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'Godfather of greening' writes game plan for big-time sports

NEW YORK -- Battle-hardened environmentalist Allen Hershkowitz has done just about everything in green activism.

In his 26-year run as senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Hershkowitz was known for brash, large-scale endeavors, but he also fought in the trenches for core environmental policy. Dubbed the "godfather of greening," he has handled imaging for the Oscars broadcast, the Grammy Awards, DuPont Corp., Coca-Cola and the Clinton administration -- to cite just a few -- and he also spearheaded old-fashioned fights over solid waste, recycling and deforestation.

But his new mission may trump them all in terms of potential to reach a mainstream audience. He's taking on big-time sports.

Last month, the father of three and holder of a doctorate from the City University of New York decided to make his sports advocacy dream a full-time reality when he was named president of the Green Sports Alliance, an up-and-coming nonprofit that takes a very hands-on approach to greening a $1.3 trillion industry.

GSA already has a very long reach into professional sports. Consider its roster: 135 venues across all leagues, Major League Baseball, 18 National Football League teams, the National Hockey League, Major League Soccer, the U.S. Tennis Association, the National Basketball Association, the National Women's Basketball Association, the National Lacrosse League and 28 National Collegiate Athletic Association athletic departments.

Hershkowitz is seen as a kind of environmental guru in those leagues, the go-to guy for "greening up" venues and improving green visibility while sports program director at NRDC. He is a talkative visionary but also a pragmatist who doesn't intend to start arguments over, say, Exxon Mobil Corp. advertising budgets during sports broadcasts when he might better help clean up a stadium.

"Civilization has its costs," he said in one of a series of interviews. "Our objective is to reduce those costs."

Hershkowitz explained that, to date, GSA has focused mostly on improving how these leagues handle waste at their venues, consume energy and recycle water, but he has bigger campaigns in mind along the lines of how breast-cancer awareness has exploded in part due to the interest level among professional athletes and their spouses.

Hershkowitz cited a recent ESPN poll that indicated 81 percent of Americans follow sports. He wants to dig into that audience to not only affect daily operations but also encourage athletes to advocate for broader causes like climate change and species destruction.

He likes to point to sports as one of the only politically neutral places in the country where someone like him can connect to "mainstream values." He cited issues like breast cancer, domestic violence, racism and the protection of U.S. troops as examples of where politics and sports have crisscrossed, often with the result of mainstreaming perspective.

"Frankly, sports is a culturally unifying and trusted network," he said. "That's the point. We've got to make climate change politically neutral. We've got to take politics out of the discussion."

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That attitude helps to explain why this longtime NRDC wonk thinks that working with an organization like NASCAR -- whose core model is linked to gas-guzzling, fast cars and an atmosphere of excess -- is smart activism. Hershkowitz figures he could yell and scream about the negatives associated with auto racing, or he could help steer the league to a new place.

Hershkowitz says he has spoken to the head of NASCAR about using electric cars, for instance, and notes that the Toyota Prius is often used as the pace car at races these days.

"People say, 'How could you collaborate with NASCAR?'" he said. "We could try to get rid of NASCAR, or we can say NASCAR exists and how do we minimize the footprint."

He later added, "It's bewildering it took the environmental community 40 years to engage in sports. Think about states like Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, Missouri. What sector penetrates those regions and gets their attention? It's sports."

'We needed more horsepower'

Shifting attitudes and expectations then appears to be just as big a part of Hershkowitz's new job as is reducing stadium food waste by composting. He talks about that shift openly, in stark terms that at times sounds like a broad glimpse inside a marketing pitch.

In other words, Hershkowitz's goal is plain to see: He wants to reach the fans as they've not been reached before on core issues that tend to bore the jersey off an average fantasy-football junkie. And he intends to do so through the athletes they pay to watch and follow so avidly.

"Frankly, we know what we need to do, the barriers aren't technical," he said. "We need to shift from an emphasis on science to an emphasis on culture. It's the same culture shift as when we committed to sending a man to the moon. We need to mobilize that kind of energy."

It's clear that Hershkowitz was brought in to be the ideas guy for teams that have sustainability experts on the payroll looking for direction. At a press conference about GSA featuring representatives from the major leagues, it was the former NRDC scientist doing most of the bantering while the league reps stuck to the script.

That may be because the chairman of the GSA board of directors, Scott Jenkins, isn't an old-style environmentalist or exclusively a sustainability expert. Jenkins manages stadiums and currently does so for the Atlanta Falcons, after stints with the Seattle Mariners and Philadelphia Eagles, and appears eager to cede to Hershkowitz's stamp of authority when it comes to talking policy.

Jenkins says his relationship with Hershkowitz started about a decade ago when he worked for the Eagles on what was one of the NFL's first sustainability programs. Jenkins hired Hershkowitz to help create "Go Green," and the men have been working together ever since.

Jenkins likes to say that "Allen has been with us from the start," repeating that point in a pair of interviews. GSA decided to bring him in full time to continue growth that has seen the group go from three full-time employees 10 years ago "on a shoestring budget" to 300 members now between teams, leagues and venues.

"We needed more horsepower, and Allen brings the technical skills to the table," he said. "He's a dynamic leader, he's a visionary, and has great relationships with the leagues and teams."

Jenkins said GSA is focused in the short term on finding ways to raise more money to help elevate environmentalism within sports and engage more with fans and corporations. Engagement with fans, he said, "is really where the biggest value is in terms of cultural change."

Hershkowitz will also be charged with reaching out to the icons that make the leagues go -- the athletes -- to try and make the environmental policy message sexy enough to take up. Jenkins said that is the role that could mean the most effect on mainstream views.

"The big opportunities to make change is when athletes start talking about it," he said. "There are some athletes who get it, but most aren't in any large way paying attention to it."

Jenkins added, "Allen is the key guy in creating programs to reach out to them and adding legitimacy to it. That is the nut we have to crack."

Another GSA executive, Justin Zeulner, the group's chief operating officer, noted that sports have often helped trail-blaze for social movements that may have otherwise taken years to reach the public. He cited Jackie Robinson's breaking down racial barriers when he was the first African-American to play in MLB, for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

"We are the industry that can do this kind of thing together, once we get rolling," he said.

Jenkins is also hopeful that the younger sports stars coming up today will be more open to engaging these kinds of campaigns. He noted that younger athletes are coming of age in an era of social media and celebrities speaking their minds, so he's hoping "they're going to be more prone to take a stand."

Jenkins cited the NFL's current battle on concussion awareness as evidence that social issues are increasingly overlapping with sports and creating an atmosphere where awareness of the larger world "is baked into sports now." He also cited athletes recently wearing "I can't breathe" T-shirts as a symbol of solidarity with Eric Garner's death at the hands of NYPD officers.

"I think there's a whole different awareness level about what's happening and the role that we all play in it," he said. "These are social issues that sports can help solve in a better way than any other avenue."

At the same time, Jenkins believes there is "a little bit of a fear factor" at work that might prevent a given athlete from getting too involved in an issue seen as divisive or complex. He believes that's where someone like Hershkowitz can help fill an expert advisory role.

"You have to be smart enough to know what you're talking about," he said. "We need that voice."

Measuring progress

One problem for GSA is that it measures progress more in anecdotes than hard data partly because sports venues in the recent past didn't necessarily track waste volume or energy efficiency before the brains behind GSA came along.

Hershkowitz and company, therefore, can't offer a venue-versus-venue analysis, because they don't have any.

The venues tend to keep those statistics to themselves, for one, and there are so many variables that influence performance -- location, weather, attendance, time of year -- that doing eco-comparisons between leagues or venues isn't plausible yet, Hershkowitz said.

"Most of an event's energy impact relates to transportation of fans, like most shopping malls and perhaps most other businesses," he said.

At the same time, GSA likes to point to anecdotal evidence of progress, often telling "the story" of a given venue for the public. One such story on its website is how the NHL's Minnesota Wild management company, which runs Xcel Energy Center and St. Paul RiverCentre, has gone from 15 percent of waste recycling to recycling 60 percent of the 2 million pounds of waste it generates per year.

Another looks at how the Citizens Business Bank Arena, a minor league hockey venue in Ontario, teamed with a Southern California water district to use recycled water to make its ice. GSA is hoping the entire NHL takes note.

"At any given venue that we've worked with ... we've seen meaningful reductions in waste, energy and water use," Hershkowitz said. "More than 25 percent energy-use reductions are not uncommon. Some examples far exceed that."

Water-use reductions, he insisted, are often "substantial" along the lines of the Staples Center in Los Angeles, which has achieved a 7 million gallon water savings a year due to an audit GSA instigated.

"And all this is just the beginning, both in the pro leagues, in colleges -- our most fertile ground -- and in countries around the world," Hershkowitz said. "In less than five years, the GSA already has members and affiliate organizations in 13 countries, and it is growing."

'Mascots at Risk'

Still, the first major report under Hershkowitz's leadership at GSA focuses on what might be considered a wonky issue in species loss. But the group approached the problem with a creative bent in an attempt to maximize attention, by linking threatened or endangered species with sports mascots and team nicknames.

GSA put out a glossy report on the subject last month in an attempt to connect the dots between the Eagles and Tigers we root for on the field and the eagles and tigers in the real world that are part of what some have termed "the sixth extinction" for species' deaths globally.

In writing the introduction for the report, Hershkowitz said, "Although teams' animal mascots have become familiar symbols, their plight in the wild goes largely unnoticed by sports leagues, fans and the very teams that embrace animal mascots as a team emblem."

Thus was launched the "Mascots at Risk" initiative -- Hershkowitz's first big play at GSA. The report argues that teams use lions, bears, tigers or dolphins as mascots somewhat blindly and do little to help restore their habitat or address extinction in general terms. The report details the range and perceived environmental threats to major mascots and nicknames.

But why start with species loss? Why not, said Hershkowitz, who is also juggling initiatives on more electric vehicle parking spaces at stadiums and making food antibiotic free and eliminating toxic chemicals from cleaning agents used by janitors at the local ballpark.

"These are the things we are going to try to get the sports industry to pay attention to," he said. "This is building on good work."

When asked why he couldn't have continued to pursue the sports angle at NRDC, Hershkowitz noted that the group doesn't take corporate contributions and doesn't do product endorsements. He's hoping to merge the "sports assets" of NRDC under one umbrella, and reaching out to the corporations directly is a big part of that strategy.

"NRDC's motto is 'no permanent friends, no permanent enemies,'" he said, adding he can't think of one industry -- be it energy, chemical or plastic -- that is not affiliated in some way with the major U.S. sports leagues.

Hershkowitz also likes to think his path is an alternative to government "not leading the way on our issues," just as government did not necessarily lead the way on civil or gender rights. He hopes his efforts can help offset recent elections that have led to more "climate deniers" elected in Congress.

"To move good stuff forward when you can't count on government to do it; that's, I think, part of the reason for why I'm doing this," he said.

"I'm an activist," he added. "It's what I do."

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