Reformulating sustainability in, and through, sport

Reformulating sustainability in, and through, sport

Can sport leverage the impact of lockdown to reframe sustainability in a simplified, easy-to-digest way, asks Russell Seymour

The relationship between sport and the environment is two-way: sports events have an impact on the environment and, in turn, sporting events are impacted by the environment. 

Climate change will affect winter sports with reduced volumes of poorer quality snow and shorter seasons. Pitch sports will have to adjust turf management to meet new climatic conditions and athletes may find training and competing affected by local air pollution. For all of these reasons, and more, there is a great prize for sport if the sector can clean itself up and communicate sustainability issues to the millions of fans and participants around the world.

In recent years sustainability has become a priority for many commercial organisations, not just because it often brings with it efficiencies and savings, and not just because of public opinion, but because it is simply the right thing to do. Enlightened organisations have understood how human society, including the way we run our businesses, is interconnected, and that our economic system sits within, and is wholly supported by, a natural system of ecosystem services.

In this context, far thinking sports organisations, including teams and venues, governing bodies and international federations, have started to examine their impacts on the environment, and take actions to reduce them. Policies to use renewable energy, reduce single use plastics, manage and control irrigation water and reduce food waste are increasingly common. Though while many good things have been happening in sport, the approach is far from universal.

Other interested actors have seen the power of sport as a communications medium and an opportunity to influence behaviours of fans and participants (for example, the UNFCCC seeks this audience with the Sports for Climate Action initiative). Clubs and venues reducing their carbon emissions is vital, but the bigger win is communicating the message and influencing millions of fans to also reduce their personal footprint.

While the pioneers forge forward and more join, how do we engage the entire sports community, especially following the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and in the context of ongoing social, fiscal and environmental problems?

Particular relevance

Sustainability is relevant to everyone: every individual, every community, every business, every society. We all rely on natural ecosystem services to survive, and if those services are disrupted life becomes more difficult and, in some more extreme cases, impossible. But is there a particular relevance for sport?

Sport relies on the environment. This relationship is most obvious where the natural world is the playing field: skiing and snowboarding, surfing, sailing, triathlon, orienteering, biathlon, canoeing, kayaking, wild swimming, mountain biking. And the list goes on. Proximity to the environment breeds respect for that environment. Many of these sports are seeing their playing conditions change: seasons are shorter, water quality is poorer, temperatures are higher. Then there are sports that manage ecosystem services to provide playing surfaces. 

Turf based sports, all using the natural growth characteristics of grasses, are as diverse as football, field hockey, rugby, cricket, golf, bowls and even horse racing. Turf management is changing as the impacts of climate change are being felt with different grasses germinating and growing at different rates in different temperatures. Drought, flood, extreme summer heat, unusual winter warmth all make the grounds staffs’ job more difficult. Some sports have ‘come in from the cold’ and now rely on technology to create their surfaces, but sports such as ice hockey, curling and speed skating recognise their origins on frozen lakes and ponds and that, in some places, this is still where young people take their first steps on ice and develop a passion for their sport. 

Even ‘indoor’ sports are not completely isolated. Professional basketball or netball are invariably played on indoor courts, but a large proportion of recreational matches are played on outdoor courts where fans become participants and veterans pass on their knowledge and experience to a new cohort who, themselves, innovate with new ideas and tactics. There are those sports that are almost always played indoors – a gust of wind plays havoc with a shuttlecock or table tennis ball – but even obligate indoor sports are more connected to the environment than some might think. Athletes will train outdoors and be affected by weather conditions and air quality. 

Peak performance requires peak nutrition, and food quality is impacted by farming practices and environmental conditions. And all of those indoor facilities require heating and lighting, usually resulting in greenhouse gas emissions. Even some equipment relies on nature – cricket bats and stumps and baseball bats are made of wood from trees matured over many years to the right age, density and composition.

And then there is performance. The human body evolved over millennia in the natural environment and many of our sports can be traced back to survival. Our physical and cognitive abilities are moulded by and are part of nature, and constrained by physical and biological laws. At the same time performance pushes against, and beyond, these laws to achieve the previously unachievable with dedication, understanding and effort – the four-minute mile, the ten-second 100 metres or the two-hour marathon. 

A quarterback throwing a perfect tight-spiral pass, a footballer striking a free-kick into the top corner of the net, a golfer lofting an approach shot pin-high, a netball player scoring a goal, or a rugby player kicking a conversion intuitively understands the physics of a parabolic curve, probably more so than a student in an advanced mathematics class. A cricketer’s subconscious awareness of soil science, agronomy and meteorology lets them decide, at the toss of the coin, whether the conditions suit batting or bowling. A gymnast’s heightened proprioception allows fluidity and extreme physicality unimaginable to most. While a biathlete can induce a moment of controlled stillness to shoot a two inch target at 50m.

Improving performance is about incremental change. The most widely cited application of marginal gains theory was the transformation of British Cycling where even painting the floor of the bike maintenance area receives some credit for medal success. At the elite level of sport myriad factors affect performance: proximate environmental factors such as extreme heat and humidity or poor air quality during an event will have an immediate effect. Meanwhile, nutrition in the build up to an event has longer term impact, so food quality, affected by environmental conditions and agricultural techniques, is important.

And this discussion hasn’t even touched on physical damage from storms; pitches flooded by extreme rain or baked hard by drought; blue-green algal blooms in water caused by agricultural run-off; nitrous oxides, sulphur dioxide, particulates and low-level ozone polluting the air; or extreme heat causing heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

Inseparably linked

So sport participation and performance is intimately and inseparably linked to people, to nature and to life. The environment, and environmental conditions, both long and short term, will affect performance at all levels.

For a long time sport has understood that it has a role in addressing social issues with club-based foundations running community outreach programmes to increase activity in the elderly, reduce obesity in the young, to address racism, sexism, mental health issues and knife crime. Sports men and women are role models for young people. The United Nations recognised the contribution of sport to development and peace in article 37 of the Sustainable Development Goals. So, when sport is so closely linked to natural processes to play and perform and so reliant on ecosystem services, why isn’t the sport sector doing more to reduce its impacts and make fans and participants more aware of these environmental issues too?

Sustainability as an academic, political and commercial discipline is well established and rests on the three pillars of environmental responsibility, social progress and economic activity. These pillars were first linked together three hundred years ago, but the modern version comes from the Brundtland Commission report, Our Common Future. 

The most recent, and ubiquitous, formulation of principles for sustainability are the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a suite of 17 integrated and indivisible goals that were intended as a policy framework for governments. The SDGs provided 169 targets and many more KPIs for measuring success. Many companies, NGOs and charities have attempted to align their sustainability response to the SDGs with varying degrees of success. 

A recent review of hundreds of corporate sustainability reports classified them as either Defensive, Selective or Holistic. Defensive reporting simply takes business-as-usual and shoehorns it into the SDGs framework: a pharmaceutical company may say it is addressing SDG3, Good Health and Well-being, because it produces drugs. A selective approach typically reports against a subset of the SDGs in a non-co-ordinated way. That same pharmaceutical company may score some points for manufacturing beneficial drugs, but if those drugs are not affordable they immediately breach SDG1, addressing poverty. Only a minority of companies present a truly holistic approach where every SDG is addressed in a cohesive and coherent way, and to be effective they must be used in this way.

Applying the SDGs is complex; they are intentionally described as integrated and indivisible for a reason. So this is actually quite hard stuff. How easy is it to communicate these complex ideas and convince busy chief executives that sustainable development principles are fundamental to the future of not just sport, but of our current way of life? 

The evidence suggests that, with notable exceptions, the sport sector is behind other sectors, despite the proximity to and reliance of sport on natural systems and the opportunity that sport has to communicate meaningful and genuine messages to an interested public. The enforced slow-down of the lockdown period has led many people to reflect on our recent western lifestyles and to enjoy the slower pace and, as a result, have made greater connections to the environment. Everybody has become more aware of their health. So can we actually reframe sustainability in a way that is easier to digest? And can the recovery from the Covid-19 lockdown actually assist with this?

Fully expressed

Before Covid-19 sustainability was largely thought of in terms of environmental sustainability, only sometimes explicitly incorporating social and economic issues. Some sports organisations tried to reflect the sustainable development goals in their initiatives. Post-Covid, the values expressed in the SDGs can be fully expressed in a narrative around health – more immediately relevant and powerful.

Personal health encourages clubs, venues and other sports organisations to look to those individuals that are closest to them. This includes the staff, participants, fans and volunteers who work with them, visit them and share the same passions with them. On an individual level, what do you do to provide a welcoming environment that provides for their physical and mental health and wellbeing? This approach encompasses accessibility, equality, healthy options and engagement. It broadly covers social issues.

Community health looks to stakeholder groups including local communities, suppliers, contractors, service providers and other stakeholders. What are your policies and procedures and how do you interact with your stakeholders in the most mutually beneficial way? This covers the economic pillar.

Planetary health relates to managing your impact on the environment. How do you reduce your energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, waste management and recycling, chemical use and water use, among other aspects? Primarily the environmental pillar.

The three levels provide a logical expansion, though no priority importance should be inferred, only an increasing scope. The health lens is pertinent now and demonstrates the commonality of the three levels. Health is the important and urgent thread that links the person, through their community to the planet.

On emerging from lockdown we are looking for a new normal in all aspects of our lives. Sport has been profoundly impacted by the pandemic and many things have changed fundamentally, but the recovery must be seen as an opportunity for us to build back better.

This reframing of sustainability, through personal, community and planetary health, creates that opportunity.

Russell Seymour PhD is the chief executive of BASIS, the British Association for Sustainable Sport

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