The GSB Interview: Jonathan Smith, CEO, Golf Environment Organization


Golf is a sport with unique environmental challenges and opportunities as compared to most others due, in large part, to its close relationship with landscapes, ecology and the natural environment. GreenSportsBlog has been chronicling the efforts, especially in the US, to green the game from tee to, well, green (click here, here and here for examples). Now we turn our attention to the work of the Golf Environment Organization (GEO), the international non-profit that is entirely dedicated to advancement of sustainability in the sport around the world. We spoke with its CEO, Jonathan Smith, about GEO’s programs, which aim to conserve nature and resources and help maximize the positive social and environmental impacts of golf around the world.

GreenSportsBlog: Jonathan, you are a rarity—a true Green-Sports veteran—having been involved since 1996, well before I was even aware of Green-Sports’ existence!
Jonathan Smith: Yes, when you put it that way, I guess I am a bit of a graybeard. I have always loved and participated in sport, playing golf, rugby, cricket and football (soccer) from a young age. I relish the teamwork and tests sport brings, which now feel very relevant to addressing the global sustainability challenges we all face.
GSB: And you come from the Home of Golf, Scotland.
JS: Indeed, and growing up in Scotland it was hard not to get into golf! And I guess to some extent golf played a part in attracting me to University of St. Andrews where I studied Geography. From there I enjoyed summers working at The Open, before moving into environmental management – with a large private landowner and government agencies. I then jumped at the opportunity to combine two great passions when the Scottish Golf Union became the first in Europe to employ a full time Environmental Manager in 1996.

Jonathan Smith, CEO, Golf Environment Organization. (Photo credit: Golf Environment Organization)

GSB: So what did an Environmental Manager do back in ’96?
JS: Well, things were very different then. Club awareness was lower, environmental regulation was a topic of discussion and concern rather than the reality it is now, and peoples’ understanding of sustainability and the inter-relationships between social and environmental issues was less widespread. But, even back then, there was strongly emerging interest, people “naturalizing” courses, becoming more energy efficient and the beginnings of industry wide efforts to get the golf community really proactive in environmental issues.
GSB: So how did the courses, some of which have to be among the most well-loved in the world, react?
JS: They reacted well. Course superintendents in particular have been aware and involved in sustainability for many years, so they wanted support with the “how.” The majority had already bought into the “why”!
GSB: So how did GEO come into being?
JS: It was the coming together of a number of people and organizations worldwide who were interested in collaborating– thinking about the environmental solutions the industry would need and going about creating, testing and improving dedicated industry solutions. We remain extremely grateful for the early and ongoing support offered by The R&A^, with whom we work very closely, European Tour, Rolex and Jacobsen#, now joined by many other partners and supporters.
GSB: How do you go about greening the game and communicating the industry’s increasing greenness, overcoming its real and/or perceived massive water, as well as other environmental footprints?
JS: From GEO’s perspective, we’re here to help add perspective, credibility and new solutions in support of the industry’s efforts. One thing we have seen is that teamwork and collaboration are absolutely vital, and not just within the sport, but externally too. That’s why we spend a lot of time amongst the sustainability mainstream, including the ISEAL Alliance*, WWF, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and The Gold Standard*. Like you, we see the relatively large land area and water footprint (in certain regions) of the sport as very real and legitimate sustainability challenges. But these must be looked at in context, taking into account the sustainability-related positives that are taking place. For the most part, golf is working to utilize land and water resources responsibly and productively – whether through the protection of greenspace and nature; carbon sequestration; air and, contrary to public perception, water quality improvements. And our work goes beyond the environment and takes a more holistic view of sustainability to include the health and wellbeing of golfers; employment and prosperity; and volunteering and social cohesion
GSB: What are some of the sustainability initiatives and solutions GEO has helped to develop for the sport?
JS: Over the last few years, we’ve developed a suite of sustainability solutions and services with our partners, focused on a simple strategy – engage, support, promote and mitigate. We created the OnCourse® solutions platform to provide practical environmental guidance and support to existing and new facilities, as well as a sustainability standards and a certification system for existing and new courses. A new industry climate mitigation scheme will also soon launch as well.
GSB: How does OnCourse® work?
JS: It is a technology platform that provides streamlined sustainability recording and reporting templates such as pesticide use, waste management and water sourcing, combined with best practice guidance to help superintendents and others understand and evaluate existing performance; identify new opportunities; plan, deliver and report improvements. If clubs then choose to become GEO Certified®, which is independently verified, they are able to confidently promote their sustainability leadership to players, governments, and other key stakeholders.
GSB: How many courses are using OnCourse® and are certified through GEO?

GEO Certified flags flying on a GEO Certified Golf Course. (Photo credit: Golf Environment Organization)

JS: Right now there are only around 1,400 clubs using OnCourse® in 40 countries. Most are located in Europe, with the UK and the Netherlands leading the way. Currently 170 facilities hold the GEO Certified® mark, spanning every continent in the world (except the Antarctic!) All GEO Certified® reports are publicly available and they show the wide range of positive activities taking place in golf, from rainwater irrigation and solar powered golf buggies, wildlife protection and reintroduction projects to outdoor classrooms for local school.
GSB: What about making golf tournaments more sustainable? I’d think that kind of high profile would be important for GEO and golf.
JS: Working with Ryder Cup, The Open and a number of European Tour and PGA Tour events, we have developed a deep knowledge and understanding of golf tournaments and how to most effectively and efficiently integrate sustainability. A tournaments standard, support and certification program is well developed and starting to roll out.
GSB: What’s next for GEO?
JS: There is a lot going on just now – it’s a really exciting time actually. We’re upgrading the OnCourse® program to make it even more user friendly and the voluntary sustainability standard for new course developments was released this month, thanks to the help of the world’s leading golf architect and builders associations. And our tournaments program is already generating considerable interest in its early months. New industry campaign materials, climate mitigation scheme, significant external partnerships and endorsements, and more reporting of the real results and positive impacts that this inclusive community initiative is having.
GSB: Wow! That’s a busy summer, indeed. Not much time for golfing, I imagine.
JS: Not at all, I’m afraid.
GSB: How do you communicate what GEO is doing to golf fans? Are there Public Service Announcements (PSAs) that air on golf broadcasts? If not, why not and when will that change?
JS: Our focus for communicating about GEO’s work so far has been with key decision making and leadership groups within the sport – associations and federations, clubs, developments, tournaments etc, engaging and supporting them them rather than promoting directly to golf fans. That said, part of our work is supporting the clubs and tournaments that we work with to communication to fans about the positive work that they do…
GSB: …I get that, of course. But, aside from the incredibly admirable example of the super-green Waste Management Phoenix Open, there’s not all that much about the greening of golf that is communicated to fans at tournaments and even less to the bigger audience—those watching on TV. Finding “eco-golfers” would certainly help. What do you think will get the golf to promote green messaging to fans via broadcast media? How can GEO help make that happen?
JS: There is an increasing amount of sustainability communication going on at golf events, The Open at Royal Troon this year is a good example of that with their GreenLinks program, and European Tour’s GreenDrive as well both of which we’re involved in. But as you say more can be done – this will happen as organizers and venues grow more confident in promoting their good work and as the media begin to realize that not only are there interesting stories out there but that people are interested in hearing them. GEO is working to make that happen by providing credible recognition which clubs and tournaments can be confident in promoting, and by increasing our work to support communications through promoting collective campaigns – including as you suggest – the possibility of ambassadors.

^ Based in St. Andrews, Scotland, The R&A organizes The Open Championship, golf’s oldest major championship and administers the rules of golf.
# Jacobsen, headquartered in Charlotte, NC, is a leader in turf management products.
* Global sustainability standard setting organizations.
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  1. […] 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 […]

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