Sport: The Secret Weapon in Sustainability

Ian Gill


The second leg of the Volvo Ocean Race, a gruelling global circumnavigation, kicked off this week with the boats tackling a 7000 mile ‘hop’ South to Cape Town. It’s a pleasant surprise to see that three of this year’s boats are making a direct link to sustainability; AzkoNobel sponsoring a team to amplify their sustainability programme, ‘Planet Possible’, Vestas 11th Hour Racing, a programme that promotes stewardship of the oceans, and Turn the Tide on Plastics, a UN Environment Clean Seas campaign, who aim to do exactly as their name suggests.

It makes perfect sense for a sport so dependent on natural systems to be amongst the first to take a stance; yesterday World Sailing launched a bold sustainability agenda for 2030, Surfers Against Sewage have been tackling plastic pollution and ski resorts like Whistler Blackcomb have committed to a zero operating footprint by 2030.

In these sports, participants routinely see the negative impacts of climate change first-hand; increasing their understanding that things must change and even fuelling their desire to act. But this is lacking in sports less dependant on the environment. We know from our latest work with REI on ‘The Path Ahead: The Future of Life Outdoors’, which launched on Monday, that it’s much harder to care about the environment when you aren’t immersed in the natural world.

In terms of the overall environmental impact, sport is still a small fish. The majority of sports are played at grassroots level; kids playing in the park with nothing but an old football and a pile of jumpers for goals.

At the elite level, mass participation sports, such as football and rugby, have historically had strong social programs built on philanthropy. Clubs often work with local children’s charities to increase participation, but the environmental focus is still limited.

But times are changing. Slowly.

Progress is being made in football, where Brighton Albion’s AMEX stadium became the first to achieve BREEAM certification in the UK in 2011, and in 2016 FIFA became the first international sports organisation to join the UN climate change initiative. In fact, all medals at the 2020 Olympics will be made from recycled washing machines and old mobile phones, proof that sustainability, a topic considered abstract or irrelevant by most, is being turned into a tangible opportunity with real impact.

However, mass participation sports are not as far along their sustainability communications journey as their climate dependent counterparts. The Premier League’s cumulative attendance stretches over 13 million – so there’s definitely a captive audience to speak to – but it’s dependant on well crafted messaging and stories to reach those inside the sporting world.

For me, this is where sport can make the greatest difference. Not by reducing the number of pies eaten, or hours the stadium lights are on, but by bringing a completely new audience into the sustainability conversation for the very first time.


Posted by Ian Gill

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