Green-Sports Startups, Part II: Underdogs United

Well known global corporations, from BASF to Nike to Tesla, have dipped their toes in the Green-Sports waters. While it makes sense from PR and mission points of view, Green-Sports, for now, represents a small aspect of these companies’ businesses. At the other end are startups for which Green-Sports is everything, or close to it. GreenSportsBlog recently launched an occasional series, Green Sports Startups. It focuses on small (for now) that see the greening of sports as existential to their businesses’ prospects for success. Our first such startup was Nube9, a Seattle-based company committed to making recyclable sports uniforms in the U.S.A. from American fabrics. Today, we pivot to Eric Duea and Stephen Gabauer, co-founders of Underdogs United, a startup that looks to close the green-sports circle by getting sports teams to walk the green walk by buying renewable energy credits that support crucial greening projects in the developing world.

 

Long-time readers of GreenSportsBlog know that we believe the sports world has done a very good job greening the games themselves (i.e. LEED certified stadiums/arenas, Zero-Waste games, etc.)

Leveraging the massive power and size of the sports fan audience (by some estimates, 65-70 percent of humans worldwide) to fight climate change? Not so much just yet, even though sports has a strong track record in support of social movements, from civil rights to women’s rights and more.

But that is starting to change.

And, if Stephen Gabauer and Eric Duea have anything to say about it, Underdogs United, the Green-Sports startup these lifelong golfers-turned-eco-preneurs co-founded last year, will help the sports world have a measurable and significant impact on the fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the effects of climate change.

 

Version 4

Stephen Gabauer, co-founder, Underdogs United (Photo credit: Underdogs United)

 

Eric Duea Headshot Casa Bay Photography

Eric Duea, co-founder, Underdogs United. (Photo credit: Casa Bay Photography)

 

And soon.

But first, some background.

For Stephen and Eric, it was sports first, then green. Stephen, who grew up in the Pittsburgh area, is an archetypical Western Pennsylvania sports lover. “I played baseball, basketball, tennis and golf. Diehard Steelers, Pirates and Penguins fan. Went to Penn State.” A chemical engineering major, he started his career in that field in Charleston, SC but quickly realized his true passion was sports.

To scratch that itch and also to continue a love affair with Germany that had been sparked during a college internship, Stephen found a masters degree program in International Sports Management in Konstanz, near the Swiss border. Sustainable golf course design and architecture became his focus — “my thesis was ‘Sustainable Tourism In The Golf Industry’.” Next was an internship and then a job with Scotland-based Golf Environment Organization (GEO), the non-profit dedicated to providing sustainability standards and support programs to the golf industry. Stephen managed development of OnCourse, a sustainability software that provides science-based tools for course superintendents, including “water management, energy efficiency, and a carbon calculator.”

Meanwhile, Eric grew up on golf courses in southern Iowa and knew from an early age that he wanted to work in the sport in some way, shape or form. “I was a strong player on the Iowa junior circuit and, in high school, led our team to the state championship. But, when I went to Methodist University, a Division III power in Fayetteville, NC., I knew my future wasn’t as a touring pro. 300 guys would try out for the men’s team. Our women’s team had won the NCAA D-III title in 25 out of 27 years at one point. It’s easy to get perspective quickly.”

So Eric became a PGA club teaching pro, working at clubs across the U.S., including the legendary Doral Country Club in South Florida and Wild Dunes in South Carolina, before moving to Sunriver, OR where he was in charge of the membership program at the exclusive Crosswater Club. His responsibilities included high-stress membership sales. Eric ended up burning out.

“High income golfers could afford Crosswater but there was nowhere in Central Oregon for the average family or junior golfer. I saw the need for a community 12-hole course, targeted to middle class families,” said Eric. As I started to put together the funding plan and the shoestring budget, I started to learn about the environmental aspects of golf course management. It intrigued me. The course didn’t end up getting enough funding so it never got built but the experience convinced me to work on the future and the sustainability of golf. So I went to Pinchot University on Bainbridge Island, WA for my MBA in Sustainable Systems. That’s where I really dug into sustainable golf.”

It was at Pinchot that Eric became aware of GEO. “I immediately reached out to them, they hired me as an intern and, then once I finished at Pinchot in 2015 they moved me over to Scotland for a job.”

Stephen and Eric started their collaboration while the latter was running GEO’s Sustainable Tournaments Program. They worked together to, per perform carbon footprint assessments for the European and PGA Tour events, as The Open Championship, hosted by the R&A#.

 

Eric Open Championship 2015

Eric Duea at the 2015 Open Championship (Photo credit: Underdogs United)

 

Stephen became fascinated with the opportunity to go beyond ‘reducing’ your carbon footprint and balance it out entirely – known as achieving ‘climate neutral.’ He learned about innovative social businesses in the developing world and market-driven technologies like clean cookstoves and water filters. These initiatives remove measurable CO2 from the atmosphere and produce certified ‘carbon credits’, which are then sold to corporations as a way to reduce and balance their carbon footprint. “I became very inspired by the statistic that 3 billion people are still cooking every meal over an open fire – especially after learning the consequences on the environment and people’s health. I wanted to experience for myself the challenges in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere — I knew that would be integral to my work.”

Jazzed by social entrepreneurship, and ready to get involved on-the-ground, Stephen’s next move was an easy one. He left GEO to pursue his passion for tackling these global challenges. So he went to Kenya and Uganda to work and partner with organizations focused on climate change and helping communities access critical services like food, energy, and water.

Meanwhile, Eric, pursued his own passion for taking on climate change through sports, as he worked on getting a GEO sustainability standard established for golf, partnering with the über-green Waste Management Phoenix Open and the RBC Heritage tournament in South Carolina.

And the two friends on the opposite sides of the world began to realize they were on opposite if complementary sides of a powerful Green-Sports economic equation. Stephen, in Africa, experienced the “supply” side — as in the overabundant potential supply of environmental projects that qualify for carbon credits, from clean water to renewable energy, from efficient cooking to reforestation. Eric, in the U.S., saw the “demand” side — as in the growing number of sports entities, from golf tournaments to college sports conferences, from the Super Bowl to the National Hockey League — ramping up the greening of their games, including via the purchase of carbon offsets.

And from those realizations, Underdogs United was conceived. Which means Stephen and Eric are living early-stage startup founder lives.

Until a couple weeks ago, Stephen was in East Africa, building relationships with partners like Impact Carbon to package life-saving and altering projects for Gold Standard certification^. “Many Ugandans now use firewood to boil water and cook meals,” imparted Stephen. “That is an extremely inefficient and carbon intensive process. Impact Carbon has a partially charcoal based stove that uses 70 percent less fuel, resulting in significant carbon reductions.” There is no shortage of potential supply of carbon credits from Kenya, Uganda, and across the developing world.

 

 

Stephen Uganda Officials Cookstove

Stephen Gabauer of Underdogs United with two Ugandan officials, next to an energy efficient cook stove. (Photo credit: Underdogs United)

 

Eric, meanwhile, worked the corridors at the late June Green Sports Alliance Summit in Sacramento, talking up Underdogs United and the benefits of carbon offset purchases to team front office executives and venue operators and anyone else who would listen. Reactions, reported Eric, were promising, yet…

…Being Underdogs, the guys know success isn’t guaranteed. Will sports organizations put real funds behind carbon credit purchases? And if they are so inclined, wouldn’t, say, Real Salt Lake want to invest in offsets in Utah rather than Uganda?

Yet…the timing could just be right for Green-Sports supply and demand to intersect.

Think about it:

  1. The biggest challenge all sports are grappling with is how to keep or gain the affections and loyalty of Millennials and Generation Zers (Ms+GZers).
  2. Massive pluralities of Ms+GZers not only accept the reality of climate change, its human causality, they expect to be the generations to take action.
  3. Many Ms+GZers in the developed world want to help their developing world counterparts escape poverty.
  4. Really big sports advertisers, from adidas to Anheuser-Busch, get climate change and the Ms+GZers thing
  5. Sports, already greening its games aggressively, should want to partner with the really big sports advertisers on socially responsible marketing programs that appeal to — drum roll, please! — Ms+GZers!

 

You know, even though I really like the Underdogs United name, Eric and Stephen may not be underdogs after all.

 

# Together with the US Golf Association, the R&A governs the sport of golf worldwide, operating in separate jurisdictions whiles sharing a commitment to a single code for the Rules of Golf, Rules of Amateur Status and Equipment Standards. The R&A also manages The Open Championship (aka The British Open) and the Women’s British Open, among other top-level tournaments in the UK.
^ One verified ton of CO2 reduced equals one carbon credit. The price of one certified credit ranges from $5-$20/ton.

 


 Please comment below!
Email us: lew@greensportsblog.com
Friend us on Facebook: http://facebook.com/greensportsblog
Tweet us @GreenSportsBlog

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

GSB News and Notes: Sustainability Effort for Tokyo 2020 Builds on Past Games; Aardvark Paper Straws at Stadiums and Arenas; Philadelphia Eagles Amp Up Green Efforts

The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo are still more than three years away but sustainability planning is in high gear. GSB spoke with Takeo Tanaka, the man leading Tokyo 2020’s greening efforts. Aardvark brings its straws made from paper to sports stadiums and arenas, lessening the amount of plastic ocean waste in the process. And the Philadelphia Eagles, one of the early Green-Sports adapters, take their waste management to the next level with the installation of an Eco-Safe food digester.

 

TOKYO 2020 LOOKS TO TAKE OLYMPIC SUSTAINABILITY TO NEXT LEVEL

Takeo Tanaka, the Senior Director of Sustainability for the Organising Committee of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, has some audacious greening goals for the Games that begin on July 24, 2020.

“We are building a substantive, five-pillar approach to sustainability,” said Mr. Tanaka. “The five pillars—Climate change, resource management, natural environment and biodiversity, human rights, labor and fair business practices, and involvement, cooperation and communications—are the framework that will earn us ISO 20121 certification* and allow us to take the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 sustainability to its highest level.”

 

Tokyo 2020 SUS team

Takeo Tanaka (center, front), Senior Director of Sustainability for the Organising Committee of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games and the sustainability team. (Photo credit: Organising Committee of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games)

 

Three years out, the pillars are taking shape:

  • Tokyo 2020’s Olympic Stadium, as well as all new permanent indoor venues, a big indoor temporary venue — the Olympic Gymnastic Centre — along with the Olympic and Paralympic Village, were all designed and are being built with the expectation of achieving CASBEE^ certification,
  • Energy efficient, low emission vehicles (hybrids and EVs) will be used throughout the Games.
  • The Organising Committee is pursuing CO2 emission reductions in the distribution process by procuring seasonal foods and other goods that are produced close to Tokyo.
  • The sustainability team is working closely with the communications group on an innovative program that encourages Japanese citizens in all 47 prefectures (states) to donate old mobile phones and small electric devices in collection boxes. 100 percent of the two tons of gold, silver and bronze for the more than 5,000 medals that will be awarded at the 2020 Games will be made from the transformed e-waste. “Unfortunately, not many people in Japan know about the richness and the potential of ‘urban mines,’ said Mr. Tanaka. “I believe that this project will raise awareness of the existence and the value of useful metals buried in the urban environment. People will hopefully become aware of the usefulness of recycling and this will leave a positive legacy for society.”
    • The Tokyo 2020 Medal Project Towards an Innovative Future for All is being promoted to the public via a popular TV program and a public service announcement campaign from the governors of Tokyo.

 

Tokyo Olympic Stadium

Artist’s rendering of the Tokyo Olympic Stadium, expected to receive CASBEE green building certification. (Credit: Dezeen.com)

 

The Tokyo 2020 Sustainability Communications plan — to the media and the public — is still taking shape. Suffice to say, Mr. Tanaka and his team took notes on what their Rio 2016 counterparts did, from the “sustainability booth” at the Media Press Center, to sustainability-themed venue tours for the media, to the climate change vignette that was featured during the Opening Ceremonies.

According to Mr. Tanaka, the five pillars approach ensures that sustainability will always be a core component of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games DNA: “Not only is every division of the Organising Committee being trained on the sustainability initiatives, top management is involved as well. Sustainability is an agenda item at every Senior Directors meeting and sustainability-themed blogs have been posted to build awareness and interest among Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games employees and ultimately, volunteers.”

What about corporate sponsors, you ask? The Organising Committee created a Corporate Sustainability Network for Tokyo 2020 corporate sponsors, both local and worldwide. So far 37 of the 55 local sponsors have joined the network, which aims to engage corporate stakeholders, from employees to customers to management in sustainable initiatives surrounding the Games.

Oh, there’s one more thing you should know about Mr. Tanaka. Before leading the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games sustainability charge, he had a 30-year career at Tokyo’s electric company, where he worked on environmental issues and the preservation of Japan’s national parks. He’s also worked with the Nature Conservancy and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development on climate change and biodiversity issues.

Suffice to say, sustainability is in good hands at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

 

AARDVARK PAPER STRAWS HELP GREEN STADIUMS AND ARENAS

This Green-Sports story goes back aways, to 1888.

It was then a man named Marvin Stone invented the original paper straw and patented his idea. That patent became the foundation for Precision Products Group, Inc.  — the same company that manufactures Aardvark®, The Original Paper Straw, today.

Over time, as cheaper plastic straws came to dominate the category, the paper straw fell by the wayside. And, while straws are low interest items for consumers, the environmental costs add up. Consider that there are 1 billion plastic straws used each day, 500 million alone in North America. After their brief, one-time-use lives are over, where do they end up?  Either in landfills or oceans.

In 2007, in response to a growing anti-plastic movement, the main buyers of plastic straws in the U.S. — restaurants, hospitals, and other industries, including sports — began to look for more sustainable, eco-friendly options.

As a leading U.S. manufacturer of small-size cylindrical tubing solutions, Precision Products Group looked to create a straw that was less environmentally toxic. The answer was in their archives: Marvin Stone’s original 1888 patent for the first paper straw. Putting a modern spin on Stone’s original concept, Aardvark created a straw using 100 percent sustainable and renewable papers that was more sustainable and durable than any other paper straw ever made.  According to David Rhodes, Aardvark’s Global Business Manager, initially, “Aardvark was the only paper straw being made, but cheap and inferior China straws that get soggy and fall apart quickly entered into the market. Today, Aardvark remains the only quality and safe paper straw and the only [one that’s] Made in the USA.”

 

David Rhodes

David Rhodes, Aardvark’s Global Business Manager (Photo credit: David Rhodes)

 

The sports industry is of great interest to Aardvark, with its high profile, passionate, and thirsty fan bases. The company has made some impressive inroads over the past two years. “We work with ‘Party Goods’ retailers like Amscan and Creative Converting to offer paper straws with team logos emblazoned on them,” related Mr. Rhodes. “Right now, they have licenses with all 32 NFL teams and most of the schools in the Power 5 conferences. This is an ideal product for tailgaters. Fans can buy packages of, say, Green Bay Packers Aardvark straws at Packer retail stores and via Amazon. And, because fan loyalty is so strong, the margins also can be strong for the retailer.”

Jets straws

New York Jets paper straws from Aardvark (Photo credit: Aardvark)

 

But sports retail is a much smaller potential market for Aardvark than the concessions stands and restaurants at a ballpark or arena — as the latter represents 99 percent of straw usage. Cost has been a drag on Aardvark’s ability to crack that market. “Plastic straws cost about 0.5¢ each, whereas Aardvark paper straws cost 1.5¢ without printing on them and 2.0¢ with printing,” said Mr. Rhodes. “Looking at sports stadiums and arenas, since concessionaires give straws away, going to our product simply adds cost.”

Mr. Rhodes sees a potentially elegant solution to the thorny cost problem: Selling a combined, retail-concession paper straw combination to teams: “We can show teams that the profit they will realize from selling Aardvark straws at retail will offset the increased costs from giving our straws away at concession stands. And with retail-concession being a wash, we make the case that reductions in trash transportation costs and enhanced branding from going green make Aardvark a clear winner.”

According to Mr. Rhodes, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the about-to-open home of the Atlanta Falcons and MLS’ Atlanta United F.C, and CenturyLink Field, home of the Seattle Seahawks and MLS’ Seattle Sounders, are dueling to be the first facility to offer Aardvark straws at the concession stand.

Finally, GreenSportsBlog readers may recall our March 2017 interview with Olivia and Carter Ries, the teenage founders of nonprofit One More Generation (OMG!) and its One Less Straw campaign, designed to dramatically reduce the number of straws used and thus lessen plastic ocean waste. I asked Mr. Rhodes if he saw OMG as a competitor or potential partner.

Not surprisingly, he chose the latter: “We partner with and support OMG and other [plastic ocean waste] advocate groups, including Lonely Whale Foundation, Plastic Pollution Coalition, The Last Plastic Straw, 5 Gyres, Hannah 4 Change, Surfrider Foundation, Sailors for the Sea, etc. Our long term goal is to assist in reducing the overall amount of straw usage by 50 percent and then converting at least 10 percent of the remaining straws to paper. [Thus,] we suggest restaurant owners and employees only offer a straw [and a paper one at that] if a customer specifically requests one.”

Aardvark found that restaurants that offer straws only on demand see reductions in straw consumption of up to 50 percent, diminishing the increased cost of switching to paper straws and allowing restaurants to save money while saving the planet.

 

 

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES EXPAND GO GREEN EFFORTS WITH INSTALLATION OF ECO-SAFE DIGESTER®

The Philadelphia Eagles, a green-sports early adapter, recently announced they will team up with environmental partner, Delaware-based Waste Masters Solutions (WMS), on the installation of a BioHiTech Global Eco-Safe Digester®, a food waste digester and data analytics platform at Lincoln Financial Field. The unit uses a proprietary bacteria formula to break down pre- and post-consumer food scraps via aerobic digestion and send them through sewer systems with no residual solids.

 

BioHiTech Eco-Safe

BioHiTech Global’s Eco-Safe Digesters will be installed Lincoln Financial Field, the home of the Philadelphia Eagles, and will be managed and maintained by Waste Master Solutions. (Photo credit: BioHiTech Global)

 

This move builds upon the September 2016 installation of a waste digester at the team’s NovaCare Complex practice facility to help decompose pre-consumer food waste. Since then, more than nine tons (18,100 pounds) of food waste has been decomposed and, thus, diverted from landfills.

Cleantech leader BioHiTech Global – which develops and deploys innovative and disruptive waste management technologies like the Eco-Safe Digester – will handle, in collaboration with WMS, the design, construction and operation of the analytics platform.

Eagles minority owner Christina Weiss Lurie helped spearhead the team’s Go Green program in 2003 with the opening of an environmentally forward (especially for that time) Lincoln Financial Field. The club’s partnership with WMS is just the latest element of its comprehensive environmental program that also features on-site solar and small scale wind (eagle talon-shaped turbines spin atop the stadium), recycling and composting, energy and water conservation, reforestation and sustainability partnerships, as well as fan education programs.

 

Christina Weiss Lurie

Christina Weiss Lurie, minority owner, Philadelphia Eagles. (Photo credit: Christina Weiss Lurie)

 

* ISO 2012-1 is the global standard for sustainable events.
^ CASBEE is the Japanese green building certification that is somewhat akin to LEED.

 

Please comment below!
Email us: lew@greensportsblog.com
Friend us on Facebook: http://facebook.com/greensportsblog
Tweet us: @GreenSportsBlog

The GSB Interview: Graham Ross, CEO and Co-Founder, Kusaga Athletic

Graham Ross, the CEO and Co-Founder of Australia-based Kusaga Athletic, wants to disrupt the way apparel is produced around the world. His quest has taken him across the globe, from Brisbane to Sydney to Singapore, to running a marathon on the Great Wall of China, to London, and more. We talked with Ross about how Kusaga came to be, the “World’s Greenest T-shirt,” and much more.

 

GreenSportsBlog: First of all, before we get into your background and how Kusaga Athletic came into existence, I have to ask you, what does Kusaga mean?

Graham Ross: Well, Lew, my business partner and I were looking for a word that meant recycle but not in English. So Kusaga means “recycle” in Swahili. We thought it sounded good and that Swahili is spoken in a part of Africa where running is religion. So there you have it.

GSB: Love it! OK, now how did you come to launch Kusaga? Have you been in the apparel business?

GR: Not originally. I’m from Maryborough, a small, inland country town, about three hours’ drive north from Brisbane in Queensland in the Northeast of Australia.

GSB: Sounds pretty remote.

GR: But I always wanted to be in television production so I needed to get myself towards a city. I got my start at two stations, one in my hometown and then a larger station on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. In both cases, I was the guy who did everything: from news to on-air, to commercial production and directing for sports like soccer…Also music festivals.

GSB: What a great start to a career in TV production! This was after college, I presume. Where did you go?

GR: Oh, I didn’t go to university at all. I had these jobs from ages 17 to 24 so I guess you can say I went to the “University of TV.”

GSB: Sounds like you got an advanced degree!

GR: Indeed! So the next step for me was to go to a station in Brisbane, the third largest city in Australia and on to the politics beat. But I wanted to get to the biggest market, Sydney. Turns out, only 18 months into my tenure in Brisbane, an editor was needed for a primetime show in Sydney. I flew down there for a trial run one morning, got offered a job at lunch and moved there two weeks later. I worked on a ton of programs…primetime, lifestyle and sports shows, you name it. Now, this was in 1995, when the TV production world was changing from videotape to digital. At that time, no one really knew what the opportunities of the new digital editing equipment would be, so I got training and quickly became schooled in it, in particular on a system called AVID, which worked like a tricked out Mac w/ specialized software. In the early days, it was somewhat complex and buggy and not many people were expert in it. Yet it was in demand. So I saw an opportunity to start an AVID-based business. I was newly married at the time yet spent $AUS160,000 — more than my house was worth — on an AVID system. It took awhile before I got my first piece of business, editing a corporate video for a nail salon of all things. From there we built up to handle post-production for many prime time shows in Australia.

GSB: Sounds like that $160,000 was a great investment…

GR: Oh yeah. And we grew rapidly, especially as cable TV started to explode in Australia. But, after a time, I got sick of making programs for networks without having any ownership so I formed a company with two former clients. We started in one room, grew to having a staff of 50. We produced our own shows and documentaries that aired on National Geographic Channel, Animal Planet and many others.

GSB: So you’d hit the big time…

GR: Yeah, it was great but it nearly killed me. It was very stressful, I was working seven days a week, dealing with lawyers more than producing, my weight was up to 90 kilograms (almost 200 lbs.)

GSB: So what did you do?

GR: Closed the business and moved to Singapore and followed my wife Jane and her job there with MSN for Asia-Pacific. This was 2008. Jane is a former journalist and she ran content for them. So I became a house dad for my kids, then 14 and 9. And I built up a new network of friends, including those in the triathlon world. I started doing them and really got into it. At a dinner party I met Matthew Ashcroft, who would become my business partner. He said he was going to run the Great Wall Marathon

GSB: There’s a marathon run on the Great Wall of China?

GR: A good chunk of it is run on the wall itself, yes. Anyway he asked, I said no, he called back, I said I’d do a half marathon. He called back and wouldn’t take no for an answer. So, we bonded as we were training for the race. Talked about business—Matthew was in TV but is 10 years younger than I so has a slightly different perspective. He wanted to be in a business with purpose. We started to explore what that looked like. Meanwhile, I did a bunch more triathlons, including an Ironman, and running races. After a time, I looked in my closet and saw that I had a million “finishers’ shirts” (t-shirts included in goodie bags by race organizers) that I never wore. The sponsors got nothing out of ’em because I’m sure I wasn’t unique in stuffing them in a closet. I also had no idea what fabrics were in those shirts. So I started to do research. Found out they were, not surprisingly, made of polyester, nylon, spandex and cotton. Was shocked when I learned about the horrific environmental impacts of polyester and cotton on water quality and greenhouse gas emissions. I was convinced we needed to do it better. I did some more research and found there were a bunch of fibers in labs that were not toxic, but were not commercially available at the time.

 

Graham & Matt GWM_Great Wall

Graham Ross (l) and Matthew Ashcroft, co-founders of Kusaga Athletic, finishing the Great Wall Marathon (Photo credit: Kusaga Athletic)

 

GSB: So you and Matthew, a couple of TV guys, researched your way into the athletic apparel business? Did you have any knowledge, beyond internet research, of fabrics, of materials?

GR: Not really. But we said to ourselves that we need to fundamentally reimagine the textile industry. You see, textiles hadn’t evolved. It was a lethargic business with a tremendous amount of waste. And we were stupid enough, I guess, to think we could make fabrics that were better for the environment and offered superior performance. So we put up our own money to start up Kusaga Athletic.

GSB: What did you do first?

GR: Serious R & D. Went to a factory in Korea; told them we have a bunch of natural fibers—bamboo, eucalypt and cellulose (waste wood) —and would like you to make them into yarn and then fabric. These fabrics would be compostable and biodegradable.

GSB: What did you want the fabrics to ultimately become?

GR: We started out with shirts for running, yoga, sportswear, gym and the outdoors, targeting the environmentally-focused, active person. Went to market late in 2015. Our first efforts were t-shirts for corporate events. Earth Hour became an early customer. We did a Kickstarter campaign in 2016 that raised $16,000, garnered 200 pledges and orders for hundreds of shirts. But there were significant challenges…We’d moved our manufacturing to Malaysia but the factory shut down. So we wrote our supporters a letter, telling them what happened. They wrote back saying, in effect, ‘we want our t-shirts but believe in your mission, so keep the money, and do what you have to do. We believe in you.’ That gave us the spring in our step that we needed. We looked to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and found the child of Vietnamese immigrants to the USA who had come back to be a seamstress. We showed her our fabrics; she had to learn how to work with them and did so in record time. That allowed us to get our shirts out to the pledgers who were really happy. So we had achieved one of our dreams to make a environmentally friendly t-shirt that performed at a super high level. But we still needed to upgrade our design and feel for our sportswear shirts.

GSB: How did you do that?

GR: We found a designer, Anna, originally from Bulgaria, now based in Sydney. Had run factories before, very direct. She played around with a bunch of designs. I was the model! We found that the sleeves were too long, didn’t feel good. So we went with a cycling-style sleeve, which felt much better.

 

Graham Overseeing Design

Graham Ross and the Kusaga Athletic design team. (Photo credit: Kusaga Athletic)

 

GSB: As a sometimes road cyclist, I get that…Talk a bit about the performance…

GR: Sure…They’re super lightweight and they wick moisture off the body.

GSB: …A la Underarmour…

GR: Exactly. In fact; we kind of look at ourselves as a sort of a sustainable Underarmour. Or better still, as a fusion of Underarmour and Patagonia. Our Greenest Tee, is made out of all biodegradable, compostable ingredients called ECOLITE® which is super for everyday wear or getting active like yoga.

 

 

Greenest Tee on the Planet

Kusaga Athletic’s “Greenest Tees on the Planet” (Photo credit: Kusaga Athletic)

 

 

Kusaga Red Yoga Top
Kusaga Athletic’s “Greenest Yoga Top” (Photo credit: Kusaga Athletic)

 

GSB: What makes it the Greenest Tee?

GR: Remarkably, an average cotton t-shirt uses about 3000 liters of water during the cotton plants’ growth and the garment’s manufacture. If you own 10 cotton shirts, that would be the equivalent of a small swimming pool worth of water. Our Greenest Tee needs less than 1% of that amount of water due to sustainable crops grown with rainwater. Now, for performance sports like running, for the gym and also team sports, we created a degradable polyester, ECODRY®.

GSB: Degradable polyester? That sounds like an oxymoron of sorts. How does that work?

GR: The fabric has been degraded in controlled compost conditions and that process is in continual development. Our plan is to offer our customers a “send back” scheme at the garment’s end of life, redirecting the waste from landfill.

GSB: Wouldn’t shipping those shirts at end-of-life involve incremental carbon emissions that would negate the benefits of the avoided landfill emissions? Have you figured that into the equation?

GR: We already offset our transportation greenhouse gas emissions through investments in climate protection projects across the world, we plan to include this scheme into that portfolio.

GSB: Glad to hear it. So you had the fabrics, you had the t-shirts. Aside from the initial orders and the t-shirts for corporate events, how did you get them to market?

GR: We started by going to long distance events with sustainability in their DNA. The Evergreen Endurance Ironman Triathlon in Chamonix, France was our first as it was trying to be a carbon neutral sports event. The reaction was positive. More races followed, especially in Australia, we got involved with events like the Run Nation Film Festival, a 20 venue festival across the country that features human interest, running-themed films. More positive reaction ensued.

GSB: So you’ve mostly proved the concept of green performance athletic apparel, it seems. How do you scale Kusaga Athletic?

GR: It goes back to reimagining the apparel industry, including athletic apparel. We kind of view things as Red Ocean vs. Blue Ocean.

GSB: What does that mean?

GR: Well, if we go against the Nike’s and the adidas’ of the world—the big guys—we’ll get killed and, metaphorically speaking, the ocean will be filled with our blood. If, on the other hand, Kusaga Athletic becomes the leading sustainable textile company—and a B-Corp at that—to scale, we’ll have the blue ocean largely to ourselves.

GSB: Maybe you should call it the green ocean…So you’re trying to create a new, large-scale category: Sustainable Textiles, with a focus on athletic apparel.

GR: That’s it. But we can see many other uses for our sustainable fabrics; from bedding to construction screening. To help us scale we’re seeking partnerships in R & D and social media.

GSB: What about athlete endorsers?

GR: Yes, we’re on that now. Luke Tyburski — he’s a bit of a nutbag! — is on our team. He’s a former soccer player who turned into this Endurance Adventurer…

GSB: What is an Endurance Adventurer?

GR: Oh, he runs in marathons and extreme long distance races like the Marathon des Sables across the Sahara, the Everest Ultra Marathon, the Morocco to Monaco race…

GSB: I had no idea there were such things, nor that any humans could complete these races.

GR: Oh there are and they do…Also Phil Dernee is an endorser. He just finished a Six Day Ultra Marathon on the Big Island (Hawai’i)…

GSB: Piece of cake!

GR: Not quite…Then we have Philippa Candrick. Her story is incredible. She was never a runner and then had a brain tumor. Lost much of her memory. She almost died on the operating table as they removed it. Finally as she was recovering she decided to start running. Her memory started to come back. And she kept on running—to the point to where she ran the Great Wall Marathon with me last year.

 

Graham and Phillipa_GWM 2016

Philippa Candrick (l) and Graham Ross running the 2016 Great Wall Marathon (Photo credit: Kusaga Athletic)

 

GSB: Incredible indeed! It sounds like Kusaga is poised for the next step in its product life cycle. Does retail play into that? And when will Kusaga establish a beachhead in the U.S.A.?

GR: We are looking to grow sustainably but, with that said, retail partnerships are next. As for the States, I’d say you will be seeing us in the not-too-distant future.

 


 

Please comment below!
Email us: lew@greensportsblog.com
Friend us on Facebook: http: facebook.com/greensportsblog
Tweet us @GreenSportsBlog

Green-Sports Startups: Nube 9 and The Circular Economy

Universally known, global corporations, from BASF to Nike to Tesla, have dipped their toes in the Green-Sports waters. While it makes sense from PR and mission points of view, Green-Sports, for now, represents a small aspect of those companies’ businesses. At the other end of the spectrum are startups for whom Green-Sports is everything, or close to it. GreenSportsBlog is launching an occasional series, Green-Sports Startups. It will focus on these small (for now) companies that see the Greening of Sports as existential to their businesses’ prospects for success. Our first such startup is Nube9, a Seattle-based circular economy company that is committed to making recyclable sports uniforms—and to making them in the U.S.A, from American fabric. We spoke to CEO Ruth True to get the Nube9 story.

 

For Ruth True, it all started on an art trip to China.

“I took a trip in 2008 with a group from the Seattle Art Museum to China. We visited four provinces and seven cities—it was fascinating—but above it all, I could not look past the fact that we rarely saw the sky. In fact, we saw blue sky only half of one day during our two weeks in China. The Chinese had gone from not being able to eat to not being able to breathe, in large part due to the mass consumption in the U.S and elsewhere in the developed world. ”

So Ms. True, a serial entrepreneur who’d worked in the food and catering businesses; came back to Seattle, determined to self-fund something new that would have a positive environmental impact. But what to do?

 

Ruth True Make Good Collective

Ruth True, CEO of Nube9 (Photo credit: Make Good Collective)

 

She went shopping.

With her five kids, four of them girls.

Two answers started to appear—GO LOCAL and NO NEW STUFF.

Ms. True noticed she could find little, in the way of apparel and toys that were made in the U.S, despite searching local shops and big chains like Whole Foods Market. So, in 2009, she opened a little shop and called it Nube Green. She decided on the name Nube because of feeling like a traditional “newbie” in the green/environmental world, but liked the aesthetics of the spelling Nube for her brand. The shop featured only US made and sourced gift and apparel items. This would, she reasoned, reduce carbon emissions and also appeal to folks’ patriotic and help-the-economy impulses. Still, with the massive cost advantages from manufacturing in China and, even more so, in Southeast Asia, people told her it couldn’t be done. And, truth be told, it’s been a struggle. “In our first five years or so, we were able to survive but people had a hard time finding us and the amount of U.S sourced goods was limited.”

But Ms. True was, for the most part, undaunted. And she was about to get a second bolt of green business inspiration, this time from her basketball-playing daughters.

You see, she couldn’t find U.S made girls basketball uniforms. And on top of that, at a Las Vegas youth basketball tournament, Ms. True noticed thousands of kids buying one-time use plastic water bottles, which all ended up in the trash. The LED light bulb went on above her head and she decided to start a company that would work to solve both concerns: She would manufacture basketball uniforms in the U.S. made from recycled plastic bottles.

And so Nube9 was born.

She kept the brand Nube from her store, and added “9” because of the initial estimate that it takes nine plastic water bottles to make one jersey. “I did a ton of research on manufacturers who used recycled product—and settled on Repreve, a company based in North Carolina which makes yarn from recycled bottles. We then found a great knitter, a great seamstress in Los Angeles, conducted more R & D, secured some space in L.A., and off to work we went.”

The Nube9 team developed five of its own recycled poly fabrics but purposefully didn’t patent them. “We want to expand the category,” offered Ms. True. “So we went with an ‘Open Source’ business model.” They started with basketball uniforms, for obvious familial reasons, but by growing their team and responding to the players’ feedback, Nube9 began to refine the product and expand their line to many sports.

Youth sports (i.e. younger than high school) started as Nube9’s key target market. In part, this was due to the dominance of Nike and other big players in the high school sports market. But an even bigger reason was one of influence:

“The idea was to get cool uniforms on the bodies of our youth, the key influencers of popular culture, and create ‘aha moments’ that will spread the word about the unis virally,” said Ms. True. “When the kids try them on, they are blown away by the idea of uniforms being made from plastic water bottles and love the custom look of the jerseys.”

 

Nube9 Hoops Jersey Ruth True

Nube9 basketball uniform made in the U.S. from recycled plastic bottles. (Photo credit: Ruth True)

 

Nube9 has found that, once it gets one team on board, word then spreads among the basketball community about the environmental benefits, competitive pricing, and custom looks and the other teams follow. Or, as Ms. True puts it, “Who wouldn’t want to look great on the court and help save the environment at the same time?” Meanwhile, coaches are bullish on the Nube9 uniforms from an efficacious perspective as they respond to the quality, durability, wicking, and softness of the fabric.

Trying to think two moves ahead, Nube9 recently launched a streetwear line. “This greatly broadens our potential market beyond youth to include daily wear, the yoga world, as well as the growing ‘athleisure’ segment,” Ms. True said. “This is a higher-priced/better margin segment for us, but we’re still managing to stay lower than companies like Lululemon.”

The company is taking a unique, cutting edge, “telling stories through apparel” approach: Per Ms. True, “We took a picture from the New York Times of plastic ocean waste and turned it into a design on our leggings in one day!” And there is a brilliant, powerful social responsibility element embedded in the purchase price: Buy a pair of leggings and fund the work of a climate scientist.

 

3 minute 53 second video tells the Nube9 story

 

2016, Nube9’s first year on the market, saw the company get off to a modest start but they were able to divert 795,000 plastic bottles from the landfill. 2017 finds the company at a tipping point of sorts: sales are conservatively estimated at $1 million, and, according to Ms. True, the company is ready to handle larger orders.

 

Plastic Bottles Ruth True

Crushed plastic bottles, the feedstock for Nube9 sports uniforms, all made in the U.S.A. (Photo credit: Ruth True)

 

And it also has a plan to handle the uniforms’ end-of-life.

The company urges teams to send uniforms, which would otherwise be discarded, back to Nube9. “The closed-loop recycling approach of Nube9 uniforms is critical and we are using companies on the cutting edge of the technology” related Ms. True. “We simply cannot put more micro-fiber into the oceans. Most high schools put old uniforms into storage or, worse, send them to the landfill”.

 

 


 

Please comment below!
Email us: lew@greensportsblog.com
Friend us on Facebook: http://facebook.com/greensportsblog
Tweet us: @GreenSportsBlog