Sustainability is a topic of increasing importance, as we learn more about our impact on the environment and as consumers grow increasingly concerned about the sustainability of companies and organizations. In fact, 86 percent of U.S. consumers now expect companies to act on social and environmental issues, adjusting their business practices to favor sustainable habits.

Major sports brands, despite being removed from typical consumer markets, are starting to transform their organizations to change fan (and sponsor) perceptions by becoming more sustainable, in line with this growing trend--and marketers everywhere can learn from them.

Why Changing a Sports Brand Is Hard

First, let's recognize why making the shift toward sustainability is so notable for sports brands, in particular. Sport-wide organizations and individual teams alike face the following challenges:

  • History and infrastructure. Most major sports organizations have been around for decades, if not 100 years or longer. The long history of the brands and established infrastructure (like existing stadiums and arenas) makes it difficult to make major changes, or change existing perceptions of the brand.
  • Relationships. Sports brands also have to maintain a complicated network of relationships, appealing to fans while still attracting sponsors, and of course, making things possible for individual teams and the players on them.
  • Decision making. Sports organizations tend to be complicated bureaucracies, with multiple decision makers and little high-level authority. Accordingly, it takes a long time to make official decisions, and when they are made, it takes a long time to see them enforced.

Examples of Sports Brands for Sustainability

These are some of the most notable changes sports brands have made to become more sustainable:

  1. NHL Green and sustainability reports. After recently celebrating its 100th anniversary, the NHL released a sustainability report with Connecticut-based Scrum50, and uses a Declaration of Principles to support a more positive, respectful, and inclusive hockey culture. NHL Green, a branch of the NHL, works to support sustainable innovation and community development by protecting natural resources and improving environmental sustainability, specifically.
  2. The NFL environmental program. For many years, the NFL has been sponsoring an environmental program to reduce the environmental impact of the Super Bowl and other games, and improve its overall sustainability. For example, the NFL reaches out to local partners to improve things like solid waste management, recycling, prepared food recovery, materials donations, sports equipment donation, and of course, greenhouse gas reduction and a movement toward renewable energy.
  3. MLB Green. The MLB supports sustainability by sponsoring volunteer efforts and a number of discrete programs designed to reduce energy consumption, produce renewable energy, recycle waste, and support local communities. For example, its "Rock and Wrap It Up" program has helped recycle and donate more than 36,000 pounds of unused food during All-Star week, branching out to more than 70 franchises across major professional sports leagues.
  4. The Cleveland Indians run on wind power. The Cleveland Indians were the first team to install a wind turbine for its stadium. Though other teams have adopted similar practices since then, the Indians have joined their ranks by powering their stadium with 100 percent renewable energy from wind power.
  5. The Boston Red Sox get LEED certification. The Boston Red Sox's Fenway Park now has LEED certification, and a substantial portion of its energy comes from solar panels and other renewable energy sources. The team is also committed to improving solid waste management, with better waste collection within the stadium and new recycling initiatives to reduce that waste.
  6. The Sacramento Kings attain LEED platinum. The Sacramento Kings recently built and opened the Golden 1 Credit Union Center, which is the first LEED Platinum certified arena in the world, representing the top 3 percent of certified buildings. The stadium uses solar panels for 100 percent of its power, and its architectural choices are estimated to keep 2,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions out of the atmosphere every year.

Sustainability has the potential to change how an organization is seen, and how it impacts the organization's community. Learn from these sports brands paving the way for a more sustainable future, and consider how your own organization might take steps to evolve as well.