Balancing regulation and individual responsibility

Balancing regulation and individual responsibility

At the Future of Sport conference in Paris, two sustainability panels explored the importance of regulatory intervention as well as innovation and individual action

Weighed down by guilt over his personal carbon footprint’s detrimental impact on the world’s climate, Julian Schütter contemplated abandoning his passion for skiing. As an Austrian Alpine Ski racer frequently flying around the globe to compete, he wondered how he could contribute positively to the issue that kept him and his generation awake at night.

Thankfully, Schütter recognised that his greatest impact could be achieved by becoming successful, expanding his platform and shifting the focus from problems to solutions. During a recent panel session at Future of Sport in Paris, he addressed the criticism of hypocrisy, stating: “We are all born inside a system that is based on fossil fuels. We are not responsible for that. We don’t have to focus so much on our carbon footprint, but our political handprint to change the system we’re living in.”

At the event co-organised by VivaTech and Global Sports Week, sustainability panels explored the balance between individual responsibility and industry regulation within the sports sector. Julia Pallé, the sustainability director for Formula E, acknowledged the unfair burden faced by Schütter’s generation, who have contributed minimally to the climate crisis but will bear the majority of its consequences.

From the perspective of sports rights holders, Pallé emphasised the duty of sports organisations to educate and empower athletes to take clear stances on sustainability. Formula E, for instance, enforces regulations such as achieving the FIA three-star sustainability rating and implementing strict sustainability criteria for its Gen3 cars.

A potential model to consider is the shared responsibility framework embraced by Amazon Web Services (AWS). AWS assumes responsibility for the sustainability of its cloud infrastructure, while customers are accountable for sustainability within the cloud, such as data design and usage. 

Applying a similar concept to sports could entail regulators and rule-makers assuming responsibility for the sustainability of the sports they govern. Within this regulatory framework, individual athletes, clubs, leagues, suppliers and federations would be encouraged to innovate and make positive impacts within the established parameters.

The role of regulators and rule-makers is akin to that of a coach, providing structure, discipline and guidance toward overarching climate and sustainability goals through requirements and incentives. Athletes and organisations act as players on the team, utilising their skills, determination and unique attributes to realise the coach’s vision.

While individual actions lead to incremental change, regulation drives systemic change. Therefore, it is imperative for sports’ rule-makers to develop sustainability requirements aligned with scientific knowledge to accelerate the transition toward sustainability. Participation in sports should be contingent upon adherence to these regulations, allowing for a level playing field.

When Dan Reading served as the head of sustainability at World Sailing, he played a vital role in integrating regulations to promote sustainability. These included implementing waste ratios that teams were not allowed to exceed, as well as requiring equipment procurement to undergo life cycle assessments in line with ISO standards.

Speaking at the Future of Sport event, Reading highlighted the positive impact of these regulations on research and equipment development. He emphasised that suppliers aspiring to be chosen for top-level sporting events had to meet these sustainability requirements.

The current head of sustainability at Right Formula and co-founder of the Carbon Fibre Circular Alliance explained that if World Athletics, for instance, established a limit on the embodied carbon used in manufacturing running shoes, major suppliers would have to meet that criterion to be involved.

Reading also drew attention to the ‘carbon budget’ protocol adopted by the organisers of Paris 2024, which operates similarly to a financial budget by allocating each department a maximum carbon allowance that cannot be exceeded.

During a panel discussion on circular models in sport, Kim Wilson, the director of sustainability for McLaren Racing, emphasised the fundamental role of regulation in driving sustainability progress in motorsport. She mentioned her collaborative efforts with F1, the FIA and other teams to unlock sustainability initiatives.

F1 has three types of regulations—financial, sporting and technical. Some financial regulations have been relaxed to allow constructors investing in sustainability to avoid compromising environmental performance for on-track results.

However, Wilson’s ambition is to influence the forthcoming regulations for F1’s 2026-2030 seasons, ensuring that sustainability is incentivised. As these regulations will be decided within the next 12 months and considering the numerous global sustainability objectives during and after that timeframe, it is crucial for F1 and its teams to remain aligned.

Wilson proposed that one positive outcome could be a requirement for a certain percentage of competing cars to be manufactured using sustainable materials, all while ensuring that innovation is not stifled.

For Wilson and her team, performance in motorsport is synonymous with innovation and rapid prototyping within the sport. Equally important is the subsequent application of these novel materials to mainstream manufacturing, enabling the industry to benefit as a whole.

Ultimately, to achieve that vision a harmonious balance between regulation and individual responsibility is needed. Regulation provides the framework and guidelines to drive system-wide change, while individual responsibility and innovation contribute to the collective effort in achieving sustainability goals. By embracing this approach, sports can effectively navigate the path towards a more sustainable future, where athletes, clubs and organisations play an active role within the regulatory parameters, driving positive impact and inspiring change beyond the field of play.

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