Why we need to re-envision the relationship between feminism and environmentalism in sport for a more sustainable sporting future
The global crisis of environmental sustainability threatens the future of sport because its relationship with the natural and social world is how it survives (McCullough and Kellinson, 2019): namely the dependence on resources from the natural world to develop new technologies, and the reliance on the social world to generate growth and economic prosperity for the elite sport industry (McCullough and Kellinson, 2019).
Sport has a significant impact on the environment. Wilby et al. (2022) discuss the estimate that sport is responsible for 1% of global carbon emissions. Compared to the aviation industry, which contributes an estimated 3% of global emissions, the scale of sport’s environmental impact is evident. Significantly, Wilby et al.’s (2022) research found men’s elite sport contributed considerably more to emissions than their female counterparts. The higher contribution was the result of the widespread fanbases travelling to spectate, specifically at mega-events, and the economic motivations prevalent in elite men’s sport (Wilby et al., 2022).
Furthermore, the recent International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report (2023: C.5.4) highlights individuals, and in this case elite sporting individuals, “with high socioeconomic status contribute disproportionately to emissions and have the highest potential for emissions reductions”. Therefore, rather than just emulating their male sporting counterparts, there is potential for women’s sport to evolve their practices and grow their popularity in ways that emphasise their position as pioneers in promoting elite performance but with sustainable practice, reduced emissions and equality of opportunity. However, this does involve challenging our view of relationships between feminism and the environment.
The proposition that women and female sports might be better suited for pro-environmental practice is complex because a lot of related theory stems from traditional assumptions regarding women’s roles (Leach, 2007; Foster, 2021). More specifically, ecofeminism identifies women with their role as ‘mothers’ and ‘carers’ to highlight their connection to ‘mother earth’: roles that are seen as exclusive to women, because they have the capacity to have children (Foster, 2021). From a critical (sporting) feminist perspective, these claims are based on the stereotypical assumption that a women’s purpose is defined by her reproductive and mothering ability (Weaving, 2020).
Consequently, new relationships are needed that counter the promotion of problematic and stereotypical traditional female roles. However, these relationships must also avoid replicating liberal feminist calls for equal access to the right to develop women’s elite sport like men’s, because, while reasonable in principle, these are environmentally unsustainable and will ultimately damage the lives of more (or the world’s poorest) women than those liberated through equally developed elite sport structures.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG) (2016) are an influential international initiative emphasising how gender equality must be regarded as a prerequisite to achieving environmental goals. They underpin the idea of a symbiotic relationship between feminism and sustainability. Many sporting governing bodies now have commitment pledges to achieve the UNSDG’s. While encouraging, these pledges in governing body mission statements, often do not yet align with their own organisational practices.
Such dis-alignment, or what is often termed the ‘attitude-behaviour split’ is most notable in elite sports characterised by their constant drive for growth. This is illustrated by FIFA's (somewhat surprising) pledge to support the UNSDG’s (2016) in their ‘Vision for 2020-2023’ strategy. It focuses on making football ‘truly global’, and using football to promote social and environmental sustainability goals, by identifying current shortcomings. However, their practices do not align with the UNSDG’s (2016) pledge, and this misalignment is clearly apparent with FIFA's decision to select Qatar as the host country for the FIFA Men’s 2022 World Cup.
With the Qatari government being a major player in the global fossil-fuel industry and its simultaneously oppressive laws against women, questions of the appropriateness of the host country unsurprisingly emerged. FIFA’s seeming disregard of its own stated commitment to UNSDG’s resulted in claims of ‘sportswashing’, a term used to define an organisation utilising sport to disguise the political reputation of a country as a measure for economic growth (Griffin, 2019).
Whilst it is promising that international sporting governing bodies are taking more seriously the imminent threat of climate change and the role of gender equality to help achieve mitigation and adaption of this, a rapid change in economic behaviour will be necessary if organisations such as FIFA wish to achieve their stated attitudinal goals. Relatedly, the IPCC report emphasises the need for political commitment in order to achieve effective climate goals. As part of a drive for meaningful, practical change, a reimagined relationship between feminism and sustainability is going to be critical.
However, sustainability and feminism face something of a double-edged sword when it comes to succeeding in elite sport because sustainable practices are often not valued as ‘masculine’, and thus ‘worthy’ of economic capitalisation in the way current high-consumption elite male sports are. As Swim, Gillis and Hamatay (2020) highlight, environmental practices are perceived differently when practiced by men and women respectively. They contend that sustainable practices ascribed as feminine are seen as negative (they use the example of ‘whiney’) and those ascribed as masculine were seen as positive (they used the example of courageous) (Swim, Gillis and Hamatay, 2020). However, whilst some practices are valued as masculine, Swim and Geiger’s (2018) research suggests that discourse of climate change groups remains gendered, and those who showcased higher environmental concern were ascribed (putatively) negative feminine traits.
Therefore, a significant barrier to sustainable sport is the gender-associated nature of its practices as well as the problem of growth which draws on finite and diminishing resources (Loland 2001, Jackson 2007). Providing support for the construction of a necessary relationship between feminism and sustainability in elite sport is therefore critical for re-imagining a future in which, neither gender equality nor sustainable low-carbon sports practices are attributed negative (putatively) feminine associations.
Image credit: pexels
About the authors
i) Bethany Gardiner is a student from Cardiff Metropolitan University, studying for a Masters of Research in Critical Social Science in Sport, Education and Health. Her research interests lie in gender, feminism and sustainability in sport.
ii) David Brown is a Professor in the Sociology of sport and physical culture at the Cardiff School of Sport and Health Sciences, Cardiff Metropolitan University. David’s current research interests include the changing relationships between sport, physical cultures and sustainability respectively.
iii) Dr Lisa Edwards is a Senior Lecturer in Sport Ethics in the Cardiff School of Sport & Health Sciences at Cardiff Metropolitan University. Her research interests are sports ethics in general and sexism, gender and sexuality, and feminist philosophy in particular.
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