Protecting our planet: The current climate
The URL has been copied
The URL has been copied
How can sport be part of the solution? The second instalment in the article series on sport and sustainability hears from Matthew Campelli, founder and editor of the Sustainability Report, on the status quo of sport and environmental protection.

In June 2019, representatives from all four tennis Grand Slams got together at Roland Garros in Paris – in the middle of the French Open tournament – pledging to play their part in addressing climate change through measuring and reducing the carbon emissions they’re responsible for, and offsetting the emissions that are unavoidable.

It was seen as a pretty big statement by four high-profile and influential sporting organisations. Roland Garros is recognised as one of the leaders in this movement, reducing its carbon emissions steadily since 2009, while the Australian Open, US Open and Wimbledon are at various stages of their sustainability journey.

James Grabert, who represented the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) during the announcement, congratulated the organisations. But his message was clear: “We need more action.”

To encourage sports organisations to align with the Paris 2015 Climate Agreement, the UNFCCC produced its Sports for Climate Action Framework last December at COP24. Since then, a number of high profile organisations in the sector have adopted the Framework: IOC, FIFA, UEFA, the NBA, the New York Yankees and World Sailing, to name a few.

But the sense is that, while several of these entities have taken steps to tackle climate change within their own organisations, the time for sport as an industry to make a real and lasting positive impact is now.

Up until this point, sustainability in sport has been, generally, around clubs and organisations "greening" their own operations. Sustainable stadiums powered (in part) by renewable energy. Waste management systems to limit the amount of trash going to landfill. And energy efficiency strategies.

In recent times we have seen the ambition raised a notch – and it needs to be. The public’s awareness of the threat posed by climate change has surged in the past year thanks, in part, to the Greta Thunberg-led climate strikes and the publicity generated by the Extinction Rebellion. British newspaper The Guardian made it editorial policy to replace "climate change" with "climate emergency" in articles. The London Stock Exchange has renamed "‘oil and gas" as "non-renewables".

Ocean plastic is also an area of growing public concern, particularly since Sir David Attenborough’s seismic BBC documentary Blue Planet demonstrated the damage it is causing to marine life. Environmental issues are part of the zeitgeist. As a consequence, members of the public are increasingly aligning with brands that they feel are sustainable and responsible. Sport is not immune from this trend.

Because of this, there’s a huge opportunity for sports clubs and organisations to engage new fans and strengthen relationships with existing fans by showing an interest in the things they care about. A Deloitte survey of 4,000-plus sports fans from 2015 found that sport has an “opportunity to build on the unique tribal loyalty it naturally engenders” by aligning with fan values.

A piece of NFL research also found that American football fans (particularly younger ones) take sustainability extremely seriously. During this year’s Super Bowl in Atlanta, the NFL launched a pilot fan engagement project, in which fans who were seen recycling properly in the stadium received a Super Bowl hat and were celebrated on social media. The programme will be re-established at next year’s game in Miami as sports entities start to use sustainability as a means of engaging with fans. Earlier this year, NBA franchise Portland Trail Blazers devised an online platform that helped fans make more environmentally conscious decisions in their everyday lives. And Premier League football clubs, Arsenal, Chelsea, West Ham and Fulham (now relegated to the Championship), began trialling reusable plastic cups in their stadiums towards the end of last season.

However, there are some challenges to navigate before sustainability is viewed as a mainstream concept in sport. Although the environment is intrinsically linked to practically all sports (and their future health), many of those occupying leadership positions in the industry simply don’t view it as a core issue.

Confusion about what sustainability is – and how to become a sustainable organisation – is also a hurdle. One-off projects and philanthropy, while commendable, is not sustainability. As Michelle Lemaitre, the IOC’s head of sustainability, says, sport needs to move away from “ad-hoc initiatives” and towards integrated sustainability – in all areas of an event or organisation. Human resources. Procurement. Finances.

To help with this, the IOC is developing a suite of "Sustainability Essentials" guides to help the Olympic Movement and wider sports industry as they bid to become more sustainable.

The evidence suggests that environmental sustainability will continue to be a growing topic within sport, if only for the fact that extreme weather is posing an existential threat to many competitions. But as fans become more conscious about their lifestyle and recreational choices, forward-thinking sports entities will recognise an opportunity to strengthen their brand and chisel out another competitive advantage by doing the right thing.

Part three of the series will be published in two weeks time and will focus on how sports clubs can integrate environmental sustainability into their practices.