The Sustainable MBA

How the Green Sports Alliance mobilizes sports fans to play for environmental change

16 leagues. 194 teams. 195 venues. Members of the Green Sports Alliance embrace renewable energy, healthy food, recycling, water efficiency, safer chemicals and other environmentally preferable practices — and they inspire millions of fans to follow their lead.

The Alliance believes that the sports industry is uniquely positioned to make large-scale impact in the environmental performance of many of the world’s largest public spaces. It also believes that sports teams play a special role in influencing citizens and mobilizing communities to action. 

To find out more about how the Alliance leverages the cultural and market influence of sports to promote sustainable practices, Bard MBA student Kristin Hanczor spoke with Roger McClendon, the organization’s executive director.

McClendon joined the Alliance just over a year ago, after serving as the first chief sustainability officer for Yum! Brands, whose holdings include Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC. He and Hanczor also spoke about McClendon’s own career journey and his decision to switch to the relatively niche world of green sports.

Kristin Hanczor: You spent over 14 years at Yum! Brands working in roles from facilities to food innovation. How did you become the company's first chief sustainability officer?

Roger McClendon: Yum! Brands [has locations] in over 146 countries. When I first joined the company, we had about 20,000 restaurants, and we ended up building over 46,000 by the time I retired. So it was an incredible time, and I spent a lot of time working on our engineering function — around efficiencies and flow, from labor to food quality product quality. 

What I saw, as I was building the brand and building my career, was a gap in our business. I brought it to our CEO’s attention with a business plan and strategy around our obligations as a corporate citizen in context of the triple bottom line. 

We needed to figure out how we could grow in a way that aligned with our values. Part of our value system was to think about our customer in the community. That was my first proposal, and I spent the last 10 years of my career in the chief sustainability officer role defining that long answer. 

Hanczor: From that role as chief sustainability officer of a major global brand, why did you decide to switch into the niche world of green sports?

McClendon: My roots are in sports. Even during my career with Yum!, I recognized that sports could play a major role in sustainability. Then, when I retired from Yum!, I took on some opportunities to work with local charities, and I ended up working with Aspire Basketball Academy. When I got a call about the opening at Green Sports Alliance, I was intrigued. I just started in executive director role about a year ago and it’s really a dream job, working at the nexus of sports and sustainability.

Hanczor: How can the corporate sustainability movement collaborate with the green sports movement to create greater impact?

McClendon: There's a natural collaborative relationship. When you think about what happens in a sports stadium, you have operations and food that corporations are in. So we work with big organizations like Aramark, a partner of ours, to provide a great fan experience. When fans come back, that supports the business model.

At the same time, it’s our responsibility to figure out how to get the price right so that it's affordable for fans at the same time that we’re making sure that the quality and safety are there. On the environmental side, there’s the supply chain and everything that revolves around that process so that there's no waste and we're efficient. We need to know that the products we're using are from a sustainable source. There's the health and wellness aspect to that, too. 

So, it’s all integrated. Through that relationship, corporations and sports groups can grow business together and also promote the right behaviors.

Hanczor: Do you have any advice for corporate sustainability professionals who want to get involved in the green sports movement?

McClendon: We have symposiums throughout the year in different regions and an annual summit, which is in Minneapolis this June. It allows us to come together around trends and sustainability networking opportunities. It also allows us to engage in some of the challenges around what we call our separate verticals: food, waste, energy, transportation, and the venues themselves.

We're not saying that you can't drive and make a profit; we're saying that if you think about leveraging technology and innovation, a lot of times you can keep the triple bottom line. I live by that, and it’s really important for sustainability managers, who have the right language and the right approach, to engage. By benchmarking, networking, learning best practices, and applying technology in the right way, you can drive a lot of wins. We look forward to having that engagement.

Hanczor: What about sports fans? How can they support the sustainability movement?

McClendon: Individuals have a lot of power, especially when they bring that power in a collective way. Obviously, fans can engage through social media and let folks know how they feel. They can also support efforts around greening events, like the college football playoffs. There are opportunities for each individual to change their own behavior, and also to use their dollars and voice to support what they think is important. That's huge.

This Q&A is an edited excerpt from the Bard MBA’s Feb. 7 episode of The Impact Report podcast. The Impact Report brings together students and faculty in Bard’s MBA in Sustainability program with leaders in business, sustainability and social entrepreneurship.