A conference with an environmental conscience

Photo of Cal Memorial Stadium
Josh Kahen/Senior Staff

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The Pac-12 put the college world on notice with its surprisingly fantastic showing at the 2021 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, but strides that the conference is making off the court will be remembered for far longer than any March Madness game will.

Over the past decade, the “Conference of Champions” has acted in solidarity to promote environmentalism and encourage sustainable action. This united effort officially kicked off in 2011, when all of the schools within the Pac-12 became members of the Green Sports Alliance, an organization whose mission is to “leverage the cultural and market influence of sports to promote healthy, sustainable communities where people live and play.”

In practice, this means pushing professional and collegiate entities that join the alliance to invest in renewable energy as well as environmentally conscious foods and chemicals. Beyond those actions, the organization encourages members to enact measures to maximize recycling and water efficiency. The conference’s decision to join the Green Sports Alliance set the tone for a decade of action by the conference to promote sustainability.

The following year, the conference introduced its Pac-12 Football and Basketball Zero Waste Challenges, which have been a staple of those sports’ seasons ever since. These Zero Waste Challenges are friendly competitions between each campus with the goal of maximizing reuse and recycling at sporting events, and in turn, mitigating the disposal of potentially useful materials — as the name would suggest.

Above all else, this was a move to promote sustainability among sports fans, which could influence the way that entire schools operate and envision environmentalism. This promotion comes from the metrics in place to measure each school’s sustainability efforts. Part of the scoring rubric is dedicated to broader campus participation in the competition, including an examination of how extensively environmental efforts appear within tailgates, organizations and campus communities at large.

Cal’s devotion to the Zero Waste campaign extends far beyond sporting events, though. The school employs a team of overseers to ensure that reuse, recycling and composting are prioritized over reflexive disposal of items across the campus in its entirety. It’s evident from the disparity between recycling and trash receptacle sizes in dorm rooms, the composting made possible by students dumping uneaten food into special bins after meals and a number of other on-campus initiatives.

And other Pac-12 schools have been promoting similar initiatives in recent years.

In 2018, the conference collaborated with Unifi to launch Pac-12 Team Green. This initiative brought the conference’s sustainability efforts to unprecedented heights by introducing both fan gear made from recycled plastic bottles and grant programs meant to incentivize campus organizations into taking action.

Foreshadowing its future efforts to promote environmentalism, the “Conference of Champions” has set the dates of June 15-17, 2022 for the nation’s first high-level symposium with a complete focus on promoting sustainability in collegiate athletics. The symposium announcement promises to address a number of issues, including the mitigation of athletic programs’ carbon footprint, systems for quantifying improvements and methods of engaging and inspiring fans to take action.

The Pac-12 has taken bold, necessary steps towards creating a more sustainable and environmentally conscious society. Both its words and actions have made it crystal clear where the conference’s priorities lie.

While it’s not bad to be known as the “Conference of Champions,” the Pac-12, as a collective athletic organization, is instigating change that will ultimately be more meaningful than any championship ever could be. Matters of sustainability and environmentalism transcend sport, but that doesn’t mean that impactful measures against waste and climate change can’t be levied by a sports conference. We can only hope that other conferences will be inspired to follow the Pac-12’s footsteps towards a greener tomorrow.

Ethan Moutes is a deputy sports editor and a columnist. Contact him at [email protected].