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Driving sustainability via professional sports

Updated: Jun 2, 2022

✦ Sustainability has got to be the goal of everyone, no matter the sport...

ESG in sports

It is an obvious statement to make but in sports we have winners and losers.

That being said, sport is only a game at the end of the day. However, on a broader scale, the health of our planet certainly is no game and if we continue to disregard climate change, threats to the environment and the pursuit of robust sustainability measures, there will no winners - we will all stand to be losers.

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues have become increasingly prevalent across all industries in recent years and continue to dictate the future. The sports industry is no different with many global sports enterprises continuing to take progressive and positive steps to enhance their sustainability efforts.

We have seen how powerful sports can be by championing a message and driving for positive change, witnessed most evidently by the recent Black Lives Matter campaign and regular initiatives to combat racism, sexual and gender discrimination.

It is therefore encouraging to learn that the message of sustainability and concerns surrounding the environment continue to resonate within sports and it increasingly offers a platform for such important messages to be shared and understood. Indeed, sports has such a wide and diverse reach globally that it is a more than appropriate industry to champion sustainability towards a healthier planet.

The very essence of sport itself, of course, promotes a healthy, positive lifestyle so its parallels with enhancing the health our planet are, in theory, obvious. However, in recent years we have seen examples where erratic weather patterns have impacted negatively on major sporting events across the world;

heavy rainfall in India has seen numerous cricket test matches cancelled, the tragic bushfires in Australia in 2020 put pay to the Aussie Open Tennis periodically, Super Typhoon Hagibis saw games at the Rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019 cancelled, hurricanes have affected events in the Gulf and Eastern seaboard in the USA and severe snow storms regularly affect various sports in the northern hemisphere.

In Australia the Climate Council suggests AFL, cricket’s Big Bash League, the Australian Open Tennis, and football’s (soccer) A-League and W-League competitions, amongst others, are all threatened by changing conditions.

It is therefore incumbent on everyone to make a conscious effort in relation to sustainability practices and sports organisations more than have their part to play.

Sustainability Gold medal

Examples of sporting teams or events adopting a more responsible attitude to sustainability are increasing, which is encouraging. Most recently we saw impressive efforts made at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. The Games, arguably the biggest and most prestigious sporting occasion on the planet, were planned and delivered in alignment with five main sustainability themes of Climate Change, Resource Management, Natural Environment and Biodiversity, Human Rights, Labour and Fair Business Practices, and Involvement, Cooperation and Communications (Engagement).

Of the 43 venues used in Tokyo and surrounding areas, only eight were constructed from scratch prior to the event, with several dating back to the last time the Japanese capital hosted the Games in 1964, only requiring minor upgrades and facelifts to make them ready.

A major focus was placed on sustainability and recyling by the organisers in Tokyo. The Olympic torch itself was produced using aluminium waste from temporary housing built in the aftermath of the 2011 Sendai tsunami and earthquake and the t-shirts and trousers worn by torchbearers were made from recycled plastic bottles. The 5,000 medals given to event winners were made from over 79,000 tonnes of discarded and recycled eletronic devices such as mobile phones, podiums were constructed from recycled plastics and even the beds used by the 18,000 athletes at the Olympic Village were made from recycled cardboard.

The Olympics, of course, is a major event and the concerted efforts to place a direct focus on sustainability issues is to be applauded. However, what of efforts elsewhere within the sporting world that are more frequent and ongoing?

The good news is such examples are plentiful. The International Olympic Committee and the Australian Olympic Committee have both signed the UN’s Sport for Climate Action Framework which will impact preparations and plans for Brisbane hosting the 2032 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Gold Coast was required to sign up to a sustainability framework ahead of hosting the event in 2018.

In the United States the athletics department at Ohio State University have had a comprehensive waste management program in action for many years, something that has been applauded for minimising waste at the stadium on game days and reaching into the wider local community.

Major League Baseball team the Seattle Mariners conduct regular energy audits and facility upgrades on their stadium to achieve substantial energy and cost savings and American football team the Philadelphia Eagles have a series of robust carbon offsetting programs including facility operations, team travel and fan travel. Fellow NFL team the San Francisco 49ers use renewable energy through an extensive network of solar panels at their Levi Stadium, something that has gained significantly in many other stadia around the world in recent years.

‘Reduce, reuse, recycle’

Dutch football (soccer) giants Ajax Amsterdam also use solar panels at their Johan Cruijff ArenA, which not only hosts sporting occasions but major events such as music concerts. They use water from the local Ouderkerkerplas to cool offices and changing rooms at the stadium and manage water consumption by monitoring the flow in toilets. Their approach to waste management is impressively creative as they ship grass mown from the pitch to a local farm which feeds goats to create milk to manufacture cheese.

Sustainability in Sports as featured in Brilliant-Online magazine

The Accor Stadium in Sydney similarly recyles its grass clippings and all of the waste collected after major events which amounts to more than 200 tonnes per year.

‘Reduce, reuse, recycle’ across the business is its mantra and it is why it is still regarded as one of the most sustainable venues in the world, over 20 years since it debuted at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.

“We harvest rainwater from the main roof and store it in large tanks under the Stadium with a storage capacity of about 2 million litres,” explains Accor Stadium General Manager of Assets, Simon Davies.

“This water is used for irrigating the playing field and we regularly harvest 9 million litres a year (when it rains!).

“We also use recycled water for flushing toilets. The sewage from the stadium goes to the Sydney Olympic Park Water Reclamation and Management Scheme (WRAMS), gets treated and sent back in to the Stadium for flushing toilets.”

Organic pitch, vegan snacks and a bamboo kit #forestgreenroversfc

There are many, many more examples but the most impressive of all is English football club Forest Green Rovers, described by football’s world-governing body FIFA, as the world’s greenest football club.

The Gloucestershire-based team, have been on an eco-friendly mission since 2011, driven by their owner Dale Vince who is a huge advocate of the United Nations Sports for Climate Action initiative and who hopes more clubs will embrace greater sustainability. Some of the sustainable practices in place at the club include a stadium built entirely out of sustainably resourced wood, an organic pitch, solar panels, electric car charging points, water recycling, an electric lawnmower, and an entirely plant-based-vegan menu for players and fans which decreases the environmental impact of the club.

Opposed to the high plastic content in traditional football kits, Vince elected for a strip made entirely of bamboo which the team sported for the last few years. However, in his never-ending quest for the best in sustainable products, Vince last year opted for a kit made entirely from recycled coffee bean waste and plastic bottles!

Each shirt consists of three cups of coffee bean waste and five plastic bottles, something that Vince believes could give the players a competitive edge as reserach shows them to be lighter and more breathable.

“These shirts are more sustainable because while bamboo is renewable and you can grow more, coffee is a waste product and the shirts will be completely recycled,” Vince told Reuters in 2021.

“We have to improve the ethics of clothing manufacture and the sustainability of the materials, and we have to use less, so we are only changing one of our three kits each year.

“There is an enormous opportunity that sport has and a bigger responsibility because people look up to sporting icons and take their lead from them,” Vince added.

The club’s initiative has resonated with fans from all over the world, reaching over 3 billion people through local, national and international press and attendances at their home ground The New Lawn have quadrupled since 2010. Infact successful ventures off the pitch have been mirrored on it as the team recently were promoted to League 1 (two tiers down from the Premier League) for the first time in their history.

Maybe it was the competitive edge gained from the recycled kit that contributed to their success but regardless, Forest Green Rovers sit atop all sports leagues as the true champions of eco-friendly sustainability and here’s hoping many, many more follow suite in years to come. That’s got to be the goal of everyone, no matter the sport.


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