What is sustainability in golf?

Few words are used more than the word sustainability. Used everywhere, sustainability is emblazoned on company announcements, on product labels, in the speeches of politicians, but like any buzzword it is often misused. So before discussing if golf courses are sustainable we need to define sustainability.

Historically, the word sustainability first appeared in the Brundtland Report of 1987. The definition given was:

"Development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own"

In 1990, John Elkington founder of NGO Sustainability, added what we call the triple bottom line to the concept of sustainability, which is used by the United Nations. According to John Elkington, for something to be truly sustainable this activity must be:

1) Economically viable;
2) Socially just;
3) Environmentally friendly.

In all fairness the triple bottom line has received its share of criticism. In 1992 at the Eco-92 conference in Rio de Janeiro a new document was created that included 27 basic principles underlying the concept of sustainability. The document called Rio Declaration on Environment and Development was created to be more inclusive of environmental considerations that were difficult to describe with previous definitions.

Historically, the ongoing evolution of what sustainability means is an arduous and complex path often open to criticism. Weather a golf course is sustainable or not is a difficult determination.

Therefore, to determine the nature of sustainability as it applies to golf courses we will consider the concept of the triple bottom line. Under this concept of sustainability we need to determine if golf courses are economically viable, socially just and environmentally friendly.

I think if we look at a golf course as economically viable, the questions like “Does the golf course create jobs?”, “Does the golf course add value the local community?”, and “Can the golf course make enough money to maintain its activities?”.

It may seem naive to ask such questions, but in many parts of the world the answers are extremely important. In Brazil for example where golf is seen as a sport for the rich, people have the impression that the golf courses are businesses that generate a lot of money. However globally there are numerous cases of golf courses that have gone into foreclosure or bankruptcy.

Therefore, the financial health of a golf course should be monitored continually especially as we drive to incorporate more environmentally sustainable practices.

In a video by Dr. Larry Stowell at PACE Turf he discusses the interaction between economic and environmental sustainability. In the table below, Dr. Stowell describes examples of golf course practices that move along a continuum of sustainability.

What the table shows is that the closer to the natural environment, or the less maintenance needed in the course, the more sustainable that golf course will be. But what is the limit for this? Initially by reducing inputs the course may actually make a greater profit, but at some point what are golfers, and indirectly the community willing to pay for what would be considered a poorly maintained golf course? Currently, most golf courses try to become more sustainable but still strive to maintain golfer expectations for course conditioning.

Being sustainable means less profit?

To some working in the area of sustainability believe that to become sustainable equates to lower profits. Like many discussions of sustainability, this view is controversial. However, we can highlight the two major points of view regarding the concept of lower profits.

1. If a golf course adopts sustainable practices initially it will spend less money on maintenance which in turn will become possible for the course to increase profits. However, as the drive to become “more sustainable” similar to what Dr. Stowell discusses in his video the course condition may deteriorate to a point that members, golfers and visitors may see this as a sign as neglect choose to play another golf course. If the path to sustainability is less maintenance and more brown grass, insects, weeds, and disease then the golfers and the community in large has to be committed to the idea of sustainability and not a reflection of poor maintenance. In turn, does the move towards greater sustainability mean the golfer pays less?

2. Taking a global view a growing number of experts say that it is impossible in the long run for an activity to be economically viable and environmentally friendly, if it consumes natural resources at a rate greater than what is replenished. For example, phosphorus is one of the major nutrients used by plants and found in most fertilizers. Accounting for the amount of phosphorus-based fertilizers consumed globally in comparison with the rate of renewal of phosphorus in nature, the practice is unsustainable. Phosphorus is one example that in this case goes beyond whether golf courses are sustainable but to agriculture in general. How we manage resources in attempt to be more sustainable in golf will be the focus of my future articles.

For society and in turn golf to achieve sustainability the path will be a long challenging and difficult journey. I am afraid that if we look at sustainability as a technical activity where we change a few practices, meet the minimum requirements of the triple bottom line and say we are sustainable, we will have achieved little. Real sustainability requires much more, it requires a paradigm shift, deeper changes in human behavior and appreciation of people over things. At the moment to think golfers will pay premium prices to play a substandard golf course is naive. This new paradigm for golf and society in general will be deeply related to the need for less consumption of natural resources.

For me and the GlobalTurf Network (GTN) discussing sustainability is not only a time for reflection but also for action developing plans and solutions. As educational outlet based on science we are committed to bringing together people from different countries and cultures who are looking at golf and other green related industries to become more sustainable. I hope you follow us as we begin this discussion of sustainability and how golf as a green industry can work toward sustainability.


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