Multiple sports, Olympics, Global

Sustaining the debate: Sport’s place in the environment

SportsPro's deputy editor reflects on this year's Sustainable Innovation in Sports forum and notices a renewed sense of purpose among the industry leaders.

by Adam Nelson
Sustaining the debate: Sport’s place in the environment

It is a strange sensation to take succour from the pessimism of others. It’s the kind of feeling you imagine the Germans must have a particularly satisfying word for – which would be appropriate, really, given that it was in Munich, at the recent Sustainable Innovation in Sports (SIIS) forum, that I most recently experienced this emotion.

After leaving the last SIIS back in December 2015, in the midst of the COP21 conference and just days before the final version of the Paris Agreement was negotiated, I was captured by the opposite feeling. There, the atmosphere on that day was curiously positive, as executives and activists from across the industry – well-meaning and nobly intentioned all of them, I’m sure – took the opportunity to congratulate each other on the environmental initiatives that had been put in place over the last year, to highlight the programmes they’d established that would, seemingly inevitably, save the world. The sense was of an industry which felt to some extent that ‘good enough’ was good enough, that the hard work had already been done.

In Munich, by contrast, the tone was notably more restrained, less laudatory and yet, in that, carried a much renewed sense of urgency and purpose. The addresses focused in greater depth on what needs to be done in the future, on the distance that is left to cover, than on what had already been achieved. A key question posed by a delegate during the conference’s opening panel session set the general mood: can sporting mega-events, such as the Olympics and Fifa World Cup, really ever be truly sustainable? And, given the obvious answer to that question, is it not time to start looking for more radical solutions than compact host cities and trainers made from recycled Coke bottles?

No other sector touches so many people so regularly, has the same global reach or has such a platform for mass communication in order to make sustainability meaningful and accessible to a wide audience

Part of this shift surely stemmed from the political forces which have shown themselves resurgent in the 14 months between SIIS conferences. The retreat into nativism which has been witnessed in the UK’s Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in the US has been read at least in part as a rejection of so-called ‘21st century values’, of an entire class of people feeling dictated to by a political elite convinced it knows best. Somewhere along the line, the issue of climate change became wrapped up in this, with pro-Brexit Spectator columnist and noted contrarian Brendan O’Neill a prime example with his claims that sustainability initiatives are a ‘curb on liberty’. Trump, meanwhile, made rejection of green concerns a key part of his candidacy and, true to his word on that matter at least, has already set about taking steps to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the federal agency responsible for sustainability in the US.

The fact is that it is not just self-congratulatory hot air for the sports industry to believe it can be a major driver of change in this area. No other sector touches so many people so regularly, has the same global reach or has such a platform for mass communication in order to make sustainability meaningful and accessible to a wide audience. As Nicoletta Piccolrovazzi, global technology and sustainability director at Dow Olympic and Sports Solutions, the headline sponsor of SIIS, told me at the event, “the reason why we are facing problems like climate change might be that we have not made solving that problem very appealing”. Sport, she added, “can be a great lens to communicate with a huge number of people and can magnify the positive action that is being done around sustainability”.

Representatives from what was, at the time, the three Olympic bids for the 2024 Games were present at SIIS. One measure of the progress made across the industry is at that it is now de rigueur for any major sporting event to employ a head of sustainability and have an environmental legacy plan in place. Jérôme Lachaze, incumbent in that role for the Paris 2024 bid committee, told me that he believes in the Olympics “as a real accelerator of environmental transition” because it can instigate genuine bottom-up pressure, encouraging fans and spectators to think environmentally and encourage change at the top where it is most sorely needed. 

Sport as an industry has long attested to apoliticism, at least where anything that may threaten to alienate significant parts of its fanbase and, arguably more importantly, cost its sponsors and financiers, is concerned. In an increasingly politicised world, however, apoliticism is becoming an ever more untenable position, and at SIIS I saw evidence of the sports world awakening to this. It has often been argued that sporting bodies should not have to play the role of pressure groups or social activists but on an issue like climate change – with evidence already mounting that the much-vaunted Paris Agreement, and its aim of keeping the rate of global warming below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, is likely to fail – that policy is unlikely to prove sustainable in the long term.

The question posed at the forum’s opening hangs in the air: with the resources at its disposal and the audience it commands, is simply being “more sustainable” good enough?