmental practices and for sharing information about environmental best practices at stadiums.  I am proud to say that this data gathering tool for environmental impacts was developed in collaboration with NRDC.

Initially, four categories of environmental data will be collected and calculated. Data will collected on: 1. Energy use, including total energy used, sources of energy, and use of renewable energy; 2. Waste generation, including total waste generated, materials diverted for recycling and composting, and cost of disposal; 3. Water use, including amount of water used, water conserved, and cost of water use, and; 4. Paper procurement, including the amount of recycled paper used in Club offices, in stadium restrooms and for yearbooks, game-day programs and media guides.

No League anywhere currently keeps track of environmental data related to stadium or arena operations. Major League Baseball is the first professional sports League in the world to do so.

And this might only be the beginning. Once this system is up and running, League and Club officials are considering the capture of additional data related to transportation, and food and beverage consumption.

In announcing this path breaking initiative today, MLB Commissioner Allan H. (Bud) Selig said:

 “Major League Baseball has responsibilities to our fans and society at large that go beyond the playing field. Our Clubs have made a commitment to sustainability and are leaders in their communities, raising awareness and educating fans not just on Earth Day, but everyday about environmental stewardship.”

This is indeed much more than an Earth Day initiative. This initiative is going to change the way stadiums are managed throughout our nation into the foreseeable future, and hopefully this will spread to NBA and NHL arenas, as well as NFL and Major League Soccer stadiums too.

This MLB initiative is meaningful for a number of reasons. First of all, in almost thirty years of working on environmental research and advocacy, I have never encountered a situation where good measurement of environmental impacts has not led to efficiency enhancements. By documenting their energy use, their waste and recycling practices, their water use and paper use, stadium operators will learn how to make their operations more efficient, and at what cost.

Indeed, this has already been going on. NRDC has been working with MLB for many years on its greening program, and already benefits have been achieved in terms of energy efficiency enhancements, solar panels installed, recycling programs developed, water conservation and the use of recycled paper. Literally hundreds of thousands of dollars have been saved, and tons of carbon reduced or offset, simply due to the League’s and Clubs’ measurement of it impacts.

And millions of fans have been educated to the fact that MLB cares about environmental stewardship, a messaging accomplishment that is impossible to quantify.

Another reason this initiative is important relates to the effect it is already having on baseball’s supply chain. All industries meet on a professional baseball field. The chemicals industry helps keep fields well tended, the food and beverage industries feed millions of fans each year, the auto and energy industries are major sponsors of League and Club events. With MLB now saying that not only is it going to encourage teams to reduce their environmental footprint, but it is going to work with Clubs to help them keep track of that footprint, the clear message is being sent to all supply chain industries that environmental criteria need to be a meaningful part of their own business. MLB is promoting the use of non-toxic chemicals on its fields, organic food in its restaurants, high efficiency vehicles and solar panels are being promoted by sponsors, and the use of recycled paper is being publicized.

There is a reason why some of the largest industries on Earth pay millions of dollars to affiliate with professional sports. They do so because they know that is the way to influence the marketplace. Now MLB is saying that their operations, and the marketplace more generally, must keep track of environmental impacts, that global warming is not good for baseball. Indeed, most sports are played outdoors and pollution and global warming, water scarcity and damaged forests are not good for sports of any kind, anywhere.

Baseball is of course our great National Pastime. Hundreds of millions of people watch it and play it each year. And if there is one thing that can be said about baseball, it is that it is non-partisan. So when MLB says that environmentalism in general and addressing climate change in particular matters to its Clubs, we know that our cause has gone mainstream. Indeed, the greening of MLB, and the greening of professional sports more generally, marks a watershed in the history of our movement. No other sporting institution has influenced American culture as much as baseball and MLB is once again putting that influence to very good use. Baseball is a game of statistics and the League’s commitment to systematically document and measure environmental practices of all Clubs at all stadiums underscores the leadership and commitment of MLB to make environmental progress. All professional Leagues should follow this important example.

Indeed, that is another reason why this announcement is bound to be so meaningful. The fact is that the NBA, the NFL, the NHL and Major League Soccer, all have an interest in advancing good environmental practices at their own stadiums and arenas. I am proud to say that NRDC is working with all these Leagues, and I know that they are watching MLB’s data tracking initiative very carefully, with an interest in adopting a similar approach to measuring their own stadium’s and arena’s impacts.

Consequently, as a result of this announcement, we are very likely to see all professional sports Leagues and Clubs in the next few years begin to measure their environmental impacts. As a result, the supply chain and the hundreds of millions of fans of all professional sports will get the message that our Earth, the organism that provides us with air to breathe and water to drink, is in need of better stewardship.

The ecological crises we face are not the result of one single bad actor. The ninety million tons of global warming pollution emitted each and every day results not from one bad actor, but from millions of purchasing and personal decisions made each day by literally billions of people and millions of companies. There is no one single remedy for global warming, nor is their one sinle remedy to address water scarcity or biodiversity loss. All actors in our society must step up to the plate and do…something. No helpful act is too small.

People all over the world love sports. Americans love sports. President Obama has said that at night he doesn’t watch CNN, he watches ESPN Sports Center. And athletes all over the world are influential role models to our children, perhaps second only in influence to parents and other family members. And yet, until recently, environmental advocates have not factored this fact into our strategies for promoting environmental awareness.

Forty years after the first Earth Day brought Americans of all persuasions into the streets to celebrate Mother Earth, the environmental community’s relationship with professional sports has matured. Fifty years ago professional baseball changed America by hiring Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. That opened the door to a cultural shift in assumptions about race relations that reverberates to this day.

Today, Major League Baseball is again breaking a barrier: It is initiating a program to monitor its effect on the planet. Hopefully, this too will shift cultural assumptions about how we work and play, and how we treat the organism that gives us nothing less than air to breathe and water to drink.

Bravo to Major League Baseball. Personally, I’ve always loved baseball, and I’ve played the game throughout my life. But today I feel a special admiration for that great League, and I urge all professional Leagues and teams, indeed all companies and all Americans to follow the lead established by our National Pastime, and take stock of your impacts on the Earth.

(To learn what you might do, go to www.greensports.org/mlb and click on your favorite team. There, you’ll find the award winning MLB/NRDC Team Greening Advisor, and a toolbar on top can guide you as you seek to lighten your ecological footprint.)

Allen Hershkowitz Senior Scientist, NYC and throughout the world

This piece originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard