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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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