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The sports industry and sustainability part one: Rights holders playing their part

Sport’s growing sustainability movement has snowballed in line with public consciousness around the issue of climate change. In collaboration with the Sustainability Report, SportsPro looks across the sports landscape to discover how organisations are positioning themselves as champions of environmental sustainability.

by Michael Long and Matthew Campelli
The sports industry and sustainability part one: Rights holders playing their part

Recent years have seen a significant cultural shift in the climate change narrative. Growing consciousness among consumers and mounting scepticism concerning the merits of capitalism have been impossible to ignore, with policymakers, major corporations and the mainstream media all recognising the need to address the issue of climate change collectively and with urgency.

Across the globe, lofty pledges and ambitious goal-setting have turned to tangible targets and meaningful action. Governments around the world have committed en masse to limiting greenhouse gas emissions, outlining plans to embrace circular economy principles and curb society’s dependency upon fossil fuels. Meanwhile major companies and consumer-facing brands have begun to view sustainability as a genuine business opportunity, rather than a box-ticking exercise intended to satisfy corporate social responsibility (CSR) objectives.

While climate-related challenges span all walks of life, it is clear that sport has an important role to play in limiting their impact. From fostering awareness and advocacy to fundraising and influencing consumer behaviour, one of sport’s major opportunities when it comes to sustainability leadership is the sheer number of people it can influence through positive environmental action. As such, rights holders across sport are beginning to take environmental concerns seriously, hiring specialist expertise, partnering with external institutions and integrating sustainability programmes into every aspect of their businesses as they seek to contribute to the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals.

Indeed, for many in sport, the days of paying lip service are over; in the era of Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg, it is now widely accepted that achieving positive, systemic change requires commitment, innovation and, increasingly, collaboration.


Forest Green Rovers

Creating the greenest club in world soccer

Most sports team owners seek to instil an overarching philosophy and a set of guiding principles inside their organisations, but few have been as successful in imposing a personal doctrine as Dale Vince, owner of utility firm Ecotricity and chairman of English fourth-tier soccer side Forest Green Rovers.

Born from years of environmental activism, Vince’s eco-friendly ethos permeates every corner of his club - from its home stadium, which is powered by 100 per cent green energy, to the fully-vegan food served at matchday concession stands. It has also helped Rovers transcend the rural surrounds of little-known Nailsworth, located in England's Cotswolds, to become a truly global story in sports sustainability.

Named by Fifa as the world’s most sustainable soccer club, Rovers’ ultimate quest for carbon neutrality is embodied by their proposed 5,000-seater, Zaha Hadid Architects-designed venue called Eco Park. To be made entirely of wood, it has already been dubbed the greenest stadium ever built for soccer.

“We do think environmental sustainability and on-pitch success is symbiotic,” said Vince, speaking on The Sustainability Report Podcast. “They support each other. The media attention we get, for example, helps us grow the crowd, helps us get sponsors, and I think it helps us attract players as well. As for the football side of things, when we’re successful on the pitch that brings credibility to our eco message.”

Forest Green Rovers' proposed Eco Park has been described as world soccer's greenest stadium


Juventus FC

Taking a business-like approach to sustainability

Italian soccer giants Juventus’ activities in sustainability are all part of a wholesale reputation-rebuilding effort implemented in the wake of the damaging ‘Calciopoli’ scandal, which saw several of Italy’s biggest clubs seek to influence match referees and ultimately led to the Turin side being stripped of their 2004/05 Serie A title and demoted to the second tier.

In the years since the scandal - a period in which Juventus have surged back to become one of European soccer’s most powerful sides - the club’s ownership group, led by the Agnelli family, has adopted a more corporate mindset in all areas of the business. In 2017, they created a dedicated sustainability department, installing Andrea Maschietto as their first sustainability and external relations manager, while they have since incorporated the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals into their overarching business strategy.

For the past six years, too, Juventus have published their own yearly sustainability report, which provides a comprehensive overview of the club’s efforts in the field of sustainability - financial, social, and environmental. Verified by PricewaterhouseCoopers, each report provides a detailed breakdown of the club’s various activities, including social inclusion projects, gender equality, energy consumption and waste management. The result is that the club, who have taken to calling themselves ‘a football company’ rather than merely a soccer team, are able to quantify and monitor their impact, and to offer a degree of welcome transparency in their corporate practices.


Spanish Olympic Committee

Inspiring climate action within the Olympic movement

The Spanish Olympic Committee (COE) is among the most advanced of all national Olympic committees (NOCs) when it comes to sustainability. Part of a working group established by ten European NOCs, the COE is proactively sharing knowledge and expertise with its continental counterparts having signed up to the Sport for Climate Action Framework, a five-step policy outlined by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to help sports organisations achieve ‘climate neutrality’ by 2050.

In line with the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) own sustainability strategy, the COE’s climate action programme spans multiple areas, such as waste management and supplier procurement. As well as eliminating plastics from its workplace, the organisation is positioning itself as a thought leader in the sports sustainability space. In November, for example, the body held its first Sustainable Development Congress at its headquarters in Madrid, while it is also rallying support among the private sector and running educational campaigns in tandem with national federations in Spain.


World Athletics

Employing a scientific approach to tackling air pollution

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 91 per cent of the planet’s population lives in places where air quality does not meet guideline levels, while more than seven million people die every year as a result of exposure to air pollution. Recreational runners and road race organisers in cities around the world will be keenly aware of the problem, and now the global governing body for track and field is taking steps to help tackle it.

In 2018, World Athletics - then known as the IAAF - teamed up with UN Environment and the Climate & Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) to better understand the effects of air pollution on human health, establishing a five-year partnership to monitor air quality at approximately 1,000 athletics tracks around the world.

Data collected at competition venues is now being used to develop a real-time air quality database, help runners choose the best times to run in their cities, assist event organisers to design safer timetables, and to study the correlation between air quality and athletic performance. A monitor installed for last year's World Relays in Yokohama even led to a peer-reviewed scientific publication.


Mercedes Benz Stadium

Embracing the concept of sustainable design

Opened in 2017, Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium (below) has become a model for other venues to follow. Not only was it the first professional sports stadium in the US to receive Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certification, achieving an unprecedented 88 out of 110 points, but the hi-tech home of the Atlanta Falcons National Football League (NFL) franchise is symbiotically rooted in its surroundings.

Atlanta’s notoriously high rainfall and proclivity for storms prompted the venue’s designers to put better water management at the heart of their concept. Today, the stadium has the capacity to capture over two million gallons of rainwater on-site, helping to prevent flooding in neighbouring areas. That water can also be used for cooling and irrigation, while the venue uses 47 per cent less water than baseline standards due to its various conservation strategies.

With 4,000 solar PV panels, the stadium can generate enough energy to power ten NFL games, while spectators are actively encouraged to bring aluminium cans and bottles to the venue for recycling. What’s more, its harnessing of natural light and use of LED lighting has helped to reduce energy usage by as much as 50 per cent.


The Ocean Race

Taking action to improve the marine environment

The Ocean Race’s innovative sustainability programme, Racing with Purpose, ticks all the boxes, but it is by no means a box-ticking exercise. Encompassing a variety of initiatives including expert summits, workshops and an immersive, curriculum-based learning programme for schoolchildren in more than 40 countries, the programme is as comprehensive as any in sport.

As well as taking steps to reduce the impact of its own events, The Ocean Race is working to contribute towards scientific understanding of ocean health and the effects of climate change. Its race boats double as research vessels, collecting data on sea surface temperature, microplastic concentrations and ocean acidification as they travel through some of the remotest parts of the planet. That data is then made available on an open-source basis, contributing valuable knowledge and unique insights to the international scientific community.


Pac-12 Conference

Educating college students about the greening movement

Organised under the banner of its ‘Team Green’ initiative, which launched in 2018 and is believed to be the first of its kind in collegiate athletics, the Pac-12 Conference’s efforts in sustainability are promoted across each of its 12 member universities. Its programme encompasses publicity campaigns, educational seminars and a multi-stakeholder sustainability working group for knowledge-sharing, but raising awareness is just one aspect of a far broader commitment.

Supported by the Green Sports Alliance (GSA), the annual Pac-12 Sustainability Conference brings together experts and advocates from the worlds of sport, academia and business to discuss best practices and design new collective initiatives. Working with partner Copia, Pac-12 schools now actively recover and donate leftover food to those in need, while universities are also being inspired to take action through the Zero Waste Challenge, an initiative which encourages athletic venues on campuses to divert refuse from landfill and eliminate waste during major events.


Johan Cruifjj Arena

Showcasing the smart city technologies of the future

More than 4,200 solar panels, a rainfall collection system, energy-efficient LED lighting, bidirectional electric vehicle charging points, even a windmill to churn out additional power: Amsterdam’s Johan Cruijff ArenA (right) boasts a veritable smorgasbord of green technology that ensures it is rightly held up as a leader in sustainable innovation.

Having earned a slew of environmental accolades, in 2018 the home of Dutch soccer giants AFC Ajax became the biggest commercial energy storage system in Europe thanks to the addition of a three-megawatt storage structure capable of powering 7,000 households for an hour. Now, the stadium - which is owned by the government of Amsterdam - supplies energy to the Dutch capital’s power grid when not in use, affirming its status as a living, breathing case study for the smart city technologies of the future.


World Surf League

Funding research and restoring ocean health

By 2050, there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish. That stark projection is just one statistic often quoted to highlight the staggering scale of the problem of ocean plastic, and it is one that has motivated the World Surf League (WSL), one of the founding signatories to the UN’s Sport for Climate Action Framework, to take action.

Through its WSL Pure philanthropic arm, which launched in 2016, the globe-trotting professional surfing organisation is going beyond the customary beach cleans and carbon offsetting initiatives to help tackle the problem head-on, as well as funding scientific research into other marine health issues such as sea-level rise and coral restoration. Having pooled each of its initiatives under the WSL Pure message, it now creates regular original content to inspire ocean conservation, with its One Ocean podcast bringing together activists, artists, athletes and academics to promote awareness and advocacy.

In partnership with academic institutions like Columbia University and NGOs such as Lonely Whale, the WSL has shown genuine leadership in working to rally the eco-conscious surfing community behind its cause. In February, that community claimed a notable victory when Norwegian oil company Equinor shelved plans to drill in the Great Australian Bight following vocal opposition from surfing enthusiasts and some of the sport’s biggest names.

“What’s the story that we want to tell as a business, what do we want to be a part of?” pondered Reece Pacheco, the WSL’s senior vice president of ocean responsibility, on The Sustainability Report Podcast. “We want to be a part of change, we stand for a positive story. Our mission as an organisation is to make the world a better place through the transformational power of surfing, and a big part of that is making sure we do our part for the environment.”


Formula E

Positioning sustainable innovation at the core of its purpose

Perhaps no sports rights holder is more synonymous with sustainable innovation than Formula E, the all-electric motor racing championship whose raison d’être is to accelerate advancements in electric vehicle technology and alternative energy solutions.

“It’s clear that our approach is shared at the highest levels of the company,” explains Julia Palle, Formula E’s senior sustainability consultant. “We lead by example by being at the forefront and being innovators in everything that we do, including, of course, sustainability. It’s what we truly desire and walking the talk has been, since the beginning, my motto.”

As the only motorsport series to receive ISO 20121 certification, Formula E employs a comprehensive sustainability strategy that spans three key pillars - environmental, social and economic - and all aspects of its business. It works with host cities to reduce carbon emissions and urban air pollution, and in a commitment to waste reduction has begun recycling all lithium ion batteries and hybrid tyres used during races. Competing teams are also actively encouraged to embrace the series’ philosophy.

After each season, lifecycle assessments are carried out to monitor the championship’s environmental performance and identify ways of reducing the impact of its events and supply chains. Prospective suppliers must also show evidence that they offer sustainable products or services as part of their tender applications, while guidelines and guidance are designed to help them work towards compulsory standards.

“This is what is happening now for waste contractors,” says Palle. “All the waste companies have a KPI in providing us with a waste transfer note, and also the data that we need for the lifecycle assessment. If this is not provided, 20 per cent of the payment is not coming to them.” 


World Sailing

Putting the wind in the sails of the quest for clean seas

Improving water quality is understandably a pressing concern for every ocean-based sport. Nowhere is the scourge of plastic pollution more apparent than in the ocean, and no athlete appreciates the magnitude of the problem more acutely than the offshore sailor.

World Sailing's Sustainability Agenda 2030 sets out the global governing body's ambitious sustainability strategy, detailing an expansive list of targets, standards and requirements running the breadth of its operations, events and venues. Last August, the federation introduced the special event sustainability charter, a move which mandates some of sailing’s top event organisers, including SailGP and the World Match Racing Tour, to take measurable steps to reduce their environmental impact. In addition to sourcing reusable products, providing organic clothing to race officials and volunteers, and offering largely plant-based, locally sourced menus, organisers must create strategies that reduce their carbon footprint and safeguard marine biodiversity.

Other contractual requirements set out in the charter include the showcasing of at least one non-fossil fuel powered boat during the event. Boatbuilders must also be encouraged to conduct impact assessments during the manufacturing process and establish end-of-life options for every vessel.