The GSB Interview: Simon Lewis, Team Planet


Conventional wisdom has it that the US is far behind Europe on most sustainability matters and metrics.  Is that the case when it comes to the intersection of Green & Sports?  GSB spoke to Simon Lewis, Founder of UK-based, green-sports consulting firm Team Planet Sport and a key player in the greening of the 2012 London Olympics on behalf of World Wildlife Fund (WWF), to find out.
GreenSportsBlog: Simon, how did you come to the Green-Sports intersection?
Simon Lewis: I was a dyed-in-the-wool greenie, an Environmental Studies major, worked at the Natural History Museum in London and then worked for WWF in London for 12 years, organizing and managing campaigns for them.  And, while I’m keen on sport–love cycling, running, rowing and racket sports–I never worked in sports until WWF got involved with the sustainability plan for London’s bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics.
GSB: How did that involvement take shape?
SL: At the end of 2003, the London 2012 organizing committee reached out to WWF and the conversation ended up with WWF helping to write the Bid Book’s sustainability section (Ed. Note: A Bid Book is provided to the IOC by any city bidding to host an Olympics. It represents the entirety of the prospective host city’s bid, from facilities to security, from transportation to housing.  Sustainability is now a core facet of Olympics Bid Books).  WWF’s theme for London 2012’s sustainability plan was One Planet Living.
SL 2012
Simon Lewis, Founder of Team Planet Sport (Photo Credit: Simon Lewis)
GSB:  What did a One Planet Olympics look like?
SL: It was a comprehensive plan for the London 2012 bid that used carbon footprinting and management as a decision-making tool for everything from venue construction, to transport to food. Always looking to minimize the impact of the event itself and leave behind a sustainable legacy.  The London 2012 organizing committee loved it! WWF became involved with the bid at a granular level; endorsing London’s sustainability plans to the IOC on its evaluation visit, acting as a strategic advisor on sustainability issues, giving the One Planet Olympics part of the bid plan credibility.  When London was awarded the Games in 2005, WWF shifted from planning for a sustainable Olympics to helping London 2012 achieve One Planet Living goals.
GSB: How did that work out?
SL: I think it’s fair to say that London 2012 was the most sustainable Olympics yet but we left some “sustainability cash” on the table. On the positive side of the ledger, London 2012 tried hard to avoid ‘white elephants’, only building new facilities where really needed and with built-in plans for legacy use. They delivered technologically advanced, lightweight facilities,building the Olympic Stadium with significantly less embodied carbon than other recent Olympic stadia.. Olympics sponsors were engaged in sustainability–like Coke with its Healthy Living/Recycling programs.  London 2012 set a sustainability bar for future Olympics to reach and exceed.  And we left London with a more sustainable sporting infrastructure. On the other hand, London 2012 could’ve done better in terms of reaching renewable energy generation and much better in choosing its Sustainability Partners!
london olympic stadium at night
London’s environmentally advanced Olympic Stadium at night (Photo Credit: London 2012)
GSB:  Pivoting from London 2012, how did Team Planet come to be and what is its mission?
SL: Well, after the Olympic flame was doused in August 2012, I took stock.  My all-consuming work with London 2012 made me think there is a real need and growing opportunity in greening sport.  Parts of the sport world are perhaps 10 years behind t6he rest of the corporate world in terms of integrating sustainability into its business models.  So I left WWF at the end of 2013 and launched Team Planet in January of this year to build on London 2012 by helping sport catch up to the corporates. We plan to do this in a couple of ways:

  1. Work with organizations across the business of sport to help them assess and deal with their operational sustainability issues.
  2. Help those in the sports sector who want to do sustainability well to really gain brand benefits, communicate effectively with key audiences and meet the expectations of sponsors and stakeholders.

GSB: We wish you and Team Planet all the best in your efforts to green the sports world in the UK and the rest of Europe.  In that vein, it’s generally accepted that the US is behind Europe in terms of sustainability.  Does that hold true with sports?  Here we have the Green Sports Alliance, which, since 2010, has helped “sports teams, venues and leagues enhance their environmental performance.”  Is the British Association For Sustainable Sport (BASIS) the UK equivalent?
SL: I believe BASIS started as a network of sport facilities managers in the UK, with a goal of sharing contacts and expertise. It’s grown into something bigger, with a broader approach to sustainability and membership from clubs and venues to academics, sponsors and NGOs.  My take is that, at present, the Green Sports Alliance (GSA) is a bigger organization, and really growing rapidly, but currently pretty focused on US Teams and Leagues. Its amazing what they have achieved in so little time. Regardless of who’s bigger, the efforts of GSA, BASIS and others like Sustainability in Sport, are crucial as the time is right for sport to take a much bigger role in terms of sustainability.
GSB: In the same vein, here in the US, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is the environmental non-profit that is most associated with the green-sports movement; it has taken the lead on working with leagues like the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball on their greening efforts. Is WWF London the NRDC’s green-sports non-profit counterpart in the UK?
SL: WWF has been involved with sport for at least two (2) decades across its global network. The first 10 years, WWF involvement was often adversarial as the big sports events were often having a big impact on the environment. Whilst there has been some steady progress in sport in the last decade, London 2012 turned things around for WWF.  They saw that sports could provide significant positive lessons to business, fans and athletes alike. And the mega events in particular were a huge opportunity to catalyze sustainable regeneration of city buildings, transport and infrastructure. Also, while the sport industry is small in absolute terms, its immense popularity and huge media reach give it an influence far greater than its actual size.  As well as engaging with the Olympics, WWF has worked with World Rowing and pro- cycling teams (currently Jonathan Vaughters Team Argyle) to help promote sustainability through sport and also with the rowers and cyclists themselves to educate them key issues like climate and water.  Many are concerned about the environment–it makes sense to empower them to use their celebrity to further the cause.
GSB: Last question: The Winter Olympic flame at Sochi was just extinguished.  After the sustainability strides made by London 2012, GSB’s take was that the IOC took a huge environmental step backwards by going to Sochi. How do you size up Sochi 2014 in terms of its environmental performance?
SL: Awarding the games to Sochi was an absolute disaster by the IOC, especially where they built the Mountain Cluster.  Now, Sochi won the Games in 2007 when London 2012’s sustainability plans were still in development.  So perhaps the opportunities for learning were limited. Plus a Winter Olympics is always going to be a much tougher go from a sustainability perspective than a Summer Games because you have to get people up and down mountains in the former case. That said, it would be hard to pick a worse place to have a Winter Olympics from a sustainability point of view:  There‘s little scope to create a sustainable resort in the mountains near Sochi, but, nevertheless they enlarged an airport, and built new railways, and highways into a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the most pristine mountain environments in Europe!   The positive? Early indications with Pyeongchang (South Korea) 2018, despite being another speculative resort built to host the Olympics, are that the ecological impacts are smaller and a more rigorous approach to sustainability is being taken.
GSB: Thanks, Simon, for ending on a positive note! We look forward to seeing how Team Planet greens the sports world in the UK and Europe.
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