Colin Tetreault of Arizona State is both a Green-Sports visionary and top-level practitioner. This was made clear when he moderated the Thought Leader panel at the Green Sports Alliance Summit in June. Next up, thought leadership-wise, for Tetreault is a home game of sorts: the Sports & Sustainability Symposium at ASU this winter. GreenSportsBlog spoke with Tetreault in a two-part interview.
Part I deals with Tetreault’s pre-Green-Sports life: His passion for the environment, as well as his sustainability work at Arizona State and in the mayor’s office in Phoenix. Tomorrow’s Part II delves into Tetreault’s and ASU’s Green-Sports leadership and where he thinks the movement needs to go.
GreenSportsBlog: Colin, you have an impressive — and, I have to say, long job title: Senior Sustainability Scholar and Global Sports Scholar, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. You’ve worked with Major League Baseball, USA Triathlon and others on innovative Green-Sports initiatives. And, as I experienced first hand at the Green Sports Alliance Summit in June when you moderated the Thought Leader panel and workshop, you’re also working to push the Green-Sports movement forward faster. So I’ve been looking forward to this interview. How did you get to this place at the leading edge of Green-Sports?
Colin Tetreault: Thanks so much, Lew. Hey, I’m the proud product of a west coast business-guy dad and a Delaware Quaker mom. I grew up in the outdoors, climbed my first mountain when I was 9, learned contract negotiation at 12, did migrant refugee social work in my early teens, and gave thanks for the “return of a bull market” in high school. I have a background in capitalism and environmentalism, marketing and social work. Since my mom worked at ASU, I’ve been in that community since kindergarten. I did my undergrad and grad school work there.
GSB: You are a Sun Devil through and through! What did you study?
Colin: Well, after peaking in kindergarten I studied marketing and sociology as an undergrad. I was part of the inaugural cohort, back in 2007-08 in the sustainability graduate degree program, which emphasized the need for purpose in business.
Colin Tetreault, Senior Sustainability Scholar and Global Sports Scholar, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University (Photo credit: Colin Tetreault)
GSB: Ahead of its time…
Colin: I was very fortunate in terms of my timing, to say the least. While in grad school I started S2 Consulting. We showed corporate leadership how sustainability could drive business…How to do well while doing good. Clients included Intel, Starbucks, and PetSmart.
GSB: What did S2 Consulting do for these A-List companies?
Colin: We basically applied a sustainability lens to business consulting, showing our clients how leading on environment, as well as the social and governance aspects of sustainability, would help drive revenue, mitigate risk and drive brand image upward.
GSB: WOW! What did you do next?
Colin: I wanted to serve students, but didn’t want to go for a PhD — I didn’t want to write a dissertation that no one read, nor did I want to teach students to do the same. Instead, I wanted to help students interested in sustainability in a more practical fashion. In 2010, ASU offered a new Masters of Sustainable Solutions. It quickly became the most popular masters degree program at the School. It involved one year of studying and one year of doing.
GSB: That sounds right up your alley…
Colin: It was. I mean, if you want graduates to get hired in cool, sustainability-oriented jobs, what they needed was practical experience. So corporations would come to our program and we connected them to students, who then worked on sustainability projects that were material to the enterprise. And that set them up for jobs once they graduated
GSB: That is how a graduate school program should run. Now I understand you also got involved in politics at around that time. Talk about that…
Colin: Yes. I was a Director on the Phoenix Green Chamber of Commerce. This was 2011-12. There was a mayoral election then. If memory serves, there were 11 candidates running. They had a debate on sustainability. Eight of the candidates were on stage; two of them were respectable on environmental issues. One of them actually understood that sustainability was more than trees and recycling. That was Greg Stanton. He said “if I’m elected, I will appoint Phoenix’ first full time sustainability policy director.” I said to myself, “I want this job!” I was qualified, had the subject matter expertise and was known as an honest broker in the community. So when Greg won, I went for it and — what do you know — he appointed me to his team!
Colin Tetreault (l), Eugene Scott (now a Washington Post reporter) and then-Phoenix mayor Greg Stanton promote bike share in the city in 2013 (Photo credit: Grid Bike)
GSB: That’s AMAZING! How did ASU react?
Colin: They were great about it. The university loaned me to the city. The city was able to save cost on a director level role and the university was able to be of service to its community.
GSB: That’s quite the win-win. What did you do in the sustainability policy director role?
Colin: Well, when I came into the city government, Phoenix was known as the “Bird On Fire,” the least sustainable city in the USA…
GSB: …So there was only one way to go: UP!
Colin: I served with a great team in the writing of the city’s first sustainability plans. We made sure they were 100 percent policy driven, not a political document. That way we could get much more buy in. After two years, I’m proud to say that we were able to author one of the best sustainability turnaround stories for a city.
GSB: What were some of its key tenets?
Colin: Let me frame the situation we faced: Phoenix is the fifth largest city in the nation. I was tasked with serving 1.7 million people over an area that is 520 square miles. You can fit Paris, Rome, Manhattan, and San Francisco into the legal borders of Phoenix. That doesn’t include the two dozen additional cities in our region. To add to the challenge, our state-level politics and historical orientations didn’t make sustainability practice difficult, it made it outright hostile. But that didn’t stop us. We rolled up our sleeves, made our work focused on cost efficiencies to create buy-in, and set out to create positive change.
Some of the big and fun ones were energy, waste, land use, and transportation.
In energy, we built a $25 million deal – the largest in the nation – in partnership with the Department of Energy and a regional bank – to accelerate home rooftop solar deployment in the city. It only makes sense that place with the best solar capacity should empower its residents to take control of their energy bills and reduce their environmental impact in perpetuity. We specifically carved out this program to be reserved for folks of low-to-moderate income areas. We believed — and still do — that we are judged not on how we treat those with the most, but how we treat those with the least.
We also authored the most aggressive approach to waste in the history of the state. Prior, the city and region had no waste management goals. None.
GSB: How was that possible for the fifth largest city in the nation?
Colin: Crazy, right? Well, we became the first American city to partner with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to create a “circular economy”. We basically said there’s no such thing as trash. While setting a 100 percent Zero Waste goal, we also looked to transform “trash” into resources. We called the campaign Reimagine Phoenix, asking folks to reimagine a future with no waste…just resources and opportunities. We built, in partnership with ASU, a public-private tech accelerator to cultivate and build local companies that could address the waste stream and grow private-sector jobs. Here are a few examples: palm fronds. Yeah, those things people like to sip umbrella laden drink under…turns out that they are a pickle to compost. The fibrous nature of them precludes them from being incorporated into normal compost operations. For anyone who has been to Phoenix knows we’ve got trees in spades. The city partnered with a private enterprise to break those fronds into a material that is incorporated into an animal feedstock. Another venture takes hard to recycle plastic items and breaks the polymers into base-level monomers…the building blocks of other items. From there, they can make “stuff” and keep materials in play…not downgrading them or sending them to a landfill.
GSB: That is very cool…What about land?
Colin: Land…oh boy…don’t get me started! There was a 2000 article indicating that nearly 40 percent of the Phoenix region was vacant land. Not only does that look terrible, it depresses property values, which reduces tax revenues, which means school budget cuts. It also adds to the urban heat island effect, and reduces community cohesion.
GSB: Not a good look.
Colin: Not at all. While certain land use policies are primarily the purview of the county and state, we showcased what reform could look like. We worked with Keep Phoenix Beautiful to transform 15 acres of vacant land in the heart of central Phoenix.
GSB: Fifteen acres of vacant land? Downtown?
Colin: It was the largest vacant piece of land in the heart of a downtown in the nation…and it had been that way for over 20 years. We — and a dozen community partners — built the largest and most impactful community space in the state. Refugee gardeners built and operated businesses. We hosted veterans therapy groups to help treat those with PTSD symptoms, built gathering collaboration spaces for LGBTQ youth bullied out of high school, hosted concerts and more. We called it PHX Renews. We wanted to renew our urban fabric. And we did. The fun part…everything on the site was made to be interim and moveable. Here’s the cool part…that giant piece of land…is going to be redeveloped. Our work didn’t disappear, it moved – like germinating seeds – to grow opportunities all over the Valley of the Sun.
GSB: Finally, on transportation?
Colin: We brought bike share to the city, accelerated the deployment of more light rail, and sought to create a policy of “complete streets” where thoroughfares are designed to move goods, ideas, peoples and services…not just cars. Instead of a banal streetscape that consists of 4 lanes of vehicular traffic with episodic, anemic tree or shade cover that is not just uncomfortable for, but openly hazardous for pedestrians and cyclists – in addition to vehicle operators – “complete streets” paints a more virtuous picture for all. By embracing slower vehicular speeds, with more purposeful pedestrian and non-motorized transit options and gathering spots, places and businesses flourish. Look to intersections from Manhattan to Curitiba. What were once solely car dominated areas are now bastions of commerce and culture. By the way, it also has positive environmental impacts by tailpipe emissions…so it’s got that going for it, too.
IN FRIDAY’S PART II: Colin discusses his return to Arizona State and how he helped it become a Green-Sports innovator.