The Greening of the Olympic Sponsors

The following was originally published on the Harvard Business Online.

Every year, major sporting events get greener and the goals for renewable energy use, carbon-neutrality, or zero-waste get tougher. The Vancouver Olympics which just ended featured a large range of greening activities; the sustainability staff worked on them for years, producing sustainability reports as far back as 2007. In their bids for the 2016 Olympics, not only did Chicago describe its games as "low-carbon", but Tokyo actually claimed its event would be carbon-negative. As a special advisor to U.S. Soccer's bid for the FIFA World Cup in 2018 or 2022, I can tell you that there will be some tough goals in place for that event as well, should we win the bid.

In addition to the event committees themselves, what I find fascinating is how big, corporate-level sponsors are increasingly bringing their own sustainability agendas to the table as well.

It's smart, because if you're a sponsor, helping to green big events serves a number of purposes.

First, and most obviously, it's a great way to demonstrate your green bona fides, build your brand, and sell new products. There's no bigger or more passionate audience than live and TV-viewing sports fans. For a World Cup, for example, U.S. Soccer expects roughly five million fans through the gates, another ten million at fan "fests" nearby, and a cumulative audience of nearly 26 billion (multiple views for each of billions of fans, obviously) watching around the world. So of course companies fight to get these coveted spots and use them. For example, in 2008, GE leveraged the Beijing Olympics as a way to demonstrate its ecomagination portfolio.

But second, and perhaps more importantly, these events serve as a testing ground for new products, processes, and ways of doing business. Right before the games, Coke announced its aggressive targets for Vancouver — zero-waste and carbon-neutrality. The tactics behind these goals include employing new refrigerants to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, deploying hybrid delivery fleets, the use of Coke's new "PlantBottle," and the purchase of carbon offsets as a matter of course.

It's not just the Olympics. At the PGA Phoenix Open (which also just ended), sponsor Waste Management is using the opportunity to try some new waste reduction and management techniques, including moving toward a zero-waste goal, introducing Solar Compactors, and installing "reverse" vending machines that collect recyclables. (Full disclosure: Waste Management hired me to speak at a dinner at this event -- more on that trip later.)

While cynics will say it's just grandstanding by these big brands, I actually do see real action and serious learning going on. Only with live tests like these can Coke learn, for example, how consumers react to a new bottle or whether low-GHG refrigerants perform as expected in the field. These events are pilot projects — they're circumscribed in time and space and allow new thinking and action on a controllable scale.

These efforts offer a great lesson for all companies. Any organization can try green initiatives out in a single office building or at a single corporate event (Earth Day events are the most obvious, but anything will do: a "fun run", fundraiser, etc.). Not all new ideas will work, so look for project opportunities of moderate scale — and sponsoring an external or internal event is a good place to start — and build from there.

Andrew Winston is the Director of the Corporate Environmental Strategy Project at the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy. He is also the author of Green to Gold and The Green Recovery. For information on bringing him to speak about environmental issues, visit



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