by Silvia Schmid
Aside from its benefits to society, business sustainability has become valuable in its own right for those enterprises moving to achieve it properly – and market it honestly. As part of their joint seminar series, Wharton’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership and the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of Pennsylvania invited Jami Leveen, Director of Marketing and Environmental Stewardship for ARAMARK’s Sports & Entertainment division, to speak about the company’s sustainability practices.
Due to their celebrity, professional athletes are often trendsetters in a variety of settings from fashion to films. But a growing green trend has seen athletes in the US –and their sporting facilities– emerging as leaders also in environmental stewardship. Sporting events, which, aside from the games themselves, are perhaps best characterized by massive consumption and waste, are opportune spots to communicate a message of environmental sustainability. The large audience, and the tendency for many fans to imitate their favorite players, can strongly influence behavior inside and outside the stadium. In the words of Ms. Leveen: if Derek Jeter tells his fans to recycle, there is a much better chance they will spend those extra 1.2 seconds choosing the right bin. But the impact can be felt beyond simply the behavior of fans. The purchasing power of sports venues also puts pressure on vendors and the rest of the supply chain.
ARAMARK’s commitment to sustainability ranges from sustainable food –including local, fresh, organic, and healthy choices– to waste stream management, green buildings, and responsible procurement. According to Ms. Leveen, as a food and facilities management operator in large sporting venues, exerting stronger control over the generated waste stream was of fundamental concern. And in a stadium, the primary waste comes from food and food packaging. ARAMARK’s plan to significantly reduce the quantity of waste generated is multifaceted. In addition to choosing compostable or recyclable packaging for its goods, they are able to more accurately gauge the suitable levels of food production by tracking attendance at past events and accounting for other factors like temperature, season, time of the day, the stature of the teams playing, etc. As a result, they are able to satisfy demand while bringing less food into the stadium and generating less waste. But achieving this balance was no easy task. As Ms. Leveen pointed out, “nobody wants to buy the last hot dog.”
Because stadiums produce large quantities of waste, a high rate of waste diversion, i.e. diverting residuals from landfills to recycling and composting, becomes an essential component of sustainability efforts. Generally ARAMARK achieves up to 80-90% of waste diversion in the stadiums they manage. At Lincoln Financial Field, home to the Philadelphia Eagles, they reach an amazing 99% diversion rate simply by not giving fans a trash option. By converting their packaging to recyclable and compostable materials and swapping trash cans for recycling and composting bins, the stadium was able to reduce its landfill waste, which now comes nearly entirely from outside trash brought in by fans (candy wrappers are a big one). Lincoln Financial Field also now boasts on-site hand sorting for contaminants in the recycling in the basement of the facility, which is congenially decked with plasma screens so the employees don’t miss out on the game.
A few of ARAMARK’s many other initiatives in the area include:
- Investing in chemical-free iodine cleaning materials (also used here at the Wharton School)
- Recycling concrete from older sites into newly constructed facilities
- Incorporating current trends like “From Farm to kitchen” and “Transparency” into their sustainability plan
- Partnering with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society on the Home Runs for Trees campaign. One tree is planted for each home run hit by the Philadelphia Phillies (187 trees were planted in 2012).
Like in all sectors, finding solutions to environmental concerns at sports venues requires system-thinking and innovation. A prime example of the latter is the creation of a new product from something previously considered to be waste. For instance, in Seattle, composted grass cuttings and other stadium materials were packaged as “Safeco Field Soil” compost and offered as a fan giveaway for Seattle Mariners fanatics. ARAMARK has also distributed branded composting kits in collaboration with BASF, The Chemical Company. Also at Safeco Field, the creative answer to the problem of too many plastic water bottles was to sell compostable bottles of purified municipal water as well as providing reusable cups and water filling stations. It is also worth mentioning the ingenious solution for the long-standing (and slippery) issue of the layer of peanut shells that inevitably builds up on all walkable surfaces at baseball stadiums: blow the shells off the upper decks so they fall to the lower deck, then use high-powered leaf vacuums for collection and disposal into composting.
In general, it is becoming less acceptable to ignore sustainability issues at sports venues. This trend is more readily apparent in the Pacific Northwest, where the public expects a certain level of corporate social responsibility and a clear sustainability program. If environmental performance is lagging behind, the fans will speak up. The hope is that the rest of the country will soon catch up. For other facilities and companies wishing to follow the professional teams’ paths toward sustainability, Ms. Leveen explained that true progress is gradual. Start small and target the low-hanging fruits first. Then, by continuing to make small adjustments, the accomplishments will start to build.
The conversation about sustainability leadership in sports will continue at a conference on June 4th, co-hosted by the Wharton Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership and the Wharton Sports Business Initiative, and in collaboration with the Natural Resources Defense Council.