The behaviours needed for sports organisations to reduce their climate impact is much like the habits needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle, says Kristen Fulmer
“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”; “It doesn’t matter how slowly you go, as long as you don’t stop.”; “Don’t let a stumble in the road be the end of your journey.”
These motivational quotes designed to encourage people on their journey towards a healthy lifestyle could equally be used in the context of carbon emissions reduction. Active dedication to reducing carbon emissions requires all of the same steps as the decision to adopt a healthier lifestyle – the good news is that once you get the hang of it, it’s really not that complicated.
Habits, such as unhealthy eating, typically take years to develop. Over time, those habits show themselves in a variety of symptoms – some of which have no obvious connection to the habit itself.
Similarly, our climate is changing due to years of irresponsible carbon emissions. The impacts of these emissions are widespread and sometimes the effects are surprising. Unfortunately, the sports industry is beginning to experience these symptoms: extreme weather conditions are resulting in physical damage to our facilities, creating delays in schedules, and negatively impacting athletes’ health.
While some progressive teams may just need to cut out a simple guilty pleasure, most organisations in the sports industry could stand to tackle a tougher challenge, like unhealthy snacking. No one is expecting these organisations to drop all bad habits on day one, but our motivational quotes remind us that we can turn that wish into an attainable goal by implementing a tangible plan for sustained dedication to impactful, scientifically-proven solutions
1. Eating in moderation = carbon accounting
Often, people feel dramatically healthier, just by adjusting their food intake. Healthy eating habits depend on the individual’s preferences, lifestyle, and priorities but there are likely several solutions that will lead to a very similar outcome. Counting calories is a relatively simple tool to regulate food intake and ensure you are eating your favourite foods in moderation. Put simply, it requires maintaining a list of the food consumed each day and adding up the associated calories to meet a certain threshold for sustained improvement.
Similarly, carbon accounting is about identifying where we are emitting carbon and tallying those emissions. For example, someone on a weight loss journey would not be impacted by one slice of cake on one day, but a piece of cake each day may lead to a problem. Similarly, accounting for carbon emissions should focus on a monthly or annual total, instead of staying hyper-focused on one, immaterial emitter.
Some food is easier to count than others. When you cook at home, you can control your recipe choices and associate how many calories are in each ingredient. You can make the decision to cut 1 TBSP of olive oil to save a few calories and you’ll quickly realise that your healthier choice produces a similar taste and eventually, you won’t even notice that the extra tablespoon is missing.
You could even choose to substitute olive oil for avocado oil or get rid of it altogether. Accounting for Scope 1 & 2 emissions is like cooking at home. These are emissions that you are producing directly within your physical footprint and are therefore more controllable. You can easily measure them because you know the raw ingredients (gallons of fuel, kilowatts of electricity, joules of natural gas), which means you can more easily reduce their consumption through modified use, disciplined practice, or alternative decisions.
In contrast to cooking at home, eating from a restaurant can make calorie counting more difficult. Thankfully, more restaurants are starting to display their calories right on the menu, but usually an accurate count requires you to ask the restaurant questions or ask for substitutes in your meal.
Counting calories from a restaurant is like measuring Scope 3 emissions. Your accounting depends on someone else to give you accurate information and while you can leverage your influence to make suggestions for modifications, you don’t actually control the outcomes. More products and vendors, like food and beverage items, are beginning to disclose their embodied carbon in the same way that restaurants disclose their calories.
But if operations teams don’t ask, there’s no way of knowing the true impact. The good news is that the more we ask questions to help make better decisions, the more companies will be pushed to get serious about their disclosure. Not to mention that the companies with more intense emissions will be shamed in the same way that fast food restaurants have a poor reputation for providing healthy options.
Even when we cook at home, sometimes we realise that ingredients we thought were really healthy turn out to be hindering our health – maybe a few hidden grams of sugar in a sauce or a type of grain that our body isn’t processing properly. These hidden ingredients are like the embodied emissions that are very difficult to account for – in a stadium, that may be the emissions that comes from fans travelling to the game, or emissions related to a specific brand partnership activation – but may be the key to reducing your carbon emissions. Identifying these will take time and may become more simple to measure when you’ve cut out the larger offenders.
2. Healthy ingredients = sponsorship
A buttermilk fried chicken sandwich on a potato bun and a locally-sourced free range organic grilled chicken breast on a whole grain flatbread are both tasty lunch options. They may even contain the same amount of calories.
But even if they account similarly, their ability to support a healthy lifestyle is vastly different. Aligning team sponsors may have a similar trade-off. While the organisation may receive the same amount of money from two brands, those companies may have a very different sustainability story. Eating fried chicken instead of a double cheeseburger may technically be a healthier option but choosing an option with transparent ingredients will have a dramatic impact more quickly. Let’s say that the fried chicken sandwich is an oil and gas sponsor and the grilled chicken sandwich is an electric vehicle sponsor – you may get the same amount of money from them, but one is more aligned to your goal of promoting carbon emissions reductions and can help you reach it faster.
It’s critical to remember that a chicken sandwich is not the only lunch option. There are great substitutes in salads or soups, or even an alternative chicken-like protein altogether. This inspires us to think more broadly than the traditional sponsorships in vehicles or transportation partners altogether. While these meal substitutes may take some getting used to, over time, it becomes easier to identify healthier alternatives that provide the same amount of calories (or money for the sponsorship, to align to our metaphor) for a much more aligned outcome.
3. Exercise = carbon reduction
Besides food, exercise is the second most commonly cited solution for a healthy lifestyle. Aside from the benefits like muscle growth, reduced inflammation, and improved heart health, exercise burns calories to balance the food you eat. Burning calories through exercise is akin to avoiding carbon emissions through reduction strategies. The beauty is that the more you exercise, the less closely you’ll need to monitor your calories. Similarly, the more we reduce our carbon emissions, the more simple carbon accounting becomes because there are fewer data points to enter.
Each individual will need to find the right ratio between exercise and calories, depending on how they feel and how their body is performing. In the same way, sports teams will need to find the most efficient ratio that allows them to operate efficiently while continuously improving.
The important part about exercise is that once you start, even with a few minutes per week, it evolves into a lifestyle and you’ll likely get better at it over time. If you’ve never run before, running a marathon immediately is too intimidating and probably not feasible, but setting the marathon as an ultimate goal and starting with running one mile, and then a 5k, and then 10k is an approachable path. Reducing carbon is the same way. Reaching zero carbon within a year is intimidating and will probably not be successful, but creating a path to identify and reduce carbon emissions over time is a more feasible way to eventually achieve high-level targets.
4. Supplemental vitamins = carbon offsets
Someone working towards a healthier lifestyle may choose to take weight loss pills to produce quick short-term results. They promise to cut fat without a change in diet, which also cuts the need to exercise.
However, assuming the pill actually works, as soon as the regimen is over or someone forgets to take it, the weight comes back because the true problem was temporarily muted. Science shows us that the most effective, sustainable way to lose weight is through a combination of diet and exercise – while cutting corners through weight loss medication use is an effective short-term solution, it’s difficult to prove that it can produce long, sustained results, much less enable a healthier lifestyle.
When abused, carbon offsets can be used in the same way that people use weight loss pills – they help reduce the overall carbon emissions impacts without putting in the work to reduce the actual emissions. While they do have an impact, it would be more impactful (and, over time, less costly) to minimise those emissions in the first place.
Instead, carbon offsets should be used like a vitamin. Instead of being used as a substitute, it should be a supplement. Vitamins are made to add certain micronutrients that are very difficult to access otherwise and similarly, carbon offsets can be used to make up for certain emissions that are very difficult to reduce or avoid entirely. In the case of sports teams, these unavoidable emissions are likely related to travel by fans, athletes, and the team staff.
“Every accomplishment starts with a decision to try”
This motivational quote to support healthier lifestyle choices is also true of a carbon emissions reduction journey. Often, the decision to get started is the most challenging step. One day of healthy eating or one satisfying workout leads to another one, which quickly evolves into a lifestyle shift.
A stumble in the road to a healthy lifestyle is not the end of a journey and one slice of cake or an occasional guilty pleasure does not take back months of progress.
That long-term shift towards a more sustainable future is similar in the effort to minimise carbon emissions. By leveraging scientifically-proven solutions through tangible plan and sustained dedication, the ‘wish’ that feels so far away becomes an attainable goal.
Kristen Fulmer is the founder of Recipric, an agency that represents and delivers sports organisations’ sustainability and wellbeing priorities