A volleyball champion’s environmental leadership journey

A volleyball champion’s environmental leadership journey

A professional volleyball player with an MBA in sustainability, Liis Kullerkann is in a better position than most other athletes to make a difference when it comes to environmental practices in sport

A middle-blocker for her national team Estonia, inspiring the country to an unprecedented gold medal in the Women’s 2023 CEV Volleyball European Silver League earlier this month, as well as U.S. Esperia Volley 1961 at club level in Italy – where volleyball is hugely popular – Liis Kullerkann has never defined herself solely as an athlete.

After winning a scholarship to the University of Ohio to study international business while playing at the highest level of collegiate sport, she put a professional career in Europe on hold for another year to pursue a long-held interest and take an MBA in sustainability.

“In Estonia, I grew up outdoors and really appreciated that environment,” she explains. “The water is clean, and we recycle a lot. But when I went to America and played international matches for Estonia, I started noticing that it’s not something that is normal everywhere.”

“I felt so bad when I saw the consumerism in different parts of the world, the lack of clean water and the way people were wasting things, and that’s how I decided after my bachelor’s degree to get a master’s in sustainability. I wanted to make some sort of a change through that.”

Influencing others

After finishing her studies in 2015, Kullerkann embarked upon a professional volleyball career in Europe, taking her to clubs in Italy, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, and her native Estonia. These experiences led Kullerkann to fluency in five languages and a desire to use her voice and platform to make a difference.

She does this in part as an elected member of the Estonian Athletes’ Commission, where she takes the concerns of her compatriots to the top levels of decision-making, but also by encouraging environmentally friendly behaviours among her teammates and the tournaments she participates in.

“I always speak up if I travel to a new gym, or to a tournament, and there are plastic bottles,” says the 31-year-old. “There are a lot of athletes in the world using plastic bottles, which can be avoided if you just have a single-use bottle. These are little changes that everybody can make – I don’t think they’re so difficult, and they don’t impact your quality of life so much.”

Unfortunately, Kullerkann says these simple changes are not happening quickly enough, and it is up to sports organisations to work with athletes to make them happen.

“I don’t notice many changes,” she elaborates. “Thinking about optimising equipment, it’s easy to ask athletes: ‘Do you actually need this? How much of this do you need?’ But a lot of clubs just give you things that you don’t use. At the end of the season, you don’t have any use for them, and you throw them away.

“I believe that if the federations asked the athletes for their opinions on certain things, they would be much more efficient – and it’s the same with sustainability. If you involve the people that are a part of it, you can do things much better.”

Living her values

As part of her role with the Estonian Athletes’ Commission, Kullerkann is also focused on issues like gender equality and ensuring that athletes are adequately supported as they transition into a new career after retiring from competition. But sustainability forms a consistent thread throughout her day-to-day existence.

“I incorporate [sustainability] into all aspects of my life, and I try to make conscious choices all the time. Next to volleyball, I’ve been doing a part-time job for a fitness start-up in Estonia. It’s not easy to incorporate sustainability into that, but we implemented a programme where you work out online, and the calories you burn are converted into solar energy through kilowatt hours. It’s not anything big, but we created a connection between your workout and generating more solar energy, with the incentive that you earn points on your account.

“I’m also really into investing,” she adds. “I like to invest in green, sustainable companies and watch how they do. My most successful stock that I bought is Valero Energy Corporation; I bought them a couple of years ago because they’re green energy, and it’s been a good investment so far.”

An important voice in the sports sustainability movement

A wearer of many hats, Kullerkann participated in the initial stage of the IOC Young Leaders programme, and was an ambassador for an Estonian charity in a campaign to collect and redistribute used sports footwear to underserved communities. Naturally, she is keeping half an eye on her professional career beyond volleyball, when she will have more time to focus on her other passions.

“I’m trying to find ways to stay in volleyball, but also contribute to the world in a different way than just playing volleyball,” she says.

“For me, it’s a normal choice to try to make sure that the planet is the best it’s going to be, and that people are comfortable living here – that we have all the resources that we’re enjoying now in 10, 20, 30 years from now. It’s a lifestyle.”

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