The Olympics. The Rugby World Cup. The FIFA World Cup. There are so many great sporting events to get our nation excited. But at what cost? Some sports and sporting events can actually damage our planet. From the construction of infrastructure to rubbish left behind by supporters, everything has an impact on the environment. We can make a real difference if we all play our part, but what are sporting bodies doing to make their sport more sustainable? This article will highlight what FIFA, Sport England and UK Sport, among others, are doing to organise environmentally-friendly events and competitions. And we’ll also take a look at some of the key challenges faced by governing bodies such as GB Snowsport, and how they plan to reduce their overall environmental impact despite many snowsports events taking place abroad.
What does sustainability in sport mean?
We’ve all heard the term “sustainability”, especially in recent years with our attention being drawn to climate change, and the effect we humans are having on the planet. Not only are we rapidly depleting our energy resources, we’re also polluting our environment, and destroying wildlife. And with a whopping 1 million species at risk of extinction by climate change, it’s clear something needs to be done. But what does sustainability actually mean? Simply put, it’s the ability to exist and develop without depleting natural resources for the future.
A sustainable sport is one that aims to reduce its ecological footprint on the environment. And everything from kit and equipment to travel, all contribute. We can all play our part by considering how we travel to sports practice and events for example, and by clearing up after ourselves. Sports clubs can choose to adopt kits made from organic material and environmentally-friendly processes. But it’s really the large-scale sporting events where we are seeing the most devastation. For example, runners at the 2019 London Marathon left behind 350,000 plastic bottles scattered along city roads. And overcrowding at the Everest Summit has turned this natural wonder into the highest rubbish dump in the world - with a colossal 11 tonnes of abandoned sports equipment and litter being removed from the mountain and its surrounding area in 2019.
Major sports events also generate a considerable amount of CO2, which is emitted into the atmosphere:
- World Downhill Ski Championship: This international competition releases 800,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.
- Football World Cup: Showcasing the world’s best national teams, this tournament emits 2.75 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.
- Olympic Games: Around 3.4 billion tonnes of CO2 can be emitted into the atmosphere during this event.
Hosting the Olympics comes with a huge environmental footprint. Flying an estimated 28,500 athletes and staff to Brazil for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio generated more than 2,000 kilotonnes of greenhouse gases, and 2,500 kt associated with bringing in half a million spectators. And stadiums and other facilities constructed for Olympic use are often left to rot, as maintaining them post-games is usually expensive. So what are sporting bodies doing to make their sport, and sporting events more sustainable?
How are sporting bodies making changes towards sustainability?
In a world where reducing carbon emissions is an overriding priority, can we justify staging major events which have a considerable environmental impact?
Hosting a major event can bring economical and social benefits to a country. It creates jobs, and can bring regeneration and new life to often deprived areas, while raising the profile of the city or country. Spectators of these sporting events are also much more likely to take up a sport, and we all know practicing sport is good for our health and wellbeing. So it’s important for sporting bodies to look at ways in which these large-scale events can take place in a sensible and sustainable way. Let’s take a look at some case studies.
Case Study 1: FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™
International governing body, FIFA, exists to govern football and to develop the game around the world. And sustainability has been at the heart of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ from the start.
The preparation, staging and post-tournament activities of a FIFA World Cup™ can generate a wide range of impacts on the economy, the natural environment and on people and communities - both in the host country and internationally. While many of these impacts are positive, there are also
risks of adverse effects.
As with any mega-sporting event, the FIFA World Cup 2022™ presents risks related to the increased use of limited natural resources and the generation of emissions, as well as to the health, safety and wellbeing of all people involved in the tournament, including workers, participants, attendees and local communities. So FIFA have prioritised specific areas to focus their efforts to maximise the sustainability of the tournament.
Environmental - Deliver innovative environmental solutions.
Social - Provide an inclusive tournament experience.
Human - Develop human capital and safeguard human rights.
Governance - Set an example of good governance and ethical business practices.
Economic - Catalyse economic development.
From the Fifa Website: The vision for the FIFA World Cup 2022™ is to use the power of football to open the door to a world of amazing experiences. This entails showcasing Qatar’s unique identity through a FIFA World Cup™ that connects people in a shared celebration of football, intercultural understanding and new
opportunities for growth and development. New benchmarks will be set with regards to long-term community uses for infrastructure, seamless operations and unparalleled services, which will have a positive impact on the way future FIFA World Cups™ and other large-scale sporting events are organised. Ultimately, the FIFA World Cup 2022™ will build a sustainable and lasting legacy that contributes both to FIFA’s vision11 and Qatar’s national development goals.
Case Study 2: National Hockey League
The National Hockey League (NHL) has committed to tracking and measuring the impact of the league on the environment. The idea is to then use this data to develop, encourage and implement changes to move towards sustainability.
The motive for this change came initially from the crucial role the climate and freshwater availability plays in the future of hockey. In 2014, the NHL released a sustainability report. It details intensive data on the environmental impact of all aspects of the NHL, including the energy consumption of rinks, fan travel and the refrigerants used to individual players’ influence. 2018 saw the second edition of the NHL sustainability report, which focused on the following three actions for improved sustainability:
- Innovate: strategically focusing on reducing or offsetting carbon emissions, supporting smart energy, conserving water and reducing waste for improved sustainability.
- Transform: making changes in the hockey industry through collaborative efforts such as the Green Rinks initiative, which works to improve measuring, efficiency and sustainability of energy consumption in rinks.
- Inspire: gathering and mobilising the hockey communities to take initiative and engage in positive environmental action, such as outdoor rink refurbishment or the Legacy Tree Project Planting.
The NHL has managed to successfully push hockey clubs across the USA towards more sustainable practices. For example, the Montreal Canadiens have installed a closed-loop system that feeds melted ice shavings back into the ice resurfacer after being purified, saving around 208,000 litres of drinking water from being wasted every year.
Case Study 3: Sport England - Sustainable Facilities
Established by Royal Charter in 1996, Sport England is determined to give everyone in the country the chance to benefit from sport and physical activity.
The government declared a climate emergency in 2019, setting a net-zero carbon target by 2050. Climate change, and the risks of extreme weather that it brings, are already understood and the impact on community-based sport is very real. And so, the need to raise awareness, find solutions and build in resilience are an ever more pressing matter.
We know sport and physical activity is essential to physical and mental wellbeing, and part of encouraging and enabling physical activity is about making positive choices - like choosing to get around without using polluting vehicles, for example. It’s also important to consider the practical measures helping to make sports facilities more comfortable, make more efficient use of energy and other resources and help change attitudes and behaviours.
Sometimes there's resistance to implementing sustainable building designs because they're initially considered more expensive, and sustainable design is often the first casualty when savings are made. Any decisions should be made on the basis of an analysis of the total cost over the life of the project, and take into account not just the initial purchase and installation, but also the running and maintenance costs. It's important to weigh up the pros and cons and long term implications of the use of new and different technologies in order to decide what may be most suitable in a particular situation.
St. Sidwell’s Point Leisure Centre in Exeter, Devon, is the UK’s first swimming pool designed to Passivhaus standards (a rigorous energy efficiency standard and certification scheme for buildings), which significantly reduces energy use for heating and cooling. Exeter City Council’s want to create long-term financial and carbon savings and become carbon neutral by 2030. The Council has made a commitment to
delivering carbon footprint reductions and encouraging others to do the same. The replacement for the 50+ year old
Pyramids swimming pool is located in the heart of the city, and the project has been designed to withstand predicted changes in climate conditions up to 2080, and use less than half the energy of an equivalent conventionally-designed facility through the use of Passivhaus standards.
- 70% saving on energy costs when compared to a current good practice pool
- 50% reduction in water use
- Outstanding internal water (with minimal chemical content) and air quality
- Excellent daylight levels
- Healthy, uncompromised, uplifting, comfortable indoor climate
- Lower maintenance costs due to better quality building fabric
- Resilience from predicted future climate change
Predicted operating savings of £200k per annum and additional investment payback in less than 10 years make a compelling financial case for sustainable design.
Case Study 4: UK Sport - Event Impacts
UK Sport is the nation’s trusted high-performance experts, powering our greatest athletes, teams, sports and events to achieve positive success.
Events have the power to inspire and change people’s lives in many different ways, although it’s not a straight-forward process to measure all of these impacts. That’s why UK Sport has worked with a number of partners to develop the eventIMPACTS project - a toolkit of resources to help event organisers improve their evaluation of the impacts associated with the staging of sporting and cultural events.
In the past, the success of an event has generally only been measured in the economic impact to a region or the level of media exposure an event received. Though it’s important to look at the wider social and environmental impacts of an event. The social impact considers the effect on the people and communities around which it takes place and includes—among other things—the development of skills and inspiring participation. Major events can also have a variety of environmental impacts, including waste and carbon emissions, so it’s increasingly important for event organisers to understand the scale of these impacts, in order to stage more sustainable events.
Why measure the environmental impact of sports?
All sports events have an impact on the environment. Some of these impacts are more obvious, for example, land use for stadiums and sporting facilities, and emissions created by athletes, staff and spectators travelling to and from events. Other impacts, however, are more hidden, such as the carbon emissions generated in the production of event merchandise. It’s therefore important for event managers to look at all the impacts an event can have on the environment.
Issues of sustainable development are also increasingly important to event participants, spectators and potential sponsors. Effective communication of environmental credentials can affect the level and quality of sponsorship/funding, and understanding the drivers of environmental impacts can also help organisations be more cost-effective.
Here are some of the specific environmental impacts which need to be taken into account when organising a sporting event:
- Waste impacts: Excessive litter and waste at event sites can undermine stakeholder and sponsor support for events, and it also affects the experience of participants and visitors, potentially casting doubt over future events. Waste-handling and landfill is also costly for event organisers and for society. Landfilled waste and the transportation of waste cause harmful emissions, and poorly managed waste streams can have long term environmental impacts.
- Energy impacts: The development and operation of events can result in many different types of energy use. This can range from the energy used in the construction of venues, energy consumed by spectators travelling to an event, or energy used in running event venues. And with fossil fuels diminishing, we need to carefully weigh up whether it's worth the cost to our planet.
- Water impacts: Large parts of the UK are now classified as being “water-stressed”, and the regulations around water use has tightened considerably in recent years. Events place very different stresses on both physical amounts of water used and in terms of pressures on water infrastructure. While event hosting and construction of venues can create pressures in terms of pollution of water courses, or even their redirection.
- Travel impacts: Studies have found that visitor travel to and from an event can have one of the most significant impacts on the environment. And the scale of the impact depends on not only the number of visitors, but also the mode of transport and the distance they travel. If the event is held over several days, visitors may also need to stay in nearby overnight accommodation, and so will need to travel between their accommodation and the event site.
- Food and drink impacts: The impact food and drink has on the environment will not only depend on the quantity consumed at an event, but also the type of food/drink, the method of production (eg. whether it’s organic), its origin (eg. whether it’s local), and how much ends up as waste. The sourcing of locally produced food is an important step towards reducing the environmental impact of sports, and it can have a positive impact on the local economy. It’s also crucial to reduce the amount of food that ends up as waste!
Other governing bodies and leagues that are moving towards sustainability include:
- World Sailing: The first international federation to be certified with the ISO 20121 award relating to sustainable events. When setting its goals for sustainability in 2016, World Sailing went beyond environmental sustainability and integrated 14 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals into its action plan of 59 targets that covered topics including training, participation and technical standards.
- World Rugby: Signed the UN Sports for Climate Action Declaration and Framework, pledging to combine sports and environmental sustainability into their practices. This has brought changes such as using more generic branding for tournament clothing and reducing event-specific clothing to minimise waste and cost. As well as supporting the reuse of kit and equipment through SOS Kit Aid. They have also strived to create energy-efficient workplaces through: smart lighting, heating and water systems; cycle-to-work schemes; plastic and paper reduction; and video conferencing and grouped meetings to reduce travel.
- Major League Baseball: Made a commitment to sustainability in 2009 and has since revolutionised how all 30 MLB teams work to improve their environmental practices. This has seen more than 20,000 tonnes of waste diverted from landfills. And there are now 12 MLB teams that run their own gardens or farms, and use the produce for food served at the stadiums.
These leagues and governing bodies have all taken initiative to put sports and environmental sustainability at the forefront of their operations to help preserve our planet. Through collective efforts to integrate sustainability into operations, it’s now possible to see a future that combines environmental preservation and sports.
What else can be done to make sport more sustainable?
It’s estimated that more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic litter our oceans. And every minute, one truckload of plastic ends up in our oceans. By 2050 there may be more plastic in our oceans than fish, and it doesn’t biodegrade like natural materials. But it’s not too late to turn this around.
So what’s your sports kit and equipment made of? And how ethical is it? Let’s take a look at which sports and activewear brands are doing their best when it comes to sustainability, the environment and ethical production:
- Adidas: 2015 saw the first adidas x Parley collection, taking upcycled marine plastic waste that’s found among remote islands, beaches and coastal communities, and turning it into high-performance sportswear. Since then, the partnership has driven innovation within the industry, creating a worldwide movement to save our oceans through the power of sport. And over the last five years, Adidas have steadily decreased the use of virgin polyester from their products, and now, more than half of all the polyester used in their products is recycled polyester. By the end of 2020, more than 30 million pairs of shoes had been made using Parley Ocean Plastic. This has set them in good stead to reach their goal of cutting out virgin polyester entirely by 2024.
- Nike: This mighty sports brand was once known for sweatshops and unethical factories, but it’s now working hard to change its image. One of their biggest steps on their journey to zero carbon and zero waste is in choosing the materials, because they account for more than 70% of any product's footprint. By reusing existing plastics, yarns and textiles, Nike is significantly reducing their emissions. And now, 100% of the cotton they use across their entire product line is certified organic, recycled or Better Cotton sourced through the Better Cotton Initiative. They also use recycled polyester, diverting an average of 1 billion plastic bottles annually from landfills and waterways. And Nike Flyknit, Nike Flyleather and Nike Air are innovative materials which all create less waste and have a lower impact on climate change compared to their “unsustainable” counterparts.
- Puma: “Sustainability is a key value of PUMA, deeply integrated in our business operations. It guides our company to work faster toward a more just and sustainable future” - says CEO Bjørn Gulden. PUMA has 10 sustainability targets they want to reach by 2025. These are their 10FOR25. With these targets in mind, they aim to get better in environmental, health and safety, and human rights matters within the business and their supply chain to start their journey towards a more circular business model. To reduce their carbon footprint, PUMA has set a science-based greenhouse gas emission target. They aim to reduce emissions at PUMAs own entities by 35% (absolute) and the emissions of their supply chain by 60% relative to sales between 2017 and 2030 (they have so far reduced their environmental impact by 13% since 2013).
There are also many other sustainable sports and activewear brands out there, like outdoor clothing brand Patagonia. They not only pledge at least 1% of sales or 10% of pre-tax profits to environmental groups, they’re also constantly auditing the materials they use and the methods they use to make their products to ensure they’re doing their best for the environment. And active sports brand Sundried, who produce beautiful, high-performance products, made from used coffee grounds and plastic bottles, but built to last. As a company, they believe in reducing their carbon footprint, and the clothes they create are made in a way that reduces CO2 emissions.
We at Decathlon also have a mission: To sustainably make the pleasure and benefits of sport accessible to the many. And we’re committing to achieving the following by 2026:
- 100% renewable electricity (at the end of 2019, we were at 59%)
- 100% of our repairable products are repaired (at the end of 2019, we were at 82%)
- 100% of our products to be the result of an eco-design strategy (at the end of 2019, we were at 5%)
Want to look deeper into what Decathlon is doing? You can read more about our sustainability goals here.
Many sports teams are now also using Kukri sportswear, a brand which proactively encourages the use of ethical and environmentally-friendly technologies, systems, and products.
As part of their sustainability initiative, Kukri has introduced RIMATCH, a new fabric which offers a greener alternative to standard sportswear. This innovative fabric is made of recycled fibres from items, such as plastic bottles, that may otherwise have gone to landfill. Garments retain the durability and performance of a polyester yarn without the environmental impact of a virgin plastic.
Sporting bodies need to lead by example, and they could also make a difference by recommending particular kit and equipment to sports clubs, which may be better for the environment. Though this may not be as straightforward as it sounds. Some teams or athletes may already be sponsored by particular brands, so they’ll usually be contracted to wear specific kit, whether it’s sustainable or not. Though this is where the sporting body can educate on the importance of working with sustainable brands. And in some cases, a product which is good for the environment, doesn’t mean it’s good for the sport. As well as being eco-friendly, sportswear also needs to look good, and perform well too.
Which bodies face the largest challenges?
Some sports and sporting events are more straightforward to make changes to than others, with regards to sustainability. And one sporting body who has a particularly tough challenge on their hands is GB Snowsport. They manage and develop the programme to put British World Class skiers and snowboarders onto World Cup Podiums and win Olympic and Paralympic medals. But with a lot of the competitions taking place abroad, and participants and spectators generally needing to travel via plane to get there, how can they make their sports more sustainable?
GB Snowsport’s vision is to become a top five nation in Olympic/Paralympic skiing and snowboarding by 2030, and a key focus is their commitment to leading climate change initiatives and stewarding sustainability in winter sports
Millions in the UK, and billions globally, are inspired by winter sports and enjoy healthy, active lifestyles in winter environments. Climate change threatens those environments with decreasing snowfall and volatile weather cycles. GB Snowsport’s sustainability model is currently being developed, however it will sit in line with the following key focus areas:
- Reduce the overall environmental and climate impact of GB Snowsport activities
- Educate about sustainability and encourage climate action
- Promote sustainable and responsible consumption
- Advocate for sustainability and climate action through communication
This model will go a long way to make snow sports more sustainable. But to really make a difference, we all need to look at where we go skiing and how we go skiing. CO2 emissions from transportation to the mountains can be anything from 60% (flying to the Alps) to over 95% (flying to North America) of our total ski holiday emissions. So making changes like travelling by train, coach, or in a fuel-efficient/electric car rather than flying (where possible), will be much better for the environment.
And whilst many of us love to get away on short weekend ski breaks, that only increases the travel we’re doing. So if you have the choice, it’s better to either make those trips overland (there are lots of great places to go skiing and snowboarding in the UK), or take fewer, longer trips if you can.
These changes sound great in theory, but may be more difficult in reality. For example, to cut costs, Eurostar has cancelled the direct ski train between the UK and the French Alps – the single most environmentally-friendly way of travel between the two. But there are still plenty of other simple ways to get there by train. You can also choose to head to one of the resorts that are 100% green energy powered, and stay in an apartment, chalet or hotel that is carbon neutral. Though, if you have to fly to get there, it’s probably a little counterproductive.
Many sporting bodies are now focusing their efforts on sustainability, and they are setting ambitious goals in order to make their sport more environmentally-friendly. There’s lots being done to promote change where needed, but everyone understands we can go much further. From the management of major events, sustainable travel policies and use of recyclable materials, to the creation and use of sustainable energy, sports organisations should continue to lead by example. Many sporting bodies, including FIFA, Sport England, UK Sport and GB Snowsport, are taking a critical look at how they operate. Consumption and waste is being carefully recorded, and challenging targets are being set to reduce or eliminate it.
Responding to climate change is no easy task, but it’s essential for the future of our planet, and we all need to play our part. Billions of people all around the world watch or participate in sport on a regular basis. And with the global sports market expected to reach $599.9 billion in 2025, it’s now time for the sports sector to take responsibility and give back to our planet.