What NASCAR Can Teach Sustainability Professionals

For many sustainability executives, their toughest challenge is to engage employees and persuade them to buy into their company's commitment. Mike Lynch's message is no different, but his toughest audience isn't his organization, industry or its fans. Often, it's his peers.

Recently, the managing director of NASCAR Green Innovation stood before a roomful of sustainability professionals gathered for a meeting of the GreenBiz Executive Network.

Just before he began his presentation, a hand came up in the audience and a voice said, "Before you start, just let me make sure you understand, this whole thing is an oxymoron from our standpoint," Lynch recalled.

"What was great about it," he said, remembering the moment, "was that it was the first time the interaction was so explicit. When I go into a room like that with a bunch of sustainability people, I assume that's the attitude. Because with anybody who is new to the idea [of NASCAR's green efforts], it's usually, 'You're the green guy from where?' " 

It's not an unreasonable question. NASCAR is a 63-year-old, family-run, privately held company that's the governing body for America's No.1 spectator sport -- a showcase for fast cars zooming around racetracks. NASCAR doesn't own the tracks, drivers, cars or teams. And it's not pushing its green initiatives with regulations or in contracts. Exactly how is it going -- and doing -- green?

From long practice, Lynch has answers ready. A 20-plus-year veteran in strategic business planning with experience in environmental and health technology, Lynch joined the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing in 2008 to help define its green strategy and carry the message to the organization's scores of business partners.

nascar green logoSince then, NASCAR has built the largest recycling program in sports. This year it's on target to divert more than 1,000 tons of material from events -- including cardboard and more than 12 million beverage containers – from landfill.

NASCAR's success with recycling -- as with all of its sustainability initiatives -- wouldn't be possible without its strategic partnerships. Coca-Cola Recycling is a key partner on recycling, as are Coors Light and Freightliner. The heavy-duty truck manufacturer provides a clean-idle diesel rig that brings Coca-Cola's Portable Processing Center, which can handle 1,100 containers a minute, to race venues.

NASCAR also has robust recycling programs for specialty materials. Official tire sponsor Goodyear recycles about 121,000 tires from NASCAR's top three national race series each year. Environmental services company Safety-Kleen collects and re-refines 180,000 gallons of oil used during races annually. Exide Technologies provides car battery recycling services. Sprint, the sponsor of the NASCAR's No. 1 national race series, offers race attendees postage-paid envelopes for the company's brand-agnostic cell phone recycling service.

And at the start of the racing season in February, NASCAR launched a multiyear biofuels program that brought Sunoco's Green E15, a blended fuel made with 15 percent ethanol from corn grown in the U.S., to the organization's three major race series – the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck.

All the cars in 95 races scheduled this year are using the fuel. By season's end, just before Thanksgiving, they will have logged more than 1 million miles with the fuel that results in 20 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than unleaded gas. And drivers and their teams say Sunoco's Green E15 provides a 6 percent to 8 percent increase in horsepower.

That's just part of NASCAR's list of green activities. But the list alone doesn't spell out why sustainability professionals should care about NASCAR's green efforts. Talks with Lynch and other experts in racing, sports and the environment helped bring the big picture into focus from the green perspective.

NASCAR's work to reduce its environmental impact provides unique lessons for companies, especially those that face the same challenge that NASCAR does in its efforts to create change: Namely, problems in credibly conveying green initiatives, and a business model that relies heavily on stakeholder relationships instead of direct lines of authority.

The sport also holds huge potential for popularizing green values and behavior. As the top spectator sport in the U.S. and the No. 2-rated regular season sport on TV, an estimated 75 million people follow NASCAR.

It is an intensely brand-loyal sport. Allegiance to drivers, their teams and companies sponsoring them is "often handed down generation to generation," said Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council who has worked with the entertainment industry and major league sports on environmental initiatives aimed at mass audiences, as well as the vast supply chains for the influential industries.

Next page: How NASCAR's brand loyalty is a corporate sustainability "sweet spot"