Earth Day: How to Communicate Golf & Sustainability

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It’s Earth Day on April 22, an annual day to demonstrate support for environmental protection. 

Despite much good work happening on the ground, golf clubs and courses are often guilty of not demonstrating and communicating how our green spaces benefit local ecosystems and communities.

Writing this on a train on my way into London for a meeting, I’ve passed golf courses surrounded by urban sprawl.

These courses are important green spaces that can benefit both nature and people by:

· Protecting and enhancing ecosystems and biodiversity

· Reducing the effect of flooding during extreme weather events

· Reducing urban heat arising from high temperatures in the built environment

· Filtering polluted surface water runoff 

· Filtering air pollutants.

The problem is that many golf courses, especially clubs, tend to be inward-looking and overlook the need to communicate and engage with local communities.

Even when clubs do have a good sustainability story to tell, they often lack the confidence to know what to communicate and how.

The result of not communicating or engaging with local communities can be damaging: the public is left to assume that negative, stereotypical, and prejudiced views about golf are correct, even when they are wildly inaccurate.

Syngenta’s pioneering social listening report Golf and Social Media: Sustainability, written and produced by LANDMARK with an analysis of 16.1 million social media posts about golf from Ipsos, underlined this point. It revealed:

· The full extent of the negative perception of golf and the environment

· How droughts spark high levels of social media activity opposing golf

· Growing calls on social media for golf to be banned.

In LANDMARK’s experience, golf resorts tend to be better at communicating their sustainability credentials, conscious their customers actively consider the environment in making travel and destination decisions. You can see case studies of our resort clients below, including some that have partnered with the GEO Foundation for Sustainable Golf, something we recommend.

But clubs, especially, need to watch out and look beyond the pressing wants and needs of members.

Interestingly, the latest Club Members Perspective 2024 report from GGA Partners suggests that ‘Environmental Sustainability and Initiatives’ is seventh on the member wish list for club enhancements, behind 1) Dining Experiences 2) Golf Course and Practice Facilities, and 3) Clubhouse and Facilities.

This isn’t to say members don’t care about sustainability. But club managers, committees, and boards need to understand that while fixing these things is an internal, member-focused priority, the club’s future existence and external reputation could very well depend on demonstrating sound environmental management.

Efficient use of water, especially during times of drought, affects entire communities – and golf clubs will have no sympathy from neighbors and local authorities if they are unable to demonstrate sustainable use.

I was in France recently (where environmental activists filled golf holes with concrete during a drought last summer) meeting and listening to Paul Armitage, Golf Manager of Paris 2024 on how this will be the most demonstrably sustainable Olympics ever. It has to be because the world is watching.

At the same time, readers of The Sunday Times were ogling a highly negative feature about Queenwood Golf Club, one of the UK’s most exclusive private clubs, splashed across its pages. The problem, the newspaper reported, was internal dissatisfaction over leadership and management, but the trigger for the row going public was members being asked to pay for a costly new irrigation system. The result: a negative public reputation for the club, reinforcing the perception that golf is elitist and is likely to be over-watering its manicured ‘lawns’, regardless of whether this is factually accurate or not.

The problem for golf when it comes to sustainability is it is often perceived to be taking as much as it can from the environment to selfishly serve its needs. This is rarely the case, but if sustainability is the delicate balance between people, planet, and profit, then golf courses need to weigh up and clearly communicate how they are not just taking, but giving back – and giving back more than they take.

I was in Phoenix, Arizona, for the GCSAA Conference and Trade Show in January and was interested to learn that the city’s own newspaper, The Republic, had published an incendiary article about golf courses taking more water than they were permitted to. 

The article was picked up by USA Today and even Golfweek magazine, leading to nationwide criticism.

The trouble was, the article was inaccurate.

A newly formed organisation, the Arizona Alliance for Golf, jumped into action and provided a riposte that was factual, incisive, and effective. 

It pointed out the article’s inaccuracies and stated that less than 2% of the state’s water was used for golf course irrigation, within the amount permitted.

It also highlighted that like other industries that require water to sustain business, it delivered jobs, taxes, and a total economic benefit of more than $6 billion per year.

The Alliance’s website – a template for any golf course thinking about how to communicate sustainability benefits – communicates the benefits golf courses deliver under five simple headings:

· Environment

· Health

· Social

· Economic

· Youth Development.

People, planet, and profit: golf has a lot to offer.

Golf courses shouldn’t hide behind high hedges and a secure front gate – demonstrate and communicate what you’re doing externally, so you can inform and earn the trust of your community.

If you need help and advice on how to do this, please contact me: at [email protected]