Sustainability in sports:

Assessing emissions and sustainability in Michigan Athletics

After a compelling project assessing the University of Michigan Athletic Department’s sustainability initiative for his ENVIRON 391 class, C.Y. Cheng (Erb Fellow ’22) wanted to further explore the intersection between sports and sustainability. As a recent graduate, he organized an Erb Impact Project to engage undergraduate Erb Fellows to further analyze U-M Athletics’ sustainability initiatives. With the help of Professor Sara Soderstrom, Cheng brought in a team of five undergraduate fellows––Abby Williams, Chloe Valentino, Zach Marmet, Julia Kaplan and Zane Jones––representing various academic backgrounds, including business, environment, information, entrepreneurship and computer science. In the fall, the team worked on research and data collection through engaging internal stakeholders. 

While Jones graduated and Valentino studied abroad in the winter semester, the initial phase inspired Marmet, Williams and Kaplan to continue developing and refining the project’s deliverables: 1) a Tableau dashboard for Scope 1 and 2 data visualizations, 2) a report detailing our background, methods, and Scope 3 analysis, and 3) presentation materials to make a long-lasting impact on campus.

The original project was centered around assessing the current state of Michigan Athletics from a sustainability perspective, with a particular focus on emissions. Our team had three main objectives. First, we interviewed key stakeholders from U-M Athletics and the Office of Campus Sustainability (OCS) to gather information on current barriers and opportunities, needs, incentives and all existing emissions data. Next, we compiled qualitative and quantitative Scope 1, 2 and 3 data to offer a compelling analysis, with insightful visualizations, strong recommendations and perhaps even a future road map. The final objective was to complete a landscape assessment, complete with research on best practices for sustainability in other university and professional sports organizations. 

In the fall, we became familiar with how sports organizations pursue sustainability, gaining background knowledge by studying various collegiate and professional athletic organizations’ impact reports. We analyzed various emissions frameworks and eventually selected the GHG Protocol framework as the basis for our project. Once we scoped the project, we drafted questions based on the framework and interviewed Ken Keeler and Alison Richardson from OCS, and Paul Dunlop from the Athletic Department. Once we had access to the Scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions data, we cleaned the data and performed exploratory data analysis. Scope 3 data didn’t exist in numerical form, so we focused on understanding what U-M Athletics activities would generate Scope 3 emissions and creating a strategy to track them. 

In the winter, we developed a U-M Athletics-specific Scope 1 and 2 dashboard on Tableau, including visualizations that demonstrate our main conclusions. Simultaneously, we drafted the Michigan Athletics Greenhouse Gas Emissions Analysis report to detail our process and explain our Scope 3 analysis. After the report’s first iteration, we gathered feedback from a range of stakeholders, from Erb alumni to U-M professors and sustainability professionals, in the form of a Zoom roundtable review. The professionals provided insightful feedback, leading us to make another round of edits to the report. Finally, we presented our work to Erb Fellows in April and are looking to present to high-level university administration in the near future.

Our report concludes with five distinct recommendations for the university.

  1. We urge the university to prioritize a commitment to emissions reporting transparency, especially by publishing Scope 3 metrics and publicizing the university’s progress.
  2. We recommend the university create a full-time Athletic Department sustainability position to serve as a bridge between the department and OCS and best represent this unique department.
  3. The Athletic Department should prioritize finding creative ways to mitigate emissions from the most intensive Scope 3 categories: emissions associated with purchased goods and services, business travel, waste generated in operations, and franchises. 
  4. For U-M Athletics, maintaining student buy-in for the intersection of sports and sustainability is pivotal. The department can do so by supporting student engagement through internships and internal or external programming. 
  5. U-M Athletics should alter its requirements as soon as possible for new contracts in partnerships, procurement and construction, to reflect a serious commitment to a sustainable value chain for future deals. 

As the project progressed, the scope broadened greatly as we came to terms with some of the challenges that accompany tracking and measuring emissions, particularly Scope 3. Going forward, we see the scope of this project as building a transparent, effective emissions-tracking framework that can be applied not only to Michigan Athletics but also to each independent department on campus. With this lofty goal, our work could not be finished in one short year, so we intend for this project to continue to serve as a valuable learning experience for future Erb Fellows. 

This project has served as a powerful culmination of our experience and a capstone of our learning at Michigan, as we are seniors finishing up our undergraduate years and Erb Fellows program. The process has been a great example of the living-learning lab model, giving us invaluable experience while also providing tangible value to the U-M campus. We gained exposure to many useful toolkits for our careers, including emissions frameworks, data analysis and—most important—the stakeholder engagement process. Collaborating with stakeholders from vastly different parts of the university, with very different agendas, and bringing them together to achieve a common goal accurately reflected the job of a sustainability professional: helping organizations meet a triple bottom line as opposed to a single one. Spurring collaboration among Athletic Department stakeholders, OCS employees, and sustainability professors was both challenging and extremely rewarding. 

The Erb Institute is founded in bridging divides between business and sustainability, and it has huge potential to continue being a bridge for sustainability across campus, helping push Michigan toward its carbon neutrality goals and educating future leaders. We’re grateful to everyone who supported this project, both from within Erb and outside of it, and we look forward to seeing this crucial work grow and develop in future semesters. 

Click here to download the full report.


Project Leads

Zach Marmet –

Abby Williams –

Julia Kaplan – 

Project Advisor

C.Y. Cheng –

Faculty Advisor

Sara Soderstrom –