- Nico Decurtins
Sustainability In Sport – How It’s Done
Some Real-Life Examples And Why I Like Them
My father-in-law recently came up to me and said that he never really knows how to explain to other people what it is that I do. And why it matters to me so much. I also often hear people tell me that they never made the connection between Sport and Sustainability until I gave them some insights and shared some best-practice examples.
So I figured I might kill three birds with one stone by writing this “best practice” guide for sustainability in sport:
Educate about the sustainability issues we face and make them more relatable.
Bring attention to the opportunities that a strategic approach to tackling sustainability as a sports organization can bring.
Help those wanting to make a difference by giving hands-on best-practice examples.
Below are some examples of organizations, events, venues or leagues that have made the decision to have a positive impact on society and the environment and become difference-makers. There are more examples, of course. But these are the ones that have resonated with me particularly.
Forest Green Rovers (1)
Sustainability is central to everything they do at FGR. From solar panels and electric vehicle charging points at their stadium to their vegan menu or digital fan kits, FGR are proving that sports clubs can lead the fight against climate change. And it is working.
In 2017, FIFA described FGR as ‘the greenest football club in the world’. They are still today the only vegan football club and the first to be certified as carbon neutral by the United Nations.
What fascinates me in the example of FGR is the fact that they have managed to draw corporates into the sport which traditionally have never been associated with this industry. Sponsors who see an opportunity to reach a new audience while at the same time showcasing their products. It proves to me that innovative business models can attract and create new income streams.
VfL Wolfsburg (2)
The slogan “Green. More than our colour.” exemplifies what the club stands for. Besides their large social engagement campaigns they were also the first football club from one of Europe’s top leagues to sign the UNFCCC Sports for Climate Agreement in supporting the race to zero emissions. By 2025 they want to be carbon-neutral for scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions.
The club has also been very vocal on diversity topics. Their female captain was the first to wear a rainbow-coloured captain bind and the men have followed suit.
Every two years since 2012 the club has published a sustainability report and as of 2022 they want to publish an annual climate report.
One collaboration that particularly caught my attention is the one between the football club and the internationally well-known publishing house Duden. Together the two host a writing competition as well as publish a paper that focuses on the 17 UN SDGs and shows kids what they can do to “save our planet”. This is not about “eyeballs, billboards and ballparks”. This is about creating stories together, having a positive societal impact and strengthening brands in an authentic way.
Brynäs IF (3)
A few years ago, the ice hockey club from Gävle, Sweden realized that they had an issue with decreasing attendance numbers. The reason for this was the massive brain drain that happened in the region. Considering themselves an important stakeholder in the region, Brynäs set up a programme called “A Good Start” with the aim of creating perspectives for the local youth. Today, thousands of children benefit from “A Good Start” every year through educational as well as sporting activities.
As a visible consequence of its international partnership with UNICEF, the club managed to keep its jerseys free from sponsor logos and only promoted its own “A good Start” programme as well as UNICEF.
Today, the club focuses its attention on three main goals that are connected to all of its sustainability work.
Being a club for everyone
Having a green arena
Applying ethical business practices
They work continuously with many of the SDG goals and have begun to incorporate them into their business planning. The club also publishes an annual sustainability report and has thereby set new benchmarks within its sport.
Waste Management Phoenix Open (4)
For eight consecutive years, the Waste Management Phoenix Open has been recognized as the largest zero waste sporting event in the world. In partnership with stakeholders such as the tournament vendors and the PGA TOUR, title sponsor Waste Management Inc. leads operational efforts to divert 100% of waste from the landfill through recycling, composting, donation and energy conversion.
We tend to think that large sport sponsors need to be airlines, car manufacturers or telecommunications companies. But waste management is such an important aspect of our everyday lives. Waste Management is partnering up with a number of events to support them in their sustainability efforts. According to their Managing Principal, there’s no better platform to promote a brand and its services than sport.
Climate Pledge Arena (5)
This fall, Seattle will witness the opening of Climate Pledge Arena. The multipurpose stadium will be the first net zero certified arena in the world. In June 2020, Amazon bought the naming rights to the arena and in a departure from usual corporate naming, they dedicated the arena name to bringing attention to climate change. The arena’s goals and how they want to reach them:
To be the first International Living Future Institute certified zero carbon arena in the world.
To have Zero Single Use Plastic
To be a leader in water conservation
To be a zero waste facility
FC Nordsjælland (6)
In December 2015, Denmark’s first division team FC Nordsjælland was the subject of a takeover – not by an oil magnate or a consortium – but by an NGO called Right to Dream, renowned for establishing what has become the most successful football academy in the whole of Africa.
“The reason for FC Nordsjælland being unique among football clubs is that it is owned by a not-for-profit organisation, which means that the money that we’re making is all being re-invested into more opportunities for young people to have their dreams fulfilled”, explains their owner. “We try to integrate social issues like gender equality into our beliefs and what we stand for, and then get fans, partners and the community to support it and push in the right direction.”
How does this look in practice? Take the example of how the club tackled the issue of gender inequality: as part of the club’s International Women’s Day celebration, all FC Nordsjælland players took to the pitch in jerseys displaying not their own names on the back, but the names of female role models that inspire them, including Serena Williams, Rosa Parks or Greta Thunberg.
So it doesn’t always have to be about vegan food, zero-plastic or renewable energy. Sometimes the social actions of a club can make just as big a difference, both at home and abroad.
FC St. Pauli (7)
In 2020, the Northern German self-proclaimed “Kultclub” started a much-needed conversation around merchandising and team apparel. Not seeing their own values reflected in the partner they used to work with, they decided to quit a deal that guaranteed them more than 1 million EUR every year and started to make their own jerseys and team kits. In an effort to make their entire clothing line socially and environmentally sustainable, they now follow a “Global Organic Textile Standard” (GOTS) which is one of the highest standards in fashion. They also introduced their own “FCSP Social Code of Conduct” for all of their suppliers.
It’s not the first time St. Pauli goes against the football mainstream. The club has a long history of speaking up about social topics such as racism, discrimation or diversity. This can also be seen in their merchandising line where a number of products directly address these issues.
Super Bowl 50 (8)
The annual showdown of the National Football League season is the world’s most watched annual sporting event. This offers tremendous opportunities to have a positive impact on various levels. Whilst those opportunities are not necessarily felt around the world, they surely are visible in the host city. Super Bowl 50 who took place in San Francisco in 2016 set new benchmarks for a sustainable football event. Its success was largely based on the following pillars:
LEED Gold Certification
From the moment that the gates of Levi's Stadium opened in August of 2014, it became the first professional football stadium in the U.S. to have achieved LEED Gold certification via the United States Green Building Council.
The actual site on which the stadium was built is sustainable in itself. The stadium location includes accessible public transportation and a bike path in an effort to lower greenhouse gases.
Levi’s Stadium utilizes PV-electricity generated from its 3 NRG Energy solar-paneled pedestrian bridges. This is in addition to its solar-paneled roof deck (NRG Solar Terrace). Together, this is all the renewable energy that the stadium needs to function on game days.
To maximize the water they use, Levi’s Stadium utilizes reclaimed water for both potable (safe to drink) and non-potable (not for drinking) uses.
All That Food
In addition to keeping all menus farm-to-table and focused on food from local suppliers, Levi’s Stadium also composts excess and recycles all viable materials possible.
Philadelphia Eagles (9)
One club that has particularly caught my attention is the Philadelphia Eagles. The franchise has created some visibly appealing initiatives over the last few years. Namely through their “Go Green” programme. As part of it, the club focuses its attention on the creation of renewable energy via wind turbines and solar panels that are installed on the stadium roof and on the parking lot respectively, on recycling initiatives and a green purchasing/procurement program. Their annual sustainability report is not only informative but also done in a very reader-friendly, easy-to understand way. Something that cannot be said about most sustainability reports...
They’ve also used a nice sense of humour to bring people’s attention to topics such as recycling or waste management.
NHL Green (10)
This sustainability program of the National Hockey League has not seen a lot of momentum and international attention in recent years unfortunately. However, I like the NHL Green program for a number of reasons as an example for how a league can tackle sustainability. Leagues have the opportunity to define policies that all clubs need to follow. This increases the impact and widens the reach significantly. Some of the aspects that particularly stood out as part of their initiatives:
The sustainability website explains the league’s efforts. It is their sustainability report and it’s done in a very interactive, easy-to-read way.
The NHL Green Week. Of course sustainability should always be at the top of everything the league and its teams do, but giving the efforts a (media) platform to showcase what fans, teams and venues can do to have a positive impact on the environment and society is a smart way to promote sustainability topics.
Extreme E (11)
Motorsport and sustainability are two worlds that don’t seem to go well together. But with the emergence of electric mobility and the rise of Formula E to one of the best known racing series in the world, motorsports are finally starting to make strides in the right direction.
One new racing series which is in its inaugural season and that has not yet gained a lot of public attention in my opinion is Extreme E.
Boasting ambitious sustainability goals, a science team and a legacy program, the series has started some remarkable initiatives and is the first sport built out of concern for the climate crisis. The series’ goal is to use electric racing (with Rallye-type 100% electric SUVs) to highlight remote environments under threat of climate change issues, and to encourage us all to take positive action to protect our planet’s future.
Transporting all championship freight and infrastructure is what usually leaves the biggest carbon footprint in racing series. Extreme E has therefore decided to use a refurbished vessel and transport everything by sea. Shipping is the lowest carbon emitting transport option, with sea freight approximately 100 times less carbon intensive than air freight. The vessel has undergone a multi-million pound transformation to minimize its emissions and to transform her into the logistics, operations, research and accommodation hub for the race.
Forest Green Rovers Website: https://www.fgr.co.uk/another-way
Vfl Wolfsburg Website: https://www.vfl-wolfsburg.de/en/vfl/translate-to-english-soziales-engagement/klimaschutz/climate-protection/
Brynäs IF Website: https://www.brynas.se/sustainability/strategy-and-reporting
WM Phoenix Open Website: https://wmphoenixopen.com/sustainability/
Climate Pledge Arena Website: https://climatepledgearena.com/sustainability/
The Sustainability Report Article: https://sustainabilityreport.com/2019/03/25/doing-things-differently-the-fc-nordsjaelland-story/
FC St. Pauli Website: https://www.fcstpauli.com/news/bernd-von-geldern-und-michael-thomsen-zum-thema-nachhaltigkeit/
Rubicon Blog: https://www.rubicon.com/blog/sustainability-super-bowl/
Philadelphia Eagles Website: https://www.philadelphiaeagles.com/community/go-green
NHL Sustainability Website: https://sustainability.nhl.com/report/
Extreme E Website: https://www.extreme-e.com/