British Triathlon draws on connection with natural environment in new sustainability strategy

October 24 2023

British Triathlon launched its sustainability strategy earlier this month, as it marked forty years of triathlon in Great Britain. As a sport with such close connections to nature, how is the governing body planning on addressing sustainability?

British Triathlon draws on connection with natural environment in new sustainability strategy

Triathlon and climate change

British Triathlon is the national governing body and federation of the three home nation membership associations – Triathlon England, Triathlon Scotland, and Welsh Triathlon. The governing body represents Great Britain at international level through affiliations with Europe Triathlon and World Triathlon.

As a sport, triathlon is intimately connected to the natural environment: athletes often swim, bike, and run outdoors.

‘We need nature to do our sport,’ says Eve Joseph, Head of Social Impact at British Triathlon. ‘We couldn’t function without it. At the heart of triathlon there’s always been that connection with nature – swimming in lakes, rivers, and the sea, and biking and running across roads and countryside.’

That connection has made headlines in recent years, as water quality issues have threatened athletes’ health and safety.

Meanwhile, extreme weather events due to the increasing effects of climate change have also affected the sport.

Severe weather and wind at this year’s World Triathlon Para Series Swansea, for example, meant that the event was changed to an aquathlon, while water quality concerns at the Paris Olympic and Paralympic Games Test Events meant the swim was cancelled for paratriathlon and mixed relay triathlon races.

The Europe Triathlon Championships in Madrid and World Triathlon Championship Series in Montreal and Abu Dhabi have also been affected in the past year.

‘The impact of climate change has been seen in our sport—events are being cancelled and postponed, or changed to duathlons,’ says Joseph. ‘We are starting to see our sport being affected by climate change much more rapidly than we ever thought.’

With climate change a growing threat, British Triathlon began the process to bring environmental sustainability onto the sport’s agenda.

Journey to a strategy 

One of the first steps towards formally integrating a sustainability strategy was the creation of an internal Environmental Working Group in 2019, followed by a Sustainability Commission in 2020, which brought together experts from academia, business, and sport.

The Commission then conducted a two-year consultation process, which concluded last year and included a survey of British Triathlon’s membership and one-on-one interviews.

Crucially, British Triathlon were also part of the Galvanise Alliance. The Alliance, funded and supported by UK Sport, brought together four national governing bodies (NGBs)—UK Athletics, British Swimming, England Hockey, and British Triathlon—and the UK Sports Institute.

Being part of Galvanise gave British Triathlon the dedicated time and support they needed to develop a strategy.

‘We learnt a lot from Galvanise,’ says Joseph. ‘We learned the importance of collaboration—coming together as NGBs, learning from each other and supporting each other and realising we all have similar challenges.’

The programme is a good example of how external bodies like UK Sport have an important role to play when it comes to supporting NGBs.

‘Galvanise accelerated the work,’ Joseph says. ‘Not all NGBs have the expertise, the capacity, or the time, and sometimes it does take an external body to come in and support the work to help to really accelerate it.’

After all of this groundwork, one of the first steps was to begin to deliver sustainable events, using guidance from World Triathlon’s new event standard.

British Triathlon was awarded the first ever certification by World Triathlon when AJ Bell 2022 World Triathlon Championship Series Leeds received the gold award last year.

Endurance 2040+

The last piece of the puzzle was a formal sustainability strategy, led by Ben Cummings, British Triathlon Director of Partnerships and Commercial, and Alice Paul, British Triathlon Events Manager, which was finally published this month. The launch coincided with the appointment of Joseph, who is British Triathlon’s first Head of Social Impact and who is responsible for overseeing the work.

The strategy itself, Endurance 2040+, is based on three strategic priorities—water and air quality, climate action and net zero, and responsible consumption.

Using three foundation pillars to drive the work—act, collaborate, and amplify—the strategy sets out some initial actions, and will be evaluated every quarter by the Sustainability Commission.

The plan is aligned with the UNFCCC’s Sport for Climate Action Framework, which British Triathlon signed in 2022. The framework commits the body to reducing its carbon footprint by 50% by 2030 and to reach ‘net zero’ by 2040.

As a step towards this, British Triathlon have calculated and published their CO2e emissions, of which over 95% fall into Scope 3.

The strategy sets out some initial actions under each priority area. These include building a strategy for developing water quality monitoring tools; identifying priority emissions reduction opportunities; and reviewing their procurement policies, governance structures, and education programmes.

Importantly, the strategy is focused squarely on environmental sustainability. Joseph’s role, however, will also focus on developing the body’s social and governance policies. ‘We’re growing and developing our overall Environmental Social Governance (ESG) strategy for the sport. This strategy represents the E of ESG, and our Equality Diversity & Inclusion strategy will drive our “S&G” work forward,’ says Joseph.

While the strategy lays out some initial actions, it doesn’t yet include a fully developed plan of action. A more comprehensive plan will be developed in the coming months, and making sure this translates into action, soon, will be critical.

The main challenges

The strategy is clear about the main challenges facing triathlon, and many of them will be familiar to others across the industry.

With over 95% of British Triathlon’s emissions falling in Scope 3, athlete travel and the event calendar are two areas that need to be urgently addressed.

‘Defining and measuring our footprint was a real data capture challenge,’ says Joseph. ‘For many organisations, learning how to account for carbon can be quite daunting – especially when so much of the specifics are not housed in central databases but often across email, spreadsheets, and disparate IT systems. British Triathlon had to work across all groups to ensure they had an accurate reflection of their 2022 footprint – a new baseline which I will be measuring us against for our 2030 goal.’

On Scope 3, British Triathlon will work with the international body, World Triathlon, to address the event calendar. Meanwhile, the body will develop a sustainable event playbook to provide to its members as an attempt to drive down event-related emissions.

‘One thing we want to put together is a sustainable event playbook to give to our clubs and event organisers,’ says Joseph. ‘So, when they host an event, they will have guidance on how to deploy more sustainable options – aspects such as more sustainable food suppliers or different suggestions for kit suppliers.’

As a governing body, British Triathlon have the opportunity to educate both their staff and their membership on environmental sustainability. The NGB also plans to provide internal training for staff to improve carbon literacy.

Lessons for governing bodies

The process of developing Endurance 2030+ has illustrated some important lessons for governing bodies across the industry.

Collaborating with other NGBs through Galvanise was a critical step for British Triathlon. Joseph argues that coming together not only helps NGBs to learn and solve problems together, but also enhances sport’s collective voice on sustainability topics.

‘We are one NGB and we have a certain number of members and athletes, but if you bring NGBs together, our collective voice could be much more influential,’ she says. ‘What we learnt from Galvanise was that we’re not alone in our ambition – learning from others is important, but what could we achieve if our voice came together under one banner?’

Belief in sport’s collective power has sown some seeds for future projects which could help tackle some of the most critical issues facing outdoor, nature-based sports like triathlon.

Another lesson from British Triathlon is the need to create a role, or a team, that can fully commit to translating sustainability strategies into action.

‘If you don’t have a sustainability role, hire one,’ says Joseph. ‘We need to take this seriously.’

When it comes down to it, British Triathlon is one more stakeholder joining a growing chorus of voices that believes in the sports industry’s unique ability to influence action.

‘I do think sport has a unique role to play,’ says Joseph. ‘And I think the voice is getting louder.’

As triathletes continue to face the effects of the climate crisis, and the threats to nature grow, all eyes will be on British Triathlon to see how their strategy translates into action.

Read moreBethany White

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