How Do Sports Organizations Become Ecologically Conscious?

In order for sport and sports organizations to operate, materials, venues, and athletes must exist.  Typically, this is been done with little regard to the natural environment, as evidenced by the sizable ecological footprint that results from sport organization practices.

While some sports organizations have taken some of the responsibility in addressing their past, current, and future impact on the planet, their actions do not address or challenge the underlying systems and thought processes that promote their excessive consumption and exploitation of Earth’s natural resources.

The Need For Systems Thinking

One way sports organizations can take additional responsibility in their attitudes and behaviors toward the natural environment is by employing systems thinking.  Systems thinking allows for the relationships and meanings within a complex system to be examined holistically.  One of the most common tools employed within systems thinking is the four levels of thinking model originally devised by Maani and Cavana.  This model, visualized as an iceberg, suggests that people tend to only view and pay attention to the visible changes in society and not to the underlying patterns, structures, and values below the surface that are the foundation from which the visible changes are taking place.

As an example, employing the four levels of thinking model to this issue of climate change would provide profound insight into how sports organizations can act more justly toward the natural environment and all of its inhabitants.  For instance, there is some indication that several school athletic team animal mascots are at risk for extinction if the current planetary changes continue to accelerate as the rate they are.  At face value, individual schools and their fans may take note of this, but will likely not see, or ignore, that there is a pattern forming across numerous schools and their team animal mascots.  Schools and athletic departments may take action in the form of environmental sustainability efforts guided by current laws and policies that promote environmental justice, but environmental justice has little, if anything, to do with being just to nature.  As such, organizational sustainability efforts will continue to focus on the wants and needs of humans and fail to recognize the value of other living entities on the planet.  More specifically, they will continue to reflect the deeply ingrained current anthroparchic sport organization practices.

Tigers, the mascot of Clemson, are endangered animals. “Tiger” by Matthew Blouir via Flickr is licensed under CC-BY 2.0

Anthroparchy refers to a system of complex relations through which human oppression, exploitation, and marginalization of the natural world is normalized through production, domestication, polity, violence, and anthropocentrism.  Within sport, humans use natural resources such as wood and animal hide to produce equipment, facilities, and venues.  In some instances, non-human animals themselves are used to produce a form of sport.  Plants and animals have been domesticated to serve specific human purposes of sport participation and consumption, often through the use of violence.  Violence is a tool through which humans control the natural environment, nonhuman animal athletes, and acquire nonhuman animal body parts used to produce sport equipment.  There are few, if any uniform mandates regulating the safety of the natural environment and its inhabitants in the sport context, as environmental justice and its anthropocentric ideals guide most policies and initiatives.  The decisions that humans make in sport are almost entirely based on the interests of humans and little else.

In contrast to anthroparchy is ecocentrism.  Ecocentrism reflects the belief that nature is valued for its own sake, humans do not exist separate from nature, and that the survival of the two are intertwined.  Within organizations, ecocentric management practices mirror the principles of ecological justice and therefore recognize the intrinsic value of the natural environment and its inhabitants.  A key component of ecocentric management is the understanding that the planet as the ultimate stakeholder of organizations.  As such sustainability efforts are equity-based and focus on the impact that organizational practices have on immediate surroundings, local ecosystems, and the planet as a whole.  Implicit in this is the recognition that the interests, wants, and needs of nature and its non-human inhabitants will no longer be denied.

How Can Sports Organizations Promote Ecological Justice

Sports organizations do not have to change their organizational practices, policies, and initiatives all at once, but the immediate changes that are made need to be significant and must challenge institutionalized anthroparchic norms.  Working in conjunction with organizations whose purpose is to promote ecological justice is one way in which this can occur.  Likewise, the few sports organizations that have successfully implemented ecologically just practices can serve as exemplars for others to emulate.  The Hillsboro Hops is one of these exemplars.  A minor league baseball team located in Hillsboro, Oregon, the Hops employ ecocentric management principles in all of their decisions.  For example, when their stadium was constructed, 57 tons of construction debris was collected and recycled, and 77 tons of salvaged concrete and masonry were crushed and used as structural filler for the building.  Water is conserved by using turf rather than grass and by using low-flow water systems in all stadium bathrooms, kitchens, and locker rooms.   Fans are encouraged to use reusable water bottles and stadium water fountains to reduce concession waste, they are shuttled via eco-friendly transportation to and from the nearest public transportation train station to reduce transportation emissions, and recycling receptacles are placed throughout the venue.

The belief that business and the environment operate as opposing forces is finally being delegitimized.  Consumers are becoming increasingly ecologically conscious and are seeking out organizations that share similar values.  Sports organizations that want to capitalize on this shift in environmental ideals can do so by focusing on the planet rather than the bottom line.  While profit is the primary concern of most sports organizations, there is actually some indication that organizational costs diminish within ecocentric organizations.  While no small undertaking, we have reached a point in time where the bottom line can no longer be the only concern for sports organizations.  Action is needed. Sport, as one of the most profound institutions in society, has the power, ability, and responsibility to promote ecological justice and, as such, can be at the forefront of creating change.

This article was contributed by Professor Melanie L. Sartore-Baldwin, who recently published research along with Brian P. McCullough on “Equity-based sustainability and ecocentric management: Creating more ecologically just sport organization practices” in the journal Sport Management Review.