College Athletic Departments Playing Catch-up on Sustainability

The 2009 Collegiate Athletic Department Sustainability Survey Report shows that while sustainability efforts appear to be growing within collegiate athletics, commitment to sustainability is lower among athletic departments than compared to their institutions as a whole and to professional sports teams.

The survey of collegiate athletic departments, which was released by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), found that almost 75% of respondents expect the emphasis on environmental programs in the Athletic Department to increase in the future. However, while nearly three out of four athletic departments reported that sustainability initiatives are a “very high” or “high” priority for their institution as a whole, less than half (44%) of respondents said sustainability was a very high or high priority for the athletic departments themselves.

Likewise, a similar survey of professional sports teams seems to indicate greater dedication to sustainability across a range of questions. For example, 56% of professional teams said key decision makers have a “strongly positive” perception of implementing environmental initiatives compared to only 33% of collegiate athletic departments. In another example, 47% of professional teams are currently measuring or planning to measure their greenhouse gas emissions while only 9% of collegiate athletic departments are doing so or planning to do so.

Additional findings of the survey include:

  • Just under 10% of collegiate athletic departments have developed a formal sustainability plan with short- and long-term objectives. Another 15% are actively considering developing such a plan.
  • Energy efficiency/conservation and recycling are receiving the most emphasis within athletic department environmental initiatives. Natural/local food appears to be receiving the least emphasis.
  • A majority of athletic departments are not currently measuring the greenhouse gas emissions associated with any aspect of their operations.
  • Seven percent of athletic departments have formed a departmental green team and another 15% are planning to do so.
  • A representative from the athletics department is serving on an institution wide sustainability committee at over 40% of the institutions covered by the survey.
  • Almost 80% of respondents did not know if their institution had signed the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment.

“Through their high visibility and close connection with fans, collegiate athletic departments have an incredible opportunity to move the ball forward on sustainability,” said the author Mark McSherry, who conducted the survey as part of a graduate course offered through the Harvard University Extension. “It’s still early in the game and there are encouraging signs that Athletic Departments are rising to the challenge of tackling sustainability issues.”

The survey was distributed to the 119 athletic departments at National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly known as Division 1A) universities. 97 institutions (81.5%) responded to the survey.

To request a PDF of the survey, send an e-mail to with the words “College Survey” in the subject line.