3 things your company can learn from (and do better than) the Olympics

by Mar 1, 2018

The 23rd Olympic Winter Games have come to an end. As I watched the final day of coverage this past Sunday, I saw a story about the preparations that are already well underway in Tokyo for 2020. I was intrigued when they revealed that up to five thousand of the medals to be earned in those Olympic games – across gold, silver and bronze – will be made from the components of recycled mobile devices. And it made me wonder, are the Olympics more actively getting on the sustainability train?

The short answer: they’ve made some commitments – and I applaud them – but they could do better, and you could learn a few things from them.

What they’re committing to

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), at the 2014 IOC Session, adopted Olympic Agenda 2020. Through that agenda, the IOC has committed to focus on sustainable infrastructure and natural sites, sourcing and resource management, mobility, workforce and climate. It loosened restrictions on host cities by allowing some events to be conducted outside of the host city proper, to allow for the use of more existing venues.

In the past, the unwillingness of the IOC to allow for this caused some cities to withdraw their bid for the games due to the new construction costs typically needed (funded by at least some public dollars), as well as a fear in those cities that the new venues built for the games would not be re-purposed well in the subsequent years. The biggest concern has been that the venues would be abandoned, like some of those after Greece 2004 and Rio 2016, among others.

The IOC is also working to include sustainability in many aspects of planning and staging the Olympic games: minimizing the impact of day-to-day operations at the IOC headquarters in Switzerland; incorporating sustainability into their procurement of goods and services; reducing travel impacts via offsetting carbon emissions; working with host cities to implement sustainable processes and procedures; and influencing Olympic stakeholder organizations in a positive manner.

The agenda shows some transparency – acknowledging the fact that these doctrines take time to implement, and that the first games that will truly feel the impact will not be until Paris 2024. To get there, the agenda aligns with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), ranging from energy-efficient design in new construction to sustainable sourcing to achieving carbon neutrality. It requires that specific strategies be underway by 2020, with additions by 2030.

What does this actually mean?

I applaud the IOC for embracing sustainability as part of their larger agenda for the future – aligning with SDGs, outlining a timeline for when specific actions need to be underway, and listing specific actions that can be taken – well done! But there are some significant gaps, a few things that can be learned, and ways I can see these lessons helping you be more successful in your corporate sustainability journey.

  • The IOC is clearly making itself publicly accountable, and holding cities accountable when they develop their bid plans and then eventually when the select few host the games. Do the same! Many of you have supply chains – publicly set your sustainability expectations, establish a reasonable timeline for the transition and then enthusiastically praise those that make it happen. Pushing the providers of your raw materials to do better will only make you better.
  • I applaud the IOC for stating milestone years and the strategies they are undertaking to truly be accountable and transparent – but their goals are not specific enough. How will we know if they’ve actually reduced the environmental impact of their operations? What are the targets and measurements? You can go further! State specific percentages in your sustainability goals and develop plans to stick to them – aligning with science-based targets that are bold and based in fact.
  • The third thing I see (and we have written about in past weeks) is this – be bold! The Olympics have a global stage and a huge sphere of influence. I understand that they need cities to bid to host the games, but just think of the impact they could have if they selected a bold, focused sustainability cause to rally around. Just think about the impact you could have if you did the same.
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About the Author

Mike Beamer

Mike is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

1 Comment

  1. Gail Lawlor

    Hi Mike, great article about the sustainability of the Olympics. Thought you might enjoy some history of environmental efforts that first started at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics. These Olympics were the first international sporting event to include a public recycling program in the world. Behind the scenes and including the Olympic Village, food waste was composted and paper and containers were recycled.

    The public was invited to recycle water bottles and aluminum cans at every venue. Xerox provided hundreds of staff from around the world to volunteer as recycling ambassadors to assist the public in making a good choice when faced with a garbage and a recycling bin.

    The program was designed and administered by a team of 5 people from Ontario, Canada, including Jack McGinnis the inventor of the curbside pick up of recyclables in a ‘Blue Box’ and myself. Our effort in Atlanta was built upon the success of our behind the scenes recycling program we implemented at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Special Olympics in 1991.

    One of the interesting outcomes of the Atlanta games was the research we did to determine how far apart trash and recycling bins can be and people will still make the right choice. The results concluded that anything more than a foot apart meant people would throw garbage or a recyclable container into either container. When side by side people made the right choice. This research helped with the design of trash and recycling bins today that are all in one container with different slots and signage; thus avoiding the inevitable separation of individual bins. The Atlanta program was designed to remain in place in each venue after the Olympics were finished. As well countries hosting future Olympics visited Atlanta and chose to replicate the recycling program at their Olympics. I have always been proud to have been part of this bit of recycling history and helping move the Olympics towards a more sustainable future.

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