In recent years sustainability has rapidly become integral to the way society, business and government operates. For the golf industry this presents a range of new challenges and opportunities.
How companies and sectors integrate and embrace sustainability - to drive resource efficiency, environmental stewardship, customer and community value – has become the real focus.
This Feature explores the role of voluntary standards and certification as key tools in an effective approach to drive sustainability in and through the sport of golf.
The Strategic Value of Standards and Certification to Golf
By proactively and visibly embracing sustainability the sport can strengthen its:
Image and Reputation
- Reinforcing core values of integrity, respect, fairness and sporting behaviour.
- Enabling golf to promote itself proudly and with confidence.
- Demonstrating voluntary leadership.
- Conserving nature goes hand in hand with presenting great golf courses.
- Resource efficiencies bring cost savings.
- Community engagement leads to more support from local organisations and more interest from local people.
- Sustainability provides golf with a new platform to demonstrate its wide-ranging social, environmental and economic value.
- Positioning golf more strongly for investment and support from government and corporations, and enabling golf to have more control over its future.
Modern, relevant and productive set of standards, programmes and certification help guide, report and drive positive sustainability practices and outcomes across the many diverse types of golf courses and facilities around the world
Golf is rooted in a strong history of social and environmental value. Continuing this commitment, many regions, management companies, golf associations and governing bodies have developed their own best management practices (BMPs) and key performance indicators to ensure quality playing surfaces, while tracking and improving efficiencies, and aiming for an overall positive environmental impact.
Further steps were taken with the founding of not-for-profit Golf Environment Organization (GEO) by industry leaders and sustainability experts to support the golf industry with sustainability. This has included the development of a modern, relevant and productive set of standards, programmes and certification to help guide, report and drive positive sustainability practices and outcomes across the many diverse types of golf courses and facilities around the world - ultimately helping to ensure a sustainable, profitable industry well into the future.
Standards, programmes and certification are valuable, inter-connected tools that help elevate both the performance and profile of an industry - strengthening individual businesses while also boosting recognition and influence.
- Standards clearly set out informed, relevant and fair expectations for self-regulated performance. Programmes provide people with the straightforward pathway and guidance to attain the Standard and begin on a path of continual improvement.
- Certification (labelling) provides a recognisable and trusted assurance of good practice, and helps ensure more consistent, effective and credible communications.
For golf, the process of drafting and consulting on industry standards includes the challenge of addressing the diverse array of geographic, climatic, social, business and ecological environments, with a relevant set of uniform standards. Involving a wide range of people and organisations representing expertise in each of these areas, a set of standards specific to golf has been set out – credible and comprehensive, but with the necessary degree of flexibility – that can be voluntarily applied to the management of any and all golf facilities, regardless of whether they are a 9-hole community course in a temperate climate or a championship resort course in the desert.
Through a series of consultations with a variety of experts (agronomists, legal experts, scientists, golf business professionals, non-governmental organisations), a Standard was developed that balances accessibility and practicality with robustness and credibility. This process is to be repeated every three years and the Standard is the basis for awarding golf’s sustainability certification.
Any golf facility can step forward as part of golf’s sustainability system using OnCourse®. This is a free, web-based programme making it relatively easy to prioritise, evaluate, improve and report on:
- stewardship of nature (biodiversity, land management, pollution control)
- effective and efficient resource management (across water, energy, plant health and protection inputs)
- community value (health and wellbeing, job creation, community space, economic impacts).
Most facilities then choose to be recognised with golf’s sustainability certification (GEO Certified®), and an independent accredited verifier reviews the information gathered through OnCourse®, ensuring all elements of the Standard are met, in line with regional requirements, best practices and scientific knowledge that underpin the system. The verifier also helps to develop a continual improvement plan to be completed throughout the three years before re-certification. With the OnCourse® report and the verifiers report, GEO Certification Ltd., the certification arm of GEO, can then make a determination to award the certification.
Once certified, a report for the golf facility is automatically generated. This is available publically online, enabling them to credibly share their commitment and efforts. Additionally, all of the data submitted through OnCourse® is collated and stored in a secure database to enable future analysis and reporting of regional and/or industry-wide impact assessments on how golf can and is positively contributing to environmental and social sustainability.
More and more examples are emerging of the positive impacts that the OnCourse® programme and focusing on sustainability has had on a variety of golf courses.
The importance of Credibility – a significant milestone
In 2013 golf became the first and only sport to achieve an Associate Membership in the ISEAL Alliance, the global association for credibility in standards and certification systems.
This significant milestone means that the golf industry joined some of the most established and leading sustainability standards systems (such as FairTrade International, Marine Stewardship Council, Forest Stewardship Council, Rainforest Alliance) "to strengthen sustainability standards systems for the benefit of people and the environment".
At the root of ISEAL's work to ensure the link between action and sustainability impact are their ten Credibility Principles, which golf's sustainability system is evaluated against, to ensure that golf's sustainability standards and how they are developed, assured and reported truly embrace them:
GEO has just completed a significant second phase application, showing that all of the procedures and structures are in place to move from Associate Member to full membership to the ISEAL Alliance. This will be the gold-stamp that golf's standard setting, impact assessments and assurance processes are fully transparent, credible and will effect a real, positive change.
As demonstrated by the experiences of other sectors such as forestry, fisheries, agriculture and tourism, sustainability standards and certification contribute strongly to real, measureable impact and value-creation in their industries.
The future of golf and sustainability…the value of a custom built Sustainability system for golf
These standards, the OnCourse® programme and industry certification make up part of a wider consolidated effort to drive sustainability in and through the game of golf, which includes advocacy, association policies, education, research and promotion.
In the near future, GEO will be working with a variety of partners to conduct robust, scientific impact assessments using the aggregated data being collected, to analyse specific issues relevant across the golf industry (for example on biodiversity, water use, social accessibility). This degree of real-world and verified reporting can then act as a basis in the future to effectively improve and communicate about sustainability in golf, guide new best practices, reduce costs and improve profitability across the industry. And as sustainability becomes increasingly important to consumers and especially young, "Millennials" (18-32 year olds, many living in high-growth golf markets such as China and Brazil:, addressing sustainability will perhaps become critical for attracting and opening up golf to new players and markets.
The golf community can have great pride in the work so far undertaken. During this year, in addition to supporting golf industry efforts to invite wide-scale participation on the ground, GEO, partners and interested parties will also be addressing sustainability topics specific to new golf developments and renovations, golf tournaments, the use of organics, and the development of regional priorities and guidance as annexes to the Standards. Anyone interested in being involved and contributing can show their interest and keep informed here.
The above Feature was submitted by Mona Karraoui, Credibility Manager, GEO.