Past Ten, Next Ten: Interview with Jonathan Smith

As we roll past the first year of this decade I’ve asked two standard questions to a few key players in our industry. I wanted to know their thoughts, from their unique role and perspective, on what we saw over this last ten years and what to expect in the ten to come.

I first met Jonathan Smith this past October in Washington DC as Congressional hosted the first North American Golf Environment Organisation (GEO) workshop training session for GEOSA’s (GEO Sustainability Advisors).

Turfhuggers covered GEO many times already, but Jonathan isn’t just about “his” program. I truly feel his push towards sustainable golf reaches beyond the confines of a certification program. I see Jonathan speaking out about negative developments, expanding our idea of the footprint and waste stream of the industry and uses the most watched golf event in the world to bring the discussion and an example to the public. I applaud the efforts of Jonathan, the GEO staff and look forward to their continued success.

Turfhugger: To what degree have environmental issues affected your role through this past decade?

Jonathan Smith: In the 15 years that my career has been dedicated to sustainable golf, I’ve witnessed tremendous change, and advances, across the industry.

Considerable efforts have been made, around the world to:

* understand the subject;
* deliver in the field; and,
* generate public and regulator recognition.

We’ve seen literally thousands of manuals, toolkits, BMP’s, membership programs, commercial tools, calculators, research papers, education programs and marketing campaigns.

Numerous forums and committees have been established by golf organizations and associations – planning approaches to what has been an incredibly dynamic and rapidly moving subject. More recently concerted efforts have been made to lobby governments. Golf organizations, with partners, have done a considerable amount of work.

And while the last ten years have seen some quite dramatic changes in the environmental and sustainability issues that affect golf, there don’t appear to be too many immediate ‘industry threatening’ or insurmountable challenges in the way of golf’s future development and success. But the last ten years have served to highlight many of the things that will cause the game more and more serious pressure in the coming ten years – should golf fail to push on, embrace a modern and comprehensive sustainability agenda, and get firmly on the front foot. The pressure for golf to get its IPM act together (mostly in communications rather than delivery!) is perhaps the most obvious example, but the need to shift public focus away from high profile examples of unsustainable development is equally pressing.

So there is more to do, particularly in bringing forward the very practical, simple stories of continual improvement across the industry. Golf needs to drive its own innovative approach to environmental enhancement and corporate responsibility – and why not – sustainability is a perfect fit for efficient businesses, great golf and healthy lifestyles in high quality, biodiverse landscapes.

This means golf needs fresh programmes that engage and empower decision makers in management, development and events – and enable them to attain the business benefits of sustainability, and at the same time get credible and meaningful recognition.

The bottom line is that golf would hugely benefit from telling the full range of real world, practical, sustainability stories that it generates. In the same way as sustainability is a continuum, so too is the journey for individuals and entire global industries. In this light, golf should be objective enough to reflect on the adequacies, (the successes and failures) of work done to date and ask itself – Where does this leave us in terms of what we invest in, what we prioritise and what we set as our real goals going forward? And perhaps most importantly – how do we support our practitioners with the resources, tools and programs they really need.

Turfhugger: What major changes will we see in the next Ten Years that will affect your role most significantly?

Jonathan Smith: The work of GEO, as a non profit sustainability actor entirely dedicated to golf, is to foster action based on a positive outlook of what golf is capable of consistently delivering as resource efficient, ecologically rich, socio-economic assets in rural areas, villages, towns, and cities around the world.

Of course an important starting point is – What is Sustainable Golf?

It’s important that we all grasp the real breadth and depth of this complex subject, rather than over-simplify it or mis-call the priority threats and opportunities it presents. This is why GEO and partners worked hard recently to try to frame a Sustainability Agenda for golf, to make it easier to understand the subject, and to set out the scope of golf’s sustainability within broad themes and specific elements that people can find benefit in exploring in the coming months, years and decades. It’s based on Local Agenda 21 and other valuable concepts like One Planet Living, and like all GEO guidance and resources it’s freely available at

We do all need to work harder to persuade and incentivise people in golf to put environmental action and corporate responsibility at the heart of their day to day business decision making BECAUSE of what it can do to the success of that business. The concept of incentivising action cuts to the heart of what attributes will define the successful participation and recognition programs of the future. This is a big topic for golf to get right in the next ten years, and something that GEO is dedicated to working to optimize with golf, governmental and environmental partners as we continue to invest our time and developmental funds into the GEO Certified® program.

With golf in the Olympics, with an increasingly interconnected world market for players, sponsors and investors, and with aspirations for golf to be a truly global and publicly identifiable brand, I feel many of the drivers are in place. There is actually quite a unique opportunity, a moment in time, for golf to transition to a more unified strategy that enables all stakeholders to be involved in core activities such as research, education, guidance, marketing and certification. In a nutshell, I’d say golf organisations have the chance now, based on the last 15-20 years of experience, to join up their efforts to make unstainability easier to understand, easier to deliver and easier to get meaningful recognition.

For our part, GEO is nothing other than committed to working with partners to support sustainable golf.


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