May 15 , 2024

The symbiotic relationship between environmental health and human mental and physical well-being is arguably never better personified than through sport. writes Annie Button. Sport is a global phenomenon that transcends cultural, geographical, and individual factors; it brings people of numerous backgrounds and beliefs together, and inspires positive change. Here at Planet Earth Games, we firmly believe that sport and physical activity go hand-in-hand when supporting affirmative, positive climate action, and our climate-inspired challenges reflect this.

Given the imminent arrival of the UEFA European Championship and the Olympic Games in Paris this summer, it’s prudent that we highlight the need to keep sustainability at the forefront of meaningful conversations. Beyond sport’s ability to provide entertainment and recreational benefits, sporting events and organisations worldwide can play a vital role in promoting environmental health and prosperity. 

The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - outlined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development - illustrate the perfect measuring stick for what organisations can aim for in the continued fight against climate change. However, while global sporting institutions and organisations need to take decisive, immediate action, we all have a part to play, however incremental our actions can be. Even community-based sporting events can serve as a blueprint for raising collective awareness and encouraging more eco-friendly behaviours.

This article will explore the various ways that the sports industry can contribute to a more sustainable future on the planet we all share.

Adopt More Eco-Friendly Practices in Sports Venues and Events

Sports venues and event organisers have a significant environmental impact due to their high energy and water consumption, as well as waste generation. For example, a single football match in the UK often involves enough electricity to power hundreds of homes for one month, according to a recent ESG Pro report.

However, by adopting eco-friendly initiatives and implementing more sustainable designs, sports venues can promote sustainability with innovative technologies, from deploying cutting-edge game simulation systems for their academies and youth teams to sustainable venue-wide infrastructure.

Upgrading to energy-efficient lighting, investing in renewable energy sources like solar panels, and optimising heating and cooling systems can also dramatically cut a sports facility's energy use and carbon emissions. Installing water-efficient fixtures and using drought-resistant landscaping can help sports venues minimise freshwater consumption. Comprehensive recycling, e-waste and composting programmes and donating unused food can also divert waste from landfills and promote a circular economy. Making these initiatives more accessible and affordable to grassroots sports teams, clubs, academies, and schools is essential to further educate people about the need for better conservation.

The Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam is a prime example of a sports stadium embracing sustainability. With over 4,200 solar panels on its roof, the venue generates its own clean energy, while also using the city's waste heat network to keep the playing field frost-free without additional energy input. While this is a notable example, other stadia and venues need to follow suit to inspire meaningful change.

These kinds of innovations demonstrate how sports facilities can lead the way in sustainable infrastructure and operations. However, it’s important to remain realistic and transparent and avoid being accused of greenwashing, or sportswashing in this case. The controversial LIV Gold League, powered by the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund (PIF) has been a highly studied case of sportswashing. Having plunged billions into the endeavour to allure sports fans, it’s widely criticised as an attempt to deflect attention from the country’s egregious human rights record. The same can be said regarding the run-up to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, amongst the other many controversies surrounding the tournament.

Empowering and Engaging Fans and Athletes Alike

Sports have a unique power to captivate and inspire audiences, making them an excellent platform for raising awareness about environmental issues and promoting sustainable behaviours. Professional athletes are often viewed as role models and inspirations, with their activities and voices carrying significant influence on their fans and followers. If they can utilise their platforms to champion environmental and green causes, it can only inspire positive change. 

Forest Green Rovers, for example, has become, according to the UNFCCC, the “greenest football club in the world.” With the stadium powered by 100% green energy, it’s their press engagement which has earned them admiration from fans worldwide. They run a free education programme for schools and the local community called Fit2Last, tailoring lessons about sustainability and sports, taught by players and coaches. The club has also recently acquired a noteworthy shareholder, former Premier League defender and environmental advocate Hector Bellerin, which has only added gravitas to their cause.

Tennis superstar Serena Williams is an outspoken proponent of plant-based eating as an effective means to save the planet. She has recently invested in plant-based meat alternatives and uses her own vegan clothing line Serena to promote eco-friendly fashion. This is designed to empower women with affordable, cruelty-free, and luxury items while bilaterally educating customers about the real-world effects of climate change.

While these are just two examples in a diverse and far-reaching industry, one thing remains constant; sports fans are a passionate and engaged audience, often eager to support their favourite teams and players. By integrating sustainability into the fan experience, sports organisations and brands can encourage fans to adopt more eco-friendly practices. When athletes and fans align in a shared environmental goal, the impact can be profoundly more positive.

Leveraging Global Partnerships

The sports industry is a global powerhouse, with billions of fans worldwide. By fostering international collaborations and partnerships, sports organisations can coordinate sustainability efforts on a global scale. 

By partnering with businesses, non-profits, and committed stakeholders, they can drive sustainable initiatives and innovations. UEFA has partnered with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to develop the ‘Sports for Nature’ Framework, which guides sports organisations to minimise their impact on biodiversity. 

Additionally, despite logistical supply chain challenges, seats at Olympic venues in Paris will be made from recycled plastic, following a partnership between Paris-based recycling firm Lemon Tri and eco-construction firm Le Pave. These types of partnerships allow sports and activity organisations to leverage expertise and resources to amplify the impact of their sustainability efforts.

Governing bodies can play a crucial role in coordinating sustainability efforts and programmes across countries and sporting competitions. The United Nations' ‘Sports for Climate Action’ framework, for example, calls on sports organisations to adopt climate-friendly practices, reduce emissions, and promote sustainability among their stakeholders. It’s reassuring to note that UK Sport has become one of many signatories, expressing its commitment to halving carbon emissions by 2030 and achieving net zero by 2040.

Overcoming Challenges in the Sports Industry

While the sports industry has immense potential to support sustainability, it also faces several challenges that must be addressed. The operation of sports venues, coupled with equipment and apparel manufacturing, travel emissions, energy and water usage, among others, contribute to a significant environmental footprint. Making incremental changes to resource-heavy activities will require commitment, innovation and investment, but the long-term payoff will be substantial.

Implementing sustainable practices may require significant changes to long-standing traditions and operational procedures within the sports industry. Resistance to change is innate for many, but through continued education and awareness, organisations can build a clear business case for short- and long-term sustainability.

Despite these incumbent challenges, the sports industry has immense potential to drive positive change for the environment and contribute to the achievement of SDGs. Leveraging the reach and influence of sports can help organisations inspire fans and the public to adopt more sustainable behaviours and foster greater environmental accountability. 

At a local level, Planet Earth Games is proud to support environmental stewardship through community challenges that champion physical well-being and positive climate action. At Planet Earth Games, we firmly believe that sport and physical activity go hand-in-hand with effective climate action, and work hard to educate more people about the growing issues facing our planet. If you have an idea for a sporting challenge, we’d love to hear it, so please let us know! If approved, we will promote your challenge to our welcoming and eco-conscious community.

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