The Competitive Advantage of Sustainable Private Clubs

In recent years, the concept of sustainability has become a crucial issue garnering the attention of people all over the world. Environmental and climate change events are becoming increasingly frequent, and people are actively seeking proactive solutions. From our insights into tens of thousands of club members every year through focus groups, surveys and listening sessions, the term ‘sustainability’ is increasingly being mentioned as a future priority….and no longer just a secondary goal at the back of a club’s strategic plan.

Private clubs often play a prominent role within their communities, often serving as a second home (or primary home) for members. They often carry strong history, traditions, and generational ties, and a desire from the membership to leave a positive legacy for future generations. It is no surprise that members are increasingly embracing the idea of placing sustainability at the forefront of strategy.

One of the leading authorities in the industry on developing and monitoring sustainability programs for clubs is ‘Vivid Leaf,’ a mindshare platform with the mission to help clubs and resorts optimize resource usage, reduced spending and waste. Given that sustainability has reached the status of ‘having a seat at the table’ when it comes to private club strategy, we asked Till von Ruexleben, Co-Founder of Vivid Leaf, to share his insights on how clubs should approach sustainability, how to get started, and best-practices.

Sustainability initiatives are particularly important for private clubs to consider because of the following reasons:

  • Environmental Responsibility: Private clubs (golf clubs especially) often occupy large areas of land, which offer an opportunity to significantly contribute to environmental enhancements through sustainable practices. By adopting sustainable practices, clubs can minimize their ecological footprint and preserve natural resources.
  • Cost Savings: Contrary to perception of some, sustainable practices can lead to cost savings in the long run. The sections to follow will detail several examples and opportunities for clubs to benefit financially from sustainability initiatives.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Governments and local authorities are increasingly implementing regulations and guidelines aimed at promoting sustainability and reducing environmental impact. The time is now for clubs to be proactive and stay ahead of changing regulations and demonstrate their commitment to environmental stewardship.
  • Community Engagement: Private clubs often play a prominent role within their communities. By embracing sustainability, clubs can serve as leaders and positive examples, engaging with the community on environmental issues. A positive brand reputation within the community will also lead to an improved ability to attract and retain members in the future.
  • Attracting next generation members: Private clubs will play an important role in the desired work/life balance prioritized by the next generation of members. Embracing sustainability complies with one of their key core values. Private clubs that are managed sustainably have noticed an increased pride in belonging in their members.

Implementing a Sustainability-first Philosophy

Following their members, teams and stakeholders’ increased concerns about the sustainability and carbon footprint of their organization, many private clubs started embracing the three pillars of sustainability, “Profit, People, Planet,” by evaluating how every new project and investment measures against these parameters. Simply put, viewing a project or acquisition in terms of:

  • “Is there a reasonable fast return of this investment?”;
  • “Is it good for our members and for our community?”; and
  • “Is it good for our environment?” helps to find solutions that offer savings potential, increase the self-sufficiency of the club, and minimize the operations impact on the environment.

No Club is Too Small

Generally, the size of a club (and its budget) doesn’t appear to make a big difference in the ability to embrace sustainability. When it comes to private clubs, many areas carry promising potential for sustainable best practices and significant savings:

  • Reduced energy- and fossil fuel & propane/gas consumption.
  • Water conservation and water quality protection.
  • Trash elimination and state-of-the-art recycling programs, including composting.
  • Resiliency against weather events, pandemics and recessions.
  • Healthy food options, vegetables grown on property, beehives etc.
  • Natural alternatives to- and reduced application of pesticides and fertilizers.
  • Integration of renewable energy sources.
  • Increased plant carbon sequestration in transitional- and natural state spaces.

Measuring Progress

Five common sustainability metrics that we focus on are:

  • Climate risk
  • Carbon emissions
  • Energy consumption
  • Water usage
  • Waste & pollution

Slowing down your meters for electricity and gas is easily measured and reduces greenhouse gases; even smaller clubs have saved $20,000+ annually on their electrical bill. One commonly applied metric is Kwh per sq ft of clubhouse in comparable climates. A real-time system can help to track electrical usage spikes that typically indicate ‘about-to-fail’ equipment and helps the club to see the progress in reducing power usage.

The overall carbon footprint is also an area many clubs are exploring. Several clubs in the U.S. are already CO2 neutral or even negative –through renewable energy usage and plants that sequester CO2 in higher rates, such as bamboo, for instance. The U.S. average is 41 lbs. per round of golf played (source: cleanfi).

Trash reduction (some clubs are approaching zero trash) can be measured by the invoiced amounts from the utility and or the size in cubic feet of the club’s container.

Water metrics are highly dependent on the climate zone. Drought-reliant turf grass reduces watering requirements by 20%. The current heat waves and El Nino situation greatly increases the moisture stress of affected areas, primarily in the Southwest and Texas respectively. We believe an excellent metric is the percentage of reclaimed water used, as the course plants act as a filter, extracting phosphor and nitrates (both present in fertilizers, whose application consequently can also be reduced) from the water and hence, reduces the influx of these to the well water. We also often ask for the usage of wetting agents, applied as topsoil treatment or worked into the soil during a golf course renovation. Many courses approach the watering usage and cost challenge by reducing the play areas (greens, tees and fairways), a method that greatly contributed to the overall water usage reduction of courses since 2005. Finally, individually controlled sprinkler heads, combined with moisture meters are effective in reducing “wet spots” on the course and in only applying the minimum amount of water needed (approximate usage reduction of 35%). These combined approaches resulted in an overall water usage reduction of 29% of all US golf courses in 2020 compared to usage in 2005.

In addition to the financial benefits of improving the environment and elevating human needs, there are also community and social benefits for clubs that successfully implement sustainability strategies. Embracing sustainability is not only about cost-savings and being a good environmental- and club funds steward, it also creates a tremendous amount of pride in belonging with the membership. And a proud membership is a strong membership.

Ben Hopkinson is a Director at GGA Partners, an international advisor to golf courses, private clubs, resorts and residential communities.

Till Von Ruexleben is the Co-Founder of Vivid Leaf, a mindshare platform with the mission to help clubs and resorts optimize resource usage, reduced spending and waste.

Golf Course Superintendents Association of America

Scroll to Top