Originally published in Pittsburgh Independent print issue #1, June 7, 2023.

Last month, the Pittsburgh Penguins unveiled the team’s new “sustainability initiative,” the Penguins Pledge, named so perhaps because the only guarantee it makes is to trot out some live penguins at home games next season. 

The 700-word press release and 1,000-word section of the NHL team’s website on the Pledge contain no measurable goals or actions, other than bringing live penguins and handlers from the National Aviary to PPG Paints Arena “for a minimum of 10 games during the 2023-24 season.”

The press release calls the Penguins Pledge “a collaborative effort with key partners with the goal of reducing negative impact on the environment and promoting sustainable practices.” Three of the five partners — U.S. Steel, WM and PPG — have revenues of $17 to $20 billion a year, some of which from all three have recently gone to paying multi-million-dollar penalties for polluting. 

The Penguins’ owner, Fenway Sports Group, is worth about $9.8 billion. But the NHL team has no forward-looking promises in its environmental initiative, except for the birds.

Instead, the information released on the Penguins Pledge lists past efforts and programs. Some of them seem like heavy lifts, like the institution of a recycling program for PPG Arena, and some seem like token gestures; one partner, Ohio-based landscaping company Davey Tree, planted a tree for every score of the 2022-23 season.

The Penguins communications staff did not respond to a list of questions for this story. 

Polls show that consumers consider sustainability when spending and increasingly want to support corporations that share their values, giving sports teams, like any other highly visible business venture, a reason to come up with green messaging.

Some good has come from this, says Dave Newport, a sustainability researcher and director of the Environmental Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Sports leagues have recruited sustainability commissioners and some teams use their towering visibility to promote environmental causes. Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Philadelphia Eagles, is plastered with recycling messaging, he said, including banners on the field, where cameras can’t miss them. “That’s great,” he said.

There has also been a tide of “greenwashing,” efforts only meant to jump on environmental buzzwords.

Newport says one type makes him “groan”: the repackaging of past efforts, some of minimal consequence, with no new goals.

“Why are you bothering to further erode your credibility by telling us how great you are when, in fact, everybody knows you're not,” he said, “and you can't produce anything new that you're doing different from the past to indicate you're at least starting down a road towards sincerity and accomplishment in this arena. You’re basically just completely stonewalling and doubling down on it.”

Many sports teams have rushed to sign the United Nations’ Sports for Climate Action Framework, a document lacking any clear goals.

Classic “greenwashing” deflects from an organization’s own environmental track record. All five partners in the Penguin Pledge — Davey Tree, Evoqua Water Technologies, trash/recycling conglomerate WM, PPG and U.S. Steel — have been fined for at least one environmental offense since 2000, according to the Corporate Research Project’s Violation Tracker.

The two smallest companies, Davey and Evoqua, have probably not done anything that would put Greenpeace protestors at their doors. Evoqua, which operates water treatment facilities across the U.S., racked up nine violations over 20 years, totaling $153,694 in fines. Davey has a single offense, a 2014 settlement for $51,000 relating to diesel truck emissions in California.

But the three others have serious environmental baggage, with millions paid in recent cases.

WM’s parent company, Waste Management Inc., has stacked up 170 environmental violations since 2000, according to Violation Tracker, including a $2 million settlement from 2016 for odorous emissions from a landfill in the Philadelphia area.

PPG, the 140-year-old paint maker, is responsible for sites of potential chemical hazard across the country, some of them active manufacturing centers and some dormant waste fields. According to Violation Tracker, state and federal agencies have charged PPG with 59 environmental violations since 2003.

Some were the subjects of decades-long legal fights and hulking payouts. In 2019, Pennsylvania reached a $1.2 million settlement over environmental violations at PPG’s Ford City Disposal Site in Armstrong County, where it is charged with cleaning up remnants of a glass factory. In 2021, the company agreed to pay $5 million over a chromium site in New Jersey.

U.S. Steel's history of pollution, fines and class action lawsuits goes back decades. In recent years, the company has battled Mon Valley residents and the Allegheny County Health Department over pollution from its Clairton Coke Works, which resulted in $2.7 million in fines and an order for $200 million in improvements to the facility. The company has a history of reneging on environmental impact plans and continuing to pollute in the same area after paying fines.

The Penguin Pledge allows these companies to put their logos on an initiative that seems ecologically caring. It’s not known if the Penguins asked them to make any commitments in their business practices for that privilege.

Sports teams themselves don’t contribute much to global environmental crises, like climate change, says Roger Pielke, Jr., an environmental policy researcher at the University of Colorado and director of its Sports Governance Center.

“They’re not even rounding errors there,” he said. “When they talk about being carbon neutral, that’s pretty meaningless to begin with.” Because of this, Pielke says he is “blasé about the greenwashing.”

But he does note that there are smaller, local causes, like polluted rivers or endangered animal habitats, that could benefit from the money that sports teams pour into self-promoting environmental verbiage.

“The biggest problem with greenwashing is what I would say is opportunity cost,” he said. “Who knows how much they’d do with their spending, but if that money was poured back into the community for whatever environmental or non-environmental objectives, it might have a more tangible and human impact than a marketing campaign.”