The GSB Interview: Diana Dehm, Sustainability Radio Anchor + President, Climate and Sports Youth Summits

Like many of us, Diana Dehm understands that humanity needs to take significant actions to take on climate change to avert its most severe effects. Unlike most of us, she’s devoted her work life towards that end. The LA-based Green-preneur hosts the Sustainability News and Entertainment Radio Show and is president of Climate and Sports Youth Summits, a series of events that uses sports to engage students from primary grades through high school in climate change education. GreenSportsBlog talked with Ms. Dehm to understand, 1) the motivation behind her climate change-fighting spirit, and 2) what Climate and Sports Youth Summits are all about.

 

GreenSportsBlog: Diana, there is so much to cover so let’s get right to it. When did you get into the environment, into climate change? And when did you decide to work in this space?

Diana Dehm: Thanks Lew for all you do. You are right there is SO MUCH to discuss! Growing up in California until I was 15, I always had a passion for clean oceans. I’m a diver, sailor and a SUP Surfer or Paddleboarder. Moved to the Boston area at 15, went to Lesley University there, ultimately came back to Southern California. Started out as an environmental health and safety consultant; working for clients like AT&T, NBC, NCR and many more. Companies like those had started to get that sustainability was good for business. Eventually I moved up and became a VP for two large environmental consulting firms.

 

 

diana dehm

Diana Dehm (Photo credit: Diana Dehm)

 

 

GSB: What did you do for those firms and their Fortune 500 clients?

DD: We provided strategic counsel, environmental, health and safety (EHS) audits, and helped them integrate sustainability and environmental better practices into their businesses. We pushed them beyond mere compliance, demonstrating that doing so would drive social and tangible value for their companies and, in the process, reduce CO? emissions. We worked with companies on their supply chains, helping them to replace high polluting suppliers with companies that worked towards making “zero impact” by emphasizing biodegradability, recycling and more. Then, we would seed these stories into the media.

GSB: That sounds great — can you give us an example?

DD: Sure! GE needed environmental and health training at their NBC studios in the Los Angeles area — this was before they sold NBC to Comcast — and so I led that effort with an awesome team. GE and NBC were great leading the way towards educating their many employees.

GSB: Impressive! Sounds like you were on a great track in the corporate sustainability consulting world. What made you change course and where did that change take you?

DD: 2007-2008 was the game changer. My dad became ill with pancreatic cancer and I contracted a MRSA bacterial infection; was in and out of the hospital for a month.

GSB: Oh no!

DD: That was quite the wake up call! It strengthened my need to do big things for humanity and the planet…and FAST. So I quit my job as a VP/partner and, with the encouragement of several clients, went off on my own.

GSB: What did you do?

DD: I started working on technology innovation and how it connects to sustainability and more…Big Data, City integration, Predictive Technology, Virtual Reality, and Sense Technology…LOVED IT. In 2009, I started Sustainable Business Partnerships. It brought technical innovation and top-flight business thinking to the triple bottom line/CSR world. Some examples: I worked with Hewlett Packard Labs in Palo Alto, and I helped support tech innovation for a city in Southern California for which Hewlett Packard managed IT.

GSB: As a career-shifter and pivot-er, I have to say, you are a role model! But how did this lead to a radio show?

DD: OK…love this story. In 2010 I was visiting family on the east coast…went to dinner with an old friend. After hearing me describe my sustainability work, a friend of that friend said “you should do a radio show about all of this!” “How in the world would I do THAT,” I replied. His calm response? “I manage WSMN-AM 1590, a radio station in Nashua, NH! You can start there!”

GSB: Had you been on the air before?

DD: NEVER! I had NO IDEA WHAT I WAS DOING! Really, no clue. And here I was hosting a one hour show every Tuesday. I really just wanted to create a platform to share the solutions on the planet happening right now. Remember the economy in 2010 wasn’t so great. Thought we needed some inspiration from amazing guests from around the world!

GSB: One hour can be a loooonnng time in radio!

DD: You ain’t kidding, Lew. So like Nike says, I “just did it.” I found myself on the air the following Tuesday as the host for Sustainability News & Entertainment. Flew to New Hampshire to do the shows. It was so much fun interviewing and learning about some of the most sustainable innovations on the planet and how we can connect the dots globally to take action. Interviewed a broad range of folks — sustainability directors, sports executives, green-minded kids, scientists, politicians, musicians, artists, celebrities, the military –my early guests were especially brave. I stay connected to many of them to this day.

GSB: Terrific! Flying east to do the shows? That sounds, well, unsustainable.

DD: You’re right. So in 2010 we built a “Studio in a Box,” a flexible studio, for me..I can travel the world with my studio in a box. It was awesome at COP21 in Paris.

GSB: Amazing. How are you funded?

DD: I’ve self-funded the show because I do like the feeling of being able to work without corporate influence. I do plan to seek outside funding but would only do so if I maintain editorial control. I am convinced sustainability-minded sponsors would benefit greatly by reaching our green-minded global audience that reaches 3 to 5 million.

GSB: HOLY COW! How did you build that kind of audience?

DD: The market was ready and open: when the show started in 2010, there were few green-themed radio shows. The show’s real-world, solutions-based and positive ethos was unique…that’s why our tag line is an open sourced focus on solutions happening on the planet right now.

GSB: Not pie-in-the-sky, though, right?

DD: Nope. Always fact based. But that solutions-based approach really works. The audience grew organically as other stations, including NPR affiliates, started to pick it up. In 2013-14, we pitched the show to major radio stations. Their response? “Too new, different, controversial.”

GSB: Really? I think controversy is what radio station owners want?

DD: You would think. But the economics of the traditional, terrestrial radio business was changing — so I went to the digital world, streaming live shows, podcasting and using social media to reach a global audience of next generation entrepreneurs and innovators. That was clearly for the best as now we are blessed with having that low seven-figure audience.

GSB: Not to be redundant, but Holy COW!

DD: Thank you! It really is amazing. Anyone can listen live anytime, anywhere. I was surprised to learn that the biggest audience segment is in China — interesting to correlate that with how fast China is growing their renewable energy market. Russia and Brazil also contribute significantly; the US is third in audience size.

GSB: What do your listeners learn about?

DD: How people are making a living driving positive human impact while reducing environmental impact. From climate reduction, to zero waste, to water harvesting, to renewable energy – from the race car world to celebrities to musicians to CEO’s.
Now, like I said before, I haven’t made money doing the show so I continue to make my living through sustainability consulting, working with non-profits, corporations and schools.

GSB: Ahhh…schools! So now I see most of the Diana Dehm picture: the radio show, your interest in education. Where does your interest in Green-Sports come in? Did you ever cover Green-Sports on your show?

DD: YES! First of all, I saw the sports-environment-planet connection about 20 years ago but didn’t know what to do with that. But then I went to the first Green Sports Alliance Summit and was hooked. — I’m a sports fan and an athlete so I know the power of sports. I saw the potential connections between sports, solutions-based thinking and innovation. So that’s a part of my consulting work. And, we have done lots of sports-themed radio shows. I love them. I can’t recall the year right now — when we had 10 people — from teams, stadium managers, all talking about what they were doing to green the sports world, and how they were influencing sustainability more broadly. It was GREAT! We’ve done several Super Bowl-focused shows, talked with NFL Green’s Jack Groh and the Green Sports Alliance’s board chairman Scott Jenkins about Zero-Waste Super Bowls. We’ve had Justin Zeulner, Executive Director of the Green Sports Alliance, on our air….

GSB: The trade group for the Green-Sports world…

DD: Exactly. Now, on schools, I love kids, and we’ve had them on our show a lot..They get sustainability and climate change. Back in 2010 while interviewing MIT’s Drew Jones from Climate Interactive, he was telling me about when he was in school at Dartmouth, he and a bunch of his college buddies decided to learn what their trash impact was and decided to carry their trash around with them for a week…well, I thought that idea that needed to be recycled…

GSB: Pun intended…

DD: …So I came up with the Trash On Your Back Challenge, made it up. Drew and I pulled some heavyweights to the table to try it — Rear Navy Admiral Len Hering, the aforementioned Atlanta Falcons GM and GSA Co-Founder Scott Jenkins, Former Senior Policy Counsel at the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, US EPA Matt Bogoshian, Former President/CEO, along with many others. We walked around with our trash on our back for 5 days and learned the hard way that the average person in the US generates 4.4 pounds of trash per day. Carrying that weight around on your back provides an incentive to reduce it…right? It was smelly too, so we end up innovating ways to avoid waste and smell.
The Challenge still goes on today. Thousands of people around the world have taken it, diverting tons of waste from what I call our earthfills – our earth and our oceans.

 

 

Diana Dehm Trash on Back

Diana Dehm, flanked by Scott Jenkins (l) and Matt Bogoshian, is ready to embark on the Trash on Your Back Challenge. (Photo credit: Diana Dehm)

 

GSB: I can only imagine How low did you go?

DD: Together we were able to knock down the 4.4 pounds of trash per day, down to 0.8 pounds on average. It’s all based on simple choices.

GSB: That’s an incredible reduction! So how did you get from Trash on Your Back to Climate and Sports Youth Summits?

DD: After attending several Green Sports Alliance Summits, I realized there was only one thing they were missing: kids. Kids love sports, of course. After working on student summits for many years, I shared my idea of having a kids module at the Green Sports Alliance Summit with their executive team. They loved the idea and saw great potential impact.

GSB: Who was on your team and what did you end up creating?

DD: I brought in a great team: One of most brilliant, sustainability-minded principals I knew – the former coach, and Co-Founder and CEO of the Green Schools National Network, Jim McGrath and asked him if he would like to start a non-profit focused on harnessing the power of sports to motivate K-12 students and college students to take action on climate change. Thankfully, he said yes and we proceeded to bring two other education superstars from Florida: former Olympic soccer player, teacher, and founder of the How Low Can You Go Net Zero Energy Challenge, Linda Gancitano. And Broward County’s Sustainability Teacher of the Year; Elaine Fiore.

GSB:…Don’t know Jim but I do know Linda and Elaine, interviewed them in fact. LOVE “How Low Can You Go” — sports teams working with schools on a challenge to reduce the schools’ carbon emissions…I can’t imagine two better people for your team.

DD: Indeed, they are the best!

GSB: So what did you all come up with?

DD: We partnered with the NBA’s Miami Heat for our first Climate and Sports Youth Summit, which took place at American Airlines Arena. Students, athletes and celebrities came together for a fast-paced, educational, fun day. Started at 9 AM with the tip off: “Game On For the Planet.” Brought a basketball and started passing it around quickly. Anyone who caught it had to shout out something they would do to protect the planet, reduce carbon emissions, etc. Then we took tours of the American Airlines Arena and were shown the recycling systems, the LED lighting and the other sustainability aspects of the building’s operations. We had students presenting to students, engaging them with games like “Climate Eliminators” and “Recycle Relays” and we took the “Trash On Your Back” zero waste Challenge – and the students left with their own climate action plan along with knowing we are there to support them.

GSB: They must’ve loved it!

DD: For sure. And we taught them, through the “How Low Can You Go Challenge,” how they could help their schools reach Zero Energy. We also asked them for their own ideas. One great one was “Plastic Mermaids” — a symbol of the need to get plastics out of the oceans. The kids brought them to the mayor of Broward County, FL. The Mayor liked it and showed it to the state senate in Tallahassee.

GSB: And then you brought Climate and Sports Youth Summit to the Green Sports Alliance Summit (GSA) in Sacramento in June. What was that like?

DD: Oh it was a big success…It was a two-day program at Golden 1 Center, the LEED Platinum home of the Sacramento Kings, vs. one day in Miami. We had 60 students, mostly from the local area. Day 1 was similar to Miami. On Day 2, the students monitored waste, recycling and composting stations in the arena. There was a scavenger hunt where the students were challenged to go to the various sustainable product and service exhibitors at the GSA Summit and learn about their sustainable innovations and thinking. And then the kids got to do some “trash talking” while manning the trash and recycling receptacles, helping adults learn how to recycle and compost. Afterwards they headed down to the court where they got to feel like an NBA player.

 

CSSS Montage

Kids make their presence felt at the 2017 Climate and Sports Youth Summit in Sacramento (Photo credit: Diana Dehm)

 

GSB: They must’ve eaten that up…

DD: They LOVED IT! former King Doug Christie shared his inspirational story with them, and left the students knowing that they can take action on anything they put their minds to. Calum Worthy of Disney Channel fame presented and was INCREDIBLE! He stayed with the kids for 2-3 hours and communicated, in compelling fashion, that solving climate change is a huge career opportunity for them. Also, the Oregon State student-athletes you wrote about awhile back…

GSB: Sam Lewis and Jesikah Cavanaugh from the Beaver Athlete Sustainability Team (BAST)?

DD: Yes! They shared how, by creating the first student-athlete-run sustainability organization, they are helping Oregon State fans get involved in the greening of their games.

GSB: Did you have corporate sponsors in Sacramento?

DD: Whole Foods Market supported us, giving out healthy food to the kids. And the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) provided funding and built awareness for the program.

GSB: That’s great…So when’s your next Summit?

DD: We’re heading to Boulder, CO, the University of Colorado in December. Hosted by Dave Newport, their Director of Environment. Can’t wait! And 2018 will be bigger and better. Our goal is to obtain funding so we can host 20 summits per year and then grow from there. So sponsors, please join us and support our kid’s futures. I like saying “Love them, educate them, support them, and get out of the way!” – Kids get it and, once given the tools, will take action on climate!

 


 

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The GSB Interview: Anastasia Zotou; Bringing Green-Sports to Greece

So you think building awareness and the impact of Green-Sports is challenging in North America? Try doing so in Greece, a country that continues to be ravaged from the after effects of the 2008 global financial collapse. Yet that’s exactly what Anastasia Zotou is doing with her consulting firm, Zoten. GSB talked to Ms. Zotou about her inspiration, the work she is doing, and what the future for Green-Sports looks like in the country that gave the world the Olympic Games.

 

GreenSportsBlog: The Green-Sports movement started in the largest, wealthiest economies—North America, Great Britain, Germany, France. No surprise there. So I jumped at the opportunity to talk to a woman who is pioneering Green-Sports in Greece. Greece is a relatively small country with a great sporting culture — it of course is the home of the ancient and modern Olympic Games. It also is, arguably, the European Union (EU) member that is suffering the most from the 2008 global financial crisis. So, I figured this would be a unique story for GSB readers. Anastasia; thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

Anastasia Zotou: Thank you, Lew. My story starts in Seattle, where I was born to parents from Greece. I first visited Greece when I was 17—it was a major culture shock. Said I would never go back.

 

Anastasia Zotou Dionisis Nikolopoulos

Anastasia Zotou (Photo credit: Dionisis Nikolopoulos)

 

GSB: Somehow I have a feeling that “never” really didn’t last that long.

AZ: You’re right. I gave Greece another chance, went back when I was 21. I had a much better experience. Came home to finish up my Business Administration studies at Central Washington University with a plan to go into banking. Then I went back to Athens after graduation with no real plan. But I felt like this was the place for me. Learned Greek. Started teaching English. Got married. I started looking into Masters programs before my son was born but wasn’t able to take the entrance exam because I was giving birth on the exact day and time as the exam. It was a little difficult to be there so I waited for next year’s test.

GSB: To get an MBA in Banking?

AZ: No. In Environmental Management and Policy. Turns out I wasn’t passionate about corporate business. Was disgusted with it, tell you the truth. I was outdoorsy and felt — hoped — that sustainable business was something that was going to take off in Greece. I found a remote Masters program on the island of Lesbos…

GSB: The island where many Syrian and other refugees from that part of the world enter Greece…

AZ: That’s right.

GSB: Wow…

AZ: Yeah…It’s a very difficult situation there, obviously. But I did the program remotely — I finished in a little more than two and a half years. Turns out I was much older than most of the Greeks in the program — I was 35 when I started. This was just not done. In fact, I had to deal with that during the application process…

GSB: Meaning “why should I give this spot to you, a 35 year old?”

AZ: Exactly. And I was a mother, which also was unusual. When I was doing research back in 2008 for my dissertation, “Environmental Management Systems,” I would take my one year old son around with me to a mall in Athens where I was conducting surveys. People there were very surprised to see me there with my son.

GSB: That stinks! I’m glad you didn’t let it stop you. What were you surveying at the mall?

AZ: I was trying to find out if the management of the mall and of the stores in the mall were interested in cooperating on environmental management systems — waste management, energy efficiency, water efficiency — that sort of thing. I was able to demonstrate that the ROI was quick. But mall management wouldn’t talk to me at first and most of the store management personnel I talked to were confused, they weren’t really clued in on what environmental management systems meant — some of the younger folks got it but that was it.

GSB: Did that discourage you? I imagine your son was ok with it.

AZ: I wasn’t deterred. I just kept showing up until the people would talk to me. But, as I was finishing the dissertation, the economic crash happened. Sustainability consulting was what I wanted to do — but with the crash and a young family, it was very hard to pursue at that time.

GSB: So what did you do?

AZ: I continued to teach English and started working out of my house on environmental projects to save on office expenses, but it was challenging to stay focused working from home and managing my teaching at the same time. For my family it was and is a struggle, but there are many, many people in Greece who are having an even harder time with the job cuts and salary reductions. I will tell you, almost ten years after the crash, the country is still in a bad, bad situation.

GSB: And that’s the environment in which you wanted to start a new company in a category that didn’t exist? Piece of cake! So how and when did you start your environmental consulting work? And where did Green-Sports come in?

AZ: My initial plan was to work with businesses in sustainability. This was challenging because it’s hard for businesses to invest in sustainability when they can’t keep their doors open nor keep up with expenses. It really was sports that kicked things into another gear. You see, at around that time, I took up running. Which was surprising because I really hated to run!

GSB: Were you an athlete of any stripe?

AZ: I had played soccer and lacrosse when I was young but nothing really once I had gotten to Greece aside from running a bit on a treadmill at home. But, one of the school parents said “why don’t you come to the track?” So I went. And I saw an older man talking to some of the runners at the track. I kept seeing him almost every time I’d go to the track. Finally, I was introduced to Panayiotis Skoulis aka “The Teacher.” Turns out, he had been a runner his whole life and is an amazing, inspirational man. Holds various age group records in Greece in the marathon. In fact, he was the first man in modern times to retrace the route of Pheidippides from Athens to Sparta to Athens (149 miles each way), without a support team in his 50s. In his early 60s, he got Parkinson’s disease and kept running races, including a 50 km race (31 miles) against his doctor’s advice. Anyway, that first day we met, he asked me what my running plan was. Running plan?!?! I had none. So I blurted out I’d like to run a marathon. I didn’t want to run a marathon but, for some reason, those words came out of my mouth! The next day, he came to the track with a training program for me. I was one of the first runners in what would become a 40-person running team that he coaches, including women who had never run before and who are now running races over 60 km in some cases. Every day. For free. He’s now 81 and can’t run anymore but he still coaches us. And I built up to run a marathon — not fast, mind you, but I completed it — the 2013 Athens Marathon.

 

Anastasia Coach

Panayiotis Skoulis, aka “The Teacher,” and Anastasia Zotou (Photo credit: Anastasia Zotou)

 

GSB: What an amazing guy your coach is! Congratulations on your transformation from “running hater” to marathoner. But how does a Green-Sports consulting startup come from this?

AZ: Well, as I was running my first marathon, I noticed how much waste there was along the route. I started playing around with the idea of reducing waste at road races and thought I am going to start a consulting firm to do just that! So about a year ago I finally made the decision to take the risk and open a consulting office in Athens.

GSB: I love that! And you called it Zoten. What does that name mean?

AZ: One of my students suggested I combine my last name, Zotou, and environment. And, voilà, Zoten became our name.

GSB: I like it! So how did you get started?

AZ: ‘The Teacher’ introduced me to athletic clubs who organize races all over Greece. I asked them if they’d be interested in a green race. Just like the store owners at the mall I spoke to for my dissertation, these folks didn’t really get it at first but once I explained the idea of recycling and waste reduction, they began to listen more intently. So we started in 2015 pitching small athletic clubs with maybe 200-500 members. Their races might draw 200 runners to a couple thousand. Our basic proposal included waste management, and environmental awareness of the event itself…

GSB: …You weren’t going into Scope 3 emissions, and getting into the emissions of their supply chains, my guess…

AZ: You’re right. Anything more than the basics would be too much.

GSB: So with all those challenges, have you found some races that would work with you?

AZ: Yes. One thing that has impacted our success has been whether the host cities would cooperate with us. One race will have a great partnership with a city; in another race, the city will neglect or forget to bring recycling bins.

GSB: Yikes!! Talk about some of those clients…

AZ: One was the municipality of Andros Island in collaboration with A.C.C. (Athletic Cultural Club) Telmessos North Makris-Marathon who organized a half marathon there. The municipality was cooperative with us and we were able to work with the local recycling company who provided us with recycling bins and weighed the waste collected after the race was finished. There were about 250 runners, 450 biodegradable cups were used at the water stations, 1600 plastic water bottles were used but we managed to collect over 35 kilos of recyclable waste after the race. This may not sound like a large amount but considering the fact that this had never been done before and we managed to divert this waste from the landfill, we considered it a success.

 

Andros Recycling

Recycling installation and signage from Zoten at the Telmessos North Makris-Marathon (Photo credit: Anastasia Zotou)

 

GSB: Hey you gotta start small. And from small things, come big things.

AZ: Absolutely! Another client was a 10k in the center of Athens organized by the Athenian Runners Club.  In this case the municipality did not bring the appropriate bins to the race as requested. It also took place in the middle of the terrible garbage strike a couple of months ago. That clearly was not ideal for an environmental effort.

GSB: You might say…

AZ: But we press on, so I am currently finishing an assignment with the club on sustainability for the 2017 Pheidippides Race. These projects were pro bono as the concept of sustainable races was new and we needed to prove the concept. As we demonstrate our ability to reduce waste, save energy and save the race organizers money, revenue will follow.

GSB: I am glad you are bullish. Plus it seems to me like you’re working from a “low base” — meaning that environmental consciousness is low in Greece, so the only direction to go is up, it seems.

AV: You’re right. Recycling in Greece is not nearly as advanced as in the US. There’s a lack of sophistication and interest from consumers, companies and governments. But it’s getting better slowly.

GSB: What about composting?

AZ: Races aren’t there yet but there is interest…Composting is part of our next step plan, which also includes better public transportation planning for sports events, more prominent signage and other forms of fan education.

GSB: Does climate change figure into the equation at all with the races, with fan education?

AZ: Not yet.

GSB: Don’t worry; we’re still working on communicating climate change — its challenges and opportunities — through sports here in the States. We’ve got a long way to go. I guess in Greece, you have to crawl before you can walk before you can run, Green-Sports-wise.

AZ: Absolutely. And I am pushing it. Not only in adding to our toolkit for our smaller races, but using our success to attract the bigger races.

GSB: What about going beyond running races to events in stadiums and arenas? I’m thinking Olympiacos F.C., the number one soccer club in the Athens area, and its 32,000+ seat Karaiskaki Stadium and/or AEK Athens, which plays at 69,000 seat Olympic Stadium, would benefit from saving money and being greener.

 

Olympiacos Stadium

Karaiskaki Stadium, home of Olympiacos F.C. in Athens (Photo credit: Olympiacos F.C.)

 

AZ: Soccer and basketball, the two biggest team sports in Greece, are certainly on our radar screen. We would like to use the approach (recycling, waste management) that has been successful with road races in stadiums and arenas. As a startup, a big key to branching out to the stadium/arena sports is connections. That’s why I made the investment to go to Paris a couple of months ago for the Sports and Sustainability International (SandSI) conference. Meeting people in the European Green-Sports world gave me a needed jolt of enthusiasm as well as providing me some contacts at higher levels to expand our business to higher profile events.

 


 

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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 in 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, 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 the high-stress world of 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 to play. 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, and 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 by balancing it out entirely – known as achieving ‘climate neutrality’.” 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 left GEO to pursue his passion for tackling global climate and economic development 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,” shared 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 reductions in carbon emissions.” There is no shortage of potential carbon credit supplies in 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 and its human causality, they also expect to be the generations to take action to take on and solve the problems.
  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 screaming need to engage Ms+GZers.
  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.

 


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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.

 

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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.

 


 

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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”.

 

 


 

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