The proper tag line was “This is Myron Cope on sports”. Yesterday’s victory by the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII was accompanied by a huge number of Terrible Towels—that is, Myron Cope’s Official Terrible Towel. Myron Cope was a very famous Pittsburgh sportscaster. The Terrible Towel was originally a gimmick to support the Steelers football team, but it has grown into much more than that, way beyond the scope of this blog. While the Terrible Towel has a football purpose, it can also be viewed through a prism of sustainability. This is primarily because of Cope’s generosity.
In the mid-1990s, Cope donated the trademark for the Terrible Towel to the Allegheny Valley School. This is a program for developmentally disabled individuals. (Cope’s son Danny lives there). Since 1996, the Allegheny Valley School has received about $2.5 million as the trademark owner of the Terrible Towel. But the story goes even further than that.
A Wisconsin company (McArthur Towel and Sport) makes the towels. McArthur subcontracts out part of its production process to Chippewa River Industries (CRI). CRI does the dyeing and printing, as well as the packaging. CRI in turn has a mission to “assist people with disabilities or other barriers, to achieve vocational and economic independence through employment that is consistent with their abilities, interests, and needs.” (www.crind.org) So developmentally disabled folks in both Pittsburgh and Wisconsin benefit from the collective purchases of the Terrible Towel. It is truly a wonderful legacy, to borrow from the headline from the Jan 30th New York Times.
Let’s take a step back and think about this story from a sustainability perspective. Remember that while sustainability is often thought of in environmental terms, it also has product process transparency and community building aspects as well. First, the mere fact we can trace back this product to the manufacturer is a lesson we can apply to other products. We learned not about the material in the towels themselves, but more about the money flows. Second, we now have a direct connection to some of the workers who make our Towel possible. (Hopefully they are getting a decent wage). Third, we understand that the owners of this product (Allegheny) are truly giving back to their local community, in a way that would not otherwise be possible. We learned that the purchase of the Terrible Towel has real impacts on real people beyond the Steelers organization and its fans.
And that is a lot of what sustainability is all about. Our purchases can have impacts beyond ourselves, even on a $7.95 Terrible Towel. These impacts can be broader than the environmental, but can impact communities and localities as well. As Myron Cope impacted his community with his decision (to donate his trademark), we can impact many communities and environments with our (purchase) decisions.