Only clear, bold actions will position sport as a sustainability leader

Only clear, bold actions will position sport as a sustainability leader

At the Sustainable Brands conference in Paris the message was clear: be bold about sustainability, or “face the prospect of being useless”

As encouraging as it was to see sport well represented at the Sustainable Brands conference in Paris last month (with its very own hub), it was apparent that there’s a long way to go before the industry can consider itself a leading sector when it comes to sustainability.

That’s not to say that there aren’t organisations in sport displaying leadership in their own right. Those attending the sports hub over the two-day programme got the chance to hear about some of the outstanding work being done by the likes of World Sailing, Formula E, Roland Garros and The Ocean Race.

The key takeaway from the conference, in general, was that all organisations, regardless of sector, need to be bold in their approach to sustainability. Otherwise, in the words of Danone chief executive Emmanuel Faber, they “face the prospect of being useless”.

And there’s a sense that for all its reach, resources and media attention, sport needs to be bolder.

A select few are leading the way: during the conference, World Sailing’s head of sustainability Dan Reading told delegates that the federation shuns sponsorship opportunities from companies if their ethos doesn’t align with its comprehensive sustainability targets. And that sustainability was becoming a key component of innovation when it comes to boat design.

Formula E is preparing to introduce science-based carbon reduction targets from the start of next season. The Ocean Race is devising the next, more ambitious, iteration of its ocean plastics data collection project. And the Paris 2024 Olympics reaffirmed its commitment to become the first carbon neutral Games.

These are all bold objectives. But the sports industry cannot sit back and watch a handful of leading organisations make all the progress. Their example should be followed.

Be bold ‘or die’

Under Faber’s watch, Danone has incorporated some of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals into its own business plan and is well on the way to achieving B Corp status. His message of “be bold or die” may have been the unambiguous call to action. But bold action requires finesse and vision.

Faber explained that organisations need to have a clear purpose and to make that purpose clear to everyone. Danone, as a food and beverage producer, has aligned its business goals with seven “major focus” SDGS: zero hunger, good health and wellbeing, clean water and sanitation, responsible consumption and production, decent work and economic growth, climate action, and affordable and clean energy.

It makes sense; in the same way that Formula E, the electric car racing series, is focused on the reduction of carbon emissions through e-mobility. Or World Sailing and The Ocean Race redoubling their efforts to promote ocean health. The IAAF is investigating how air pollution affects athlete performance. And the French Golf Federation is currently in the midst of a wide-ranging biodiversity project in partnership with Paris’ Natural History Museum.

Bold action can only be taken when the purpose is clear and aligns with the organisation’s core business. It’s about reframing sustainability – not as a responsibility, but as an opportunity and business advantage for the sports industry.

And this business advantage can apply to any sport and any entity. Smaller brands, said Faber, had even more to lose by not being bold (and therefore not standing out). Less popular sports clubs or niche sports – constantly battling for sponsorship money, fans and attention – should look to examples like Forest Green Rovers to understand the media attention a small organisation can generate if it makes bold statements about social or environmental issues, and backs that up with concrete action.


A wide-ranging report on the Future of Global Sport published by ASOIF (the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations) highlighted climate change, the need to develop private sector partnerships, and attracting new, young fans as three of a number of challenges facing International Federations (and, you could argue, the sports sector in general).

Being bold about sustainability helps sport entities address all three fronts – taking the action needed to reduce their own carbon footprint, aligning with private sector sponsors that have similar, well-defined sustainability targets, and speaking to the thoughts and dreams of the younger generation of fans or consumers by investing in the things they care about.

These consumers increasingly want to be the heroes of their own story but want brands to guide them towards that heroism. That’s why it was great to hear about Sky Ocean Rescue’s ambition to work with Premier League football clubs to implement reusable cup systems in their stadiums. It gives consumers – or fans in this case – the chance to contribute to a cause without it negatively affecting their matchday experience.

Not only does it have the potential to have a significant impact in terms of reducing plastic waste, but the project is also a fan engagement tool and presents the opportunity to generate some kind of sponsorship revenue. Tick. Tick. Tick. Bold and clear.

Solitaire Townsend, co-founder of sustainability agency Futerra, probably summed up bold sustainability leadership best when she boiled it down to three points: 1. Meeting the demand for honesty from consumers; 2. Helping consumers be the hero; and 3. MFSC (mega f**king social change) – not just philanthropy or a “purpose halo”, but “digging into real topics”.

Leaders in the sector have demonstrated that sport is well placed to dig into some of the more pressing topics in the sustainability conversation. The only requirements: clear vision and bold conviction.

What actions could sport entities take to become more bold and clear about sustainability objectives? Let us know in the comments below.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with *