Golf Governance and Environment discussion with John Cockayne

Sep 25, 2020 | Media Article

We continue October’s discussion and examine golf’s environmental responsibilities, with Alistair Collier (AC) who is the CEO of the John Collier Survey, which is a governance and environmental consultancy providing audit, advisory and research services for the SA golf industry.

JC: With research indicating a 30% compliance level, one needs to ask whether golf in general is representing itself as a good corporate citizen and having a “licence to operate”.

AC: Indeed, and the status poses additional questions such as whether golf is “walking the talk”, why some golf clubs take compliance beyond statutory requirements, while others do not and why some golf clubs comply with some measures but not others?

The John Collier Annual Survey indicates that the degree of response of all levels of golf leadership — GolfRSA, SA Golf Association (SAGA), provincial unions and golf clubs — depends on the attitudes of the individual entity’s management.

This implies that when the golf entity’s current environmental performance does not pose significant legal and reputational risks, it is less likely to invest in corporate environmental responsibility. One therefore needs to also look at a combination of internal and external factors to ascertain whether golf entities would invest in corporate environmental responsibility.

JC: Referencing external factors, how effective and relevant are lobby efforts by external groups: that is the furore over the courses’ leases in Cape Town.

AC: If we isolate the self-interest in some of these, local community concern can be effective. In response to such pressure there are examples throughout SA where clubs have gone beyond compliance requirements due to questions regarding land stewardship, water management and biodiversity.

JC: My experience has been that we are laissez faire with rules, using roads as an example, red lights are a suggestion, stop streets optional and most cars do not need a rear-view mirror other than for personal grooming purposes.

AC: True and another external factor should be the combination of regulatory demands and liability risks. However, it is interesting to note that the 2019 John Collier Annual Survey indicates, that notwithstanding appropriate legislation and regulation, compliance levels of recording quantities of water on golf courses was at 40% and 25% for biodiversity management.

In correspondence to the minister of sport about the Covid-19 lockdown regulations, GolfRSA wrote ” … this is vital, as only through the return of golfers to the courses can we save the clubs, resuscitate the R48bn (per annum) golf industry and mitigate significant job losses among more than 40,000 people directly employed.”

In the government gazette notice 43528 on July 17 2020 the minister of employment and labour published the Employment Equity Register Notice, which lists 25,000 designated employers who reported for the September 1 2019 reporting cycle. Companies required to report are all designated employers with 50 or more employees or employers with fewer than 50 employees who are designated in terms of the turnover threshold applicable to designated employers.

Interestingly, only 57 golf clubs and turf management companies were on the list, which questions the level of commitment to the transformation agenda set by GolfRSA, SAGA, the provincial unions and golf clubs.

JC: I know that we should not separate governance from environmental requirements, but would it be fair to say that this is more about governance than environmental compliance.

AC: It would, except that it also reveals “state of mind”, golf’s embrace of corporate environmental responsibility depends on the individual entity’s capacity to learn, general operational controls, organisational structure and the amount of spare management capacity.

A developing trend in SA is the number of clubs outsourcing their course’s management, primarily driven by cost concerns. The warning is that while outsourcing maintenance responsibilities, the legal liability still remains with the club. Furthermore, outsourcing clubs lose some control, incur hidden costs, additional security costs, especially with regard to privacy legislation and gradually lose their institutional memory of the golf courses.

Conversely this places a responsibility on turf companies to be more proactive in being agents for change by preparing data for internal and third-party review and thereby encouraging their clients to embrace compliance.

JC: In a different era, my experiences as a greenkeeper proved that being environmentally conscious could be cost effective and good for the bottom line. That said, you can’t be half-pregnant, so are there levels, with any of the environmental programmes, through which a club can choose to progress, or is it a case that clubs are doing what is convenient and or achievable.

AC: Corporate environmental responsibility has a great deal to do with reputation, but also competitive advantage. However, in meeting this compliance challenge, golf entities ought to be embracing corporate environmental compliance for pragmatic reasons, thereby justifying the business case.

Traditionally, the notion of golf entities’ “licence to operate” referred only to the legal obligations. As previously mentioned, SA golf courses’ environmental compliancy rate stands at 30%. However, the licence to operate also refers to the economic sustainability of both the entity and society. We can hope that golf entities will embrace the compliance ethos and the regulations supporting it in the same way they protect the game’s traditions and rules.