GSB Interview

Sofi Armenakian, Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena’s ‘Leave No Stone Unturned’ Head of Sustainability


Sofi Armenakian is the head of sustainability for the Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena. She is NEVER satisfied with the status quo. Her ‘leave no stone unturned’ approach to making things better combined with an innate curiosity as to how to get from A to Z, helped the downtown Atlanta venue become the only sports and live entertainment venue to earn TRUE (Total Resource Use and Efficiency) platinum certification for zero waste.

GSB spoke with Armenakian about her journey to her role with the Hawks, how she and her team were able to achieve TRUE platinum status and what we can look for in terms of an encore.


GreenSportsBlog: Sofi, I’ve got so many topics to discuss with you so let’s dive right in. What was your childhood like?

Sofi Armenakian: Great to talk with you, Lew! I was born in Armenia and spent my early childhood in Germany. My family moved to Georgia in the U.S. in 2000 on my birthday. I did not know English when we arrived, which made it quite challenging at first.

But by the time I graduated from a very competitive high school, I was able to do so with an advanced placement concentration in literature. By the way, one of my classmates in AP literature was Maya Moore

GSB: …the legendary UConn and recently retired WNBA great who is now a social justice warrior?! That is so cool!

Sofi: She was of course a phenomenal athlete, but most may not know that she was a great student, too.

GSB: True! What was next after high school?

Sofi: I went to Georgia State in Atlanta, eventually changing my major many times because I found so many subjects to be interesting. I ended up in business marketing and professional sales.

That made sense because I also worked in retail full-time throughout my college days. In fact, I became a General Manager while still attending GSU as full-time student before transitioning into a district training manager, helping to open stores, by recruiting and training new GM’s.

Sofi Armenakian (Photo credit: Atlanta Hawks)

GSB: I can see how being successful in retail could lead you to the sports and entertainment venue world, but I haven’t seen an interest in sports to this point in your story. Nor have you mentioned the environment. How did they come into play for you?

Sofi: My capstone project for my marketing class was focused on raising awareness around recycling at Georgia State University; it was very low when I began the project. That was very upsetting to me and so the project became much more of a personal passion.

At around the same time, I was beginning to feel like there were no more challenges for me in retail with the leadership at time. I wanted to do something that was more meaningful, more impactful but I didn’t have a plan.

GSB: So, what did you do?

Sofi: I didn’t do anything for about a month. Then, I was talking with one of my former employees, telling her about my desire for a career change with purpose. She introduced me to her dad, an engineer who graduated from Georgia Tech.

He worked on a myriad of data-driven sustainability solutions at universities and commercial buildings and facilities. He ended up recruiting me to work at the firm. After a while, I began to think and talk like an engineer — a “relationship engineer”, he would call it. Our conversations also got me much more interested in the power of business to make a difference on the environment; I never really thought much about it before. He was a great engineer to work with.

At around that time, spring of 2016, I went to a sustainability panel event in Atlanta. Scott Jenkins, then the General Manager of the soon-to-open Mercedes-Benz Stadium (MBS), was on the panel. He talked about the incredible steps the Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank that would ultimately make Mercedes-Benz the first LEED Platinum stadium in the world. Scott also spoke about the Green Sports Alliance.

Sports and sustainability? What was THAT?! It sounded so new and untapped! I immediately got how sports could, with its huge platform, accelerate environmental sustainability. I was so excited!

So, I went to Houston to the 2016 Green Sports Alliance Summit on my own to volunteer. I was then recruited to become the Manager of Event Operations at MBS in 2017. My role and responsibility then evolved into Manager of Event Operations and Sustainability. The following year, we were championship rings in honor of Atlanta United winning the 2018 MLS Cup!

Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Photo credit: Atlanta Falcons)

GSB: What a story…yet, I’m somehow not surprised! What were some of the highlights of your tenure at Mercedes-Benz Stadium?

Sofi: We began our journey to zero waste. One thing we did was to engage fans at the Falcons and Atlanta United games as well as all other major events with a new ‘Recycle And Win’ (RaW) initiative. We would station staff at recycling bins throughout the arena and would reward fans for their good environmental behaviors.

But that program and others…those were just the beginning. My attitude was and is that we can always do more…

GSB: …Sounds like you were channeling Dale Vince, OBE, the owner of Forest Green Rovers, the third division soccer club in England that is the ‘Greenest Team in Sports’. He said: There is always another way to do everything that we do! That sounds like your approach too.

Sofi: He’s right! My attitude at MBS was always that we could improve on everything; For just one example, we sourced the Super Bowl volunteer jackets from upcycled plastic in 2019.  

GSB: You really ‘walked the talk’ at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which, if there was a Green-Sports Venue Mount Rushmore, it would be on it for sure. What led you to move next door to State Farm Arena?

Sofi: Lew, I never thought I’d leave MBS. But then I was recruited by the Hawks at the end of 2019 for their Director of Operations role. I would be in charge of housekeeping, uniforms, and conversion [transforming the arena floor from basketball to concerts to other events].

I asked, ‘What about sustainability?’ They didn’t have that role at the time, so we collaborated on a job in which sustainability played an important part. This was the first director-level position with sustainability in its title amongst all 30 NBA teams.

Since then, we’ve evolved as a sustainability department and have allocated resources to get the work done.

GSB: So, you moved from Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where the environment and climate action have been integral facets of the building’s DNA since before ground was broken, to State Farm Arena, where, at least from a public perspective, the environment was not such a high priority. What was that like and how did you help change that?

Sofi: What many may not know is that State Farm Arena, formerly known as Phillips Arena, was the first NBA & NHL arena to achieve LEED certification back in April of 2009.

GSB: I did not know that…

Sofi: …When I was recruited it was with the intent to integrate being more sustainable in the way the building operates. And since no sports or entertainment venue in the world had ever achieved TRUE Zero Waste Certification, pursuing it became an immediate goal.  

From the beginning at State Farm Arena, I had a champion in Geoffrey Stiles, the Hawks’ senior vice president for facilities and events. Without leadership’s support in being innovators in our space, we would not have achieved our success in the quick time that we did.

GSB: What did that entail?

Sofi: We set our goals high; for instance, we set a target of getting to a 90 percent waste diversion from landfill, up from a 10 percent diversion rate in 2019.

GSB: Wow…That would be a massive jump! Did State Farm Arena make it?

Sofi: Yes, of course! We accomplished our first 90 percent in Spring of 2021 and have maintained it since.

Using Novelis cups helped State Farm Arena on its journey to TRUE Platinum certification (Photo credit: State Farm Arena)

GSB: That is what I call a #ClimateComeback! What is the TRUE certification? And did State Farm Arena team achieve platinum?

Sofi: TRUE stands for Total Resource Use and Efficiency. According to the USGBC, buildings can earn four levels of TRUE certification: Certified (31-37 points), Silver (38-45 points), Gold (46-63 points) and Platinum (64-81 points). State Farm Arena received the Platinum designation, the highest of four classifications of green buildings.

In achieving TRUE Platinum, the venue earned near the maximum number of points from a variety of categories including redesign, reduce, reuse, compost, recycle, zero waste reporting, waste diversion (minimum 90 percent), zero waste purchasing, leadership, training, zero waste analysis, upstream management, hazardous waste prevention, closed loop system and innovation.

To get to the basic level of TRUE certification, a venue like ours needs to get at least 34 points; platinum level required a minimum of 64 points. We got to 68 points from 2021-22.

GSB: How did you accomplish that?

Sofi: It took intentionality and clear communications with our staff that we were all responsible for getting us there. This meant getting our supply chain on board as well as all our workers. We had weekly all-staff ‘zero-waste’ calls.

One of my proudest moments was when I saw a photo of the conversion team after they installed a new stage — everything was separated properly. You could see the pride of ownership from the team! Another was when we held the first ever zero-waste NBA All-Star Weekend in 2021. Those milestones proved to us that we were on the right track. 

We didn’t do this alone; we are grateful for our partners for helping us accomplish being the world’s first venue to become TRUE Platinum Zero Waste.

GSB: How have you communicated the ‘zero-waste’ initiatives to the fans?

Sofi: In various ways, from uniform bin placement with easy to identify signage to in game/event activations like ‘Recycle and Win’ and surveying fans.  

GSB: What are you asking in the survey?

Sofi: Right now we want to learn the answers to two key questions: 1. Do you care about sustainability programs, and 2. How are we doing at State Farm Arena? This helps us gauge the perspective of the fans as well as hear it directly from them.

GSB: We look forward to seeing the results. Now, when we talk about ‘zero-waste’ and ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘net zero’, I’ve heard concerns from some quarters that these terms are not accurate or meaningful and thus are greenwashing of sorts. Meaning that a sports event or a concert can’t really be carbon neutral or zero-waste if embedded carbon is included. Where do you stand on that issue?

Sofi: You’re right- greenwashing happens every day. And while I cannot speak on behalf of the industry, I can speak on behalf of what we have accomplished thus far and that we are truly zero waste when it comes to keeping over 90 percent of all our materials from the landfill. And this isn’t a claim we are making, but an accomplishment we’ve earned and has been certified by GBCI. It is important to be transparent along the journey as we all have more work to do and different areas within sustainability still to accomplish. And here in Atlanta, within what we call our ‘green bubble’ at State Farm Arena we are very proud of what we’ve accomplished while with integrity in walking our talk and talking our walk.

GSB: Congratulations to the State Farm Arena team on your stellar progress to date. Looking ahead, I see that State Farm Arena and the Hawks are partnering with Fenway Sports Group, green building expert Jason McLennan and Oak View 360 on the latter’s new GOAL (Green Operations and Advanced Leadership) program. What can you tell us about the club’s and the arena’s involvement and what are your goals with, well, GOAL?

Sofi: We are thrilled to have joined forces to accelerate the sports and entertainment industry’s response to the climate crisis. GOAL, which stands for Green Operations & Advanced Leadership, will provide venues with a tactical roadmap, easy-to-use tracking tools, a library of resources, and access to like-minded operators, vendors, and sponsors all committed to operating more sustainably, more urgently. To echo what our CEO Steve Koonin said when we announced the partnership, ‘Sustainability is never a message of we did it.’

We fully believe in this forever journey, and we feel that environmental and social sustainability is a lifelong commitment. For our goals, we are excited to share our journey with other like-minded venues, whether they are just beginning their journeys, or us simply meeting them where they are and helping along the way. We can all certainly make progress as individual venues, but we are stronger as an industry if we work together to do better for a sustainable future. We are all part of the solution.

Epilogue: State Farm Arena recently announced that it diverted more than 2.5 million pounds of all waste from landfills throughout its 2022 slate of Hawks’ basketball games, concerts and more.

In total, the venue recycled nearly one million pounds of materials, composted 734,775 pounds of food and organic material, reused, or donated 610,656 pounds and reduced annual waste by 160,054 pounds.

Photo at top: State Farm Arena, home of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks (Photo credit: State Farm Arena)

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