Sport has the power to enrich people’s lives. It can bring us together, whether participating or spectating. And when we’re physically active we tend to feel fitter, healthier, and mentally strong. And it’s fun too. But unfortunately, sport is often not so good for our planet.

Sustainability in sports is all about reducing the sport's ecological footprint on the environment. Mega-events such as the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup cause serious harm to the environment. From the building of infrastructure, to excessive litter and waste. And visitors travelling to and from events, which can have one of the most significant impacts on the environment. It’s therefore vital that sports and sporting events become more sustainable. From the energy we use, to the clothing we wear, there are some sports people who are leading the way, working with charities and sporting foundations to raise awareness of the impact sport has on the environment. So, let’s take a look at 8 environmentally conscious sporting legends who are doing great things to make our world more sustainable.

Jean Afterman

New York Yankees Senior Vice President and Assistant General Manager, Jean Afterman, is only the third female to hold the position of Assistant General Manager in Major League Baseball history. 2021 marked her 20th season as the Yankees’ Assistant General Manager and tenth as Senior Vice President, and her contributions and leadership have been repeatedly recognised throughout her baseball career. She was selected as one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in New York” by the New York Post in 2003 and 2007. And most recently, she was recognised by the Sports Business Journal as one of its class of 2021 members of “The Champions: Pioneers and Innovators in Sports Business.”

With a diverse business and legal background, Jean Afterman is a frequent guest speaker on the topics of women in sports and the business of baseball. And she is also on the board of directors for Beyond Sport, a global organisation supporting initiatives, generating ideas and building partnerships that purposefully use sport and physical activity to do something great. Beyond Sport’s vision is: to achieve sustainable social change through sport. And to do this, Beyond Sport:

  • Supports impactful projects: Support organisations that use sport to address social issues through innovative grant funding and capacity-building programmes.
  • Builds platforms for change: Convene and facilitate issue-led communities that inspire new ideas, create new ways of thinking and lead to new collaborations.
  • Amplifies sport with intention: Using engaging storytelling, they elevate the work of a dynamic global partner network, powerfully illustrating that authentic sport for social change works.

Kelly Slater

American professional surfer Kelly Slater is widely regarded as the greatest professional surfer of all time. He continues to compete at the impressive age of 47, and has won 11 world titles over a 19-year period, with 55 event victories.

Over the years, Kelly Slater has become increasingly concerned as our oceans have become more and more full of plastic, and so has long been committed to sustainability. He is passionate about preserving our oceans and protecting temperate reefs in California through his relationship with Reef Check, a non-profit organisation leading scientists to promote stewardship of sustainable reef communities worldwide.

Reef Check Foundation is on a mission to save our reefs and oceans by working to create a sustainable future through education, research, and conservation. They:

  • Train and organise: teams of local volunteer scientist divers. They collect data on reef health and assess climate change impacts on their reefs. The data is also used to make science-based ocean management and conservation decisions.
  • Promote public education: about reefs and the ocean. Their goal is to develop a team of ocean ambassadors with the skills and knowledge to make a tangible difference in marine conservation in their local communities.
  • Develop: ecologically sound and economically sustainable solutions for reef conservation and restoration.

In 2010, Slater was honored for his “outstanding and unprecedented achievements in the world of surfing and for being an ambassador of the sport and excellent role model.” And he is also on the Board of Advisors (the Ocean Advocacy Advisory Board) of ocean conservation organisation Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Kelly Slater also co-founded Outerknown in 2015, a clothing brand where sustainability is at the heart of the design process. They use organic cotton and recycled fishing nets to create timeless pieces, and through Fair Trade USA, they invest in the livelihoods of over 5,000 workers who bring their vision to life.

Serena Williams

Arguably the greatest tennis player of all time, Serena Williams has dominated the sport over the last 20 years. With her first victory in 1999 at just 17 years old, she has an impressive record of 31 Grand Slam finals, 23 of those wins; both open era records. And she remains at the top of her game, all while balancing motherhood and entrepreneurship.

Serena Williams by Yann Caradeclink

Off the court, Serena is an ambassador for Impossible Foods, a startup who make meat, dairy and fish from plants. Their mission is to make the global food system truly sustainable by eliminating the need to make food from animals. And in 2016, their first product was launched, the Impossible™ Burger, using a small fraction of the land, water, and energy required to make meat from a cow.

Serena Williams has also invested in her own clothing line to further protect the health of the planet. The line, which is called "Serena," is 100 percent vegan and cruelty-free, with pieces designed to both empower and last. And as Williams follows a plant-based lifestyle, it makes sense that her line would correlate with her values. But her commitment is also ongoing against deforestation and over-exploitation of the seas.

Ellen MacArthur

Dame Ellen MacArthur DBE is a retired English sailor, with a successful solo long-distance career. In 2005, she broke the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe, a feat which gained her international renown.

Following her retirement from professional sailing in 2010, MacArthur announced the launch of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity that works with business and education to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. This is based on three key principles:

  • Eliminate waste and pollution: Considering waste and pollution as design flaws rather than inevitable by-products of the things we make. By changing our mindset and harnessing new materials and technology to ensure they’re not created in the first place.
  • Circulate products and materials: Designing products to be reused, repaired, or remanufactured. But making things last forever isn’t the only solution. When it comes to products like food or packaging, we should be able to keep them in circulation, so they don’t end up in landfill.
  • Regenerate nature: There’s no concept of waste in nature. Everything is food for something else – a leaf that falls from the tree feeds the forest. By returning nutrients to the soil and other systems, we can enhance natural resources.

A circular economy gives us the tools to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss together, while addressing important social needs. It gives us the power to grow prosperity, jobs, and resilience while cutting greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and pollution.

Nico Rosberg

Nico Rosberg is a German-Finnish former racing driver who won the 2016 Formula 1 World Championship driving for Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport. And while motor racing and sustainability do not normally go together, Rosberg is passionate about protecting the planet.

Nico Rosberg maka3110link

In 2016, the Formula 1 champion quit the grid to embark on a career as a sustainability entrepreneur and investor in green technologies and mobility start-ups. In 2018, he launched The GreenTech Festival, which aims to encourage the sharing of environmentally friendly technologies and the realising of potential eco-initiatives. Featuring start-ups, corporations, activists, organically sourced food and great music, plans are already in place for more events in the future.

Rosberg has also explored a variety of other eco-ventures, and has invested in over twenty ‘green’ businesses that are all in his words, ‘value based’. One of his investments, Formula E, is an electronic racing championship, which many believe will change Formula 1 for the better. He has also invested in Lyft, which seeks to place itself as an alternative, sustainable car lift service.

Lewis Pugh

Lewis Pugh is a British-South African endurance swimmer, who has made it his personal mission to protect the world’s oceans. He is the only person to complete a long-distance swim in every ocean of the world, and he became the first person in recorded history to swim underneath an ice sheet in Antarctica – and he wore just swimming trunks, a cap and goggles!

Pugh frequently swims in vulnerable ecosystems to draw attention to environmental issues, and he is perhaps best known for undertaking the first swim across the North Pole in 2007 to highlight the melting of the Arctic sea ice. In 2010 he swam across a glacial lake on Mount Everest, to draw attention to the melting of the glaciers in the Himalayas and the impact the reduced water supply will have on the region. And in 2018 he swam the full length of the English Channel to call for 30% of the world's oceans to be protected by 2030.

The Lewis Pugh Foundation was founded in 2016 to unite governments, NGOs, scientific institutions and world citizens to preserve our oceans for a peaceful and sustainable future. To date, the foundation has been instrumental in securing full protection for over 2 million km² of vulnerable ocean.

Roger McClendon

Former American college basketball player, Roger McClendon, was one of the best players for the Cincinnati Bearcats during the 1980’s. The 6'4" guard from Illinois, finished his career as the second all-time leading scorer in school history, averaging 15.7 points per game over his career, and he was inducted into the UC Athletics Hall of Fame in 1998.

Now, McClendon blends his love of basketball with his new passion, sustainability. As executive director at the Green Sports Alliance, he leads international sports and stadium executives, as well as sustainability experts, to use sports as a vehicle to promote healthy, sustainable communities throughout the world. And prior to joining the Alliance, Roger was the first chief sustainability officer for Yum! Brands, whose holdings include Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC restaurants. He led the development of Blueline, a sustainable design guide for restaurants built on the LEED certification program, which was implemented in approximately 5,000 Yum! Brand restaurants globally. And through his efforts, Yum! was listed in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index in 2017 and 2018, and was named one of the 100 Best Corporate Citizens by Corporate Responsibility Magazine.

Jill Savery

Jill Savery is a synchronised swimmer and Olympic champion. She competed for the American team that won a gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, and was later inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. She is now a sustainability consultant, advisor, University lecturer, author, and public speaker, and speaks frequently to national and international audiences about sustainability.

Jill was the Head of Sustainability for the America’s Cup Event Authority for the 34th America’s Cup, where she was responsible for the successful development and implementation of the 2013 America’s Cup Sustainability Plan. This included delivering zero waste, carbon neutral and sustainable event activities. She also led the London 2012 work program of the London-based sustainability charity Bioregional from 2008-2011, where she supported the London 2012 ‘Towards a One Planet 2012’ vision to deliver a sustainable event.

Jill is now sustainability director at 11th Hour Racing, who work with the sailing community and maritime industries to advance solutions and practices that protect and restore the health of our oceans. Inspired by and furthering the mission of The Schmidt Family Foundation, 11th Hour Racing embraces sponsorships, grantees, and ambassadors who integrate sustainability into their values and operations while educating, innovating and inspiring people with the critical message of ocean stewardship.

Jill earned a Master’s Degree in Environmental Management from Yale University and a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of California at Berkeley. And she is also the co-editor of Sustainability and Sport (2011), one of the first books in this emerging field.

We all know big changes need to happen to protect our planet. And thankfully, these sporting legends and their charities/foundations are raising awareness of the environmental issues we are facing, and taking positive steps to be more sustainable. Sometimes, we just don’t realise the effect the things we do have on the planet. But people like endurance swimmer Lewis Pugh, have seen first-hand just how vulnerable some ecosystems are, and he ‘uses his sport’ to draw attention to these environmental issues. But we all need to work together if we are to preserve our planet for future generations. Whether participating or spectating, it’s important that each one of us makes environmentally conscious decisions to help develop more sustainable sports.

Find out what sporting bodies are doing to make their sports more sustainable.