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Keeping sustainability at the center of large-scale events

Sponsored: Today’s fans require much more than just entertainment; they expect sustainable and values-driven sporting events. Is your event meeting the moment?

People standing around waste bins for a zero waste tour at the WM Phoenix Open

Lee Spivak, Senior Manager of WM Advisory Services, giving a tour to sustainability professionals at the 2023 WM Phoenix Open.

This article is sponsored by WM.

For many fans, sporting event expectations transcend three-pointers, birdies and checkered flags. Today’s fans want events, teams and even athletes to elevate what happens on the court, course or racetrack with a higher sense of purpose.

A recent report published by YouGov Sport, a global sports and sponsorship research company, backs up these assertions. The report examined what sports fans expect of sports organizations regarding issues such as the environment, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

Fans believe teams, events and athletes "should be leading the way on social responsibility, and fans will hold these organizations to account if they aren’t authentic and transparent in articulating and delivering their social promise," according to the report.

The good news: Sporting events provide a natural vehicle to showcase products and services that educate people and reduce environmental impacts. However, most sponsors and event organizers aren’t optimizing the chances for footprint minimization, stakeholder engagement and collaboration that adds brand value.

Fortunately, WM is well-positioned to help event organizers, sponsors and companies implement agile sustainability programs to continuously grow to drive the most impact with attention to helping minimize impact on the environment.

Sports matter to most of us

The YouGov Sport report made it clear: Sports — and sustainability — matter to people. According to report findings, 76 percent of the world’s adults follow sports and more than a third of U.S. fans believe sports leagues should do more to address carbon footprint reductions and other environmental concerns.

Real sustainability progress is expected from organizations of all sizes — a mindset that has accelerated with heightened awareness of the climate crisis and sustainability. With this shift, companies seek all-inclusive strategies that integrate environmental sustainability priorities into planning processes.

WM Advisory Services provides end-to-end strategic supply chain support and thought leadership for clients to implement meaningful environmental sustainability initiatives. As a result, WM is changing how sports organizations, event sponsors and companies approach sustainability, evaluate operations, compile impact metrics, support practical implementation efforts and create comprehensive strategies.

New name, broader mission

Historically, many WM customers have equated sustainability with recycling. However, WM — formerly Waste Management — re-branded to drop "Waste" from its name in 2022 to demonstrate an organizational commitment to being a trusted sustainability partner and innovation leader that does much more than manage waste.

WM’s Advisory Services team is the tip of this environmental sustainability spear, helping clients achieve broader sustainability goals through uniquely diverse technical sustainability expertise.

Comprehensive supply chain overhaul guidance

WM has helped clients with their environmental sustainability goals for over 25 years. This work includes developing sustainability strategies, designing emissions management plans and supporting supply chain management programs in the sports world and beyond.

WM’s sports and entertainment sustainability portfolio has grown to include five professional leagues, seven venues, nine golf tournaments and several non-sports companies. The company leverages the same approach from this work to tackle complex environmental challenges for customers across all sectors. 

WM advisers provide a wide range of guidance on environmental sustainability matters, from managing organic materials to optimizing renewable energy opportunities to integrating sustainability marketing to addressing upstream minimization activities (including materials procurement, transportation and even product design).

WM combines customer-tailored consulting support with local logistics, such as coordinating minimization pilots, including reusable dishware programs and fan-centered sustainability contests; organics and recycling hauling; renewable natural gas creation for its fleet; layered program management support; and unique waste stream diversion for textiles, universal waste and plastic film.

While every sporting event is unique, the ingredients for environmental sustainability success are the same: The more an organization buys into sustainability from department to department, the quicker progress occurs. WM can help develop sustainability "task forces" within an organization to help ensure follow-through through strategic guidance.

WM helps clients answer big questions that alter organizational structure, operations, and event-planning DNA, such as:

  • What are the client’s core values?
  • How is the client embedding sustainability in its operations?
  • How is the client creating sustainability branding and communication strategies?
  • How is the client creating sponsorship strategies that add financial value and enhanced sustainability outcomes?

An example of this holistic sustainability approach is the WM Phoenix Open golf tournament. WM’s planning team and the tournament host, The Thunderbirds, are committed to showcasing environmental education, solutions and conservation throughout the event.

Since 2013, WM has taken a zero-waste approach with the tournament through recycling, composting, donation, reuse and energy creation. This process involves engaging more than 100 vendors and sponsors and establishing annual procurement requirements to ensure materials go to their next-best use. In addition, since 2010 when WM became the title sponsor, the tournament has raised more than $110 million for local charities.

Regardless of the sport, sustainability translates.

"Our longstanding relationship with WM has continued to grow throughout the years, helping bring sustainability to the center of our business," said Indianapolis Motor Speedway President J. Douglas Boles, another long-term WM customer. "Through WM’s guidance, we’ve created a greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategy and improved our waste diversion efforts. Our work with WM also helped us achieve the first Council for Responsible Sport race certification in motorsports and its first venue certification."

Sustainability takes a team

Sporting event organizers are well-advised to integrate multiple perspectives to provide sustainability expertise and support, as these events naturally require diverse financial investment via sponsorships, media and operational strategies.

Why? Environmental sustainability strategies can create numerous marketing channels that didn’t previously exist, such as sponsorships related to materials management, energy, water and transportation. The ultimate goal is to create a mutually beneficial relationship that allows events to promote stakeholder brand values while using their services and products. WM believes inclusive collaboration creates financial, brand, operational and impact-reduction value across the organization.

Collaboration is a top priority to WM, even to the point where some customers rely on the WM Advisory Services team for programmatic support and still attract other companies as official sustainability sponsors.

WM’s role in this dynamic is to help ensure environmental priorities are embedded across all event activities.

Creating authentic progress

For event sponsors, standing for sustainability is not solely about logo placement; it’s about participating with purpose, action and integrity. Authenticity and transparency are critical, even if peeling back the curtain reveals the messy, complicated processes sustainability progress often requires.

WM relies on third-party validation (such as from the GEO Foundation and UL Zero Waste to Landfill) and internal data tracking to measure the usual sustainability metrics, such as water usage, GHG emissions and waste diversion. The company also produces reflections on outcomes, such as the number of sustainability sponsors and stakeholder enthusiasm levels, to determine event success.

Before engaging in collaborative efforts, stakeholders should carefully examine the intent and purpose of potential collaborators and not be afraid to walk away if visions do not align. WM helps clients with this assessment.

Like sports, sustainability is all about having good teammates. And like sports, you can’t do it alone.

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