How can sport create a circular economy?

February 15 2024

Sports apparel and equipment have a huge impact on the environment. From the CO2 emissions generated to create the polyester of football shirts, to the tonnes of old tennis balls dumped in landfill, the billion-dollar industry consumes vast amounts of resources and generates huge amounts of waste every year. But as sport begins to take sustainability more seriously, how can the industry transition to a circular economy – and what obstacles stand in the way?

How can sport create a circular economy?

What is a circular economy? 

According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, a circular economy is ‘a system where materials never become waste’.

In a circular economy, products and materials are kept within a ‘closed loop’ system of production and consumption, where the life cycle of a product is extended by ‘sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling’.

The idea of a ‘circular economy’ is a direct contrast to the traditional model, in which materials are extracted and products are created, used, and thrown away.

Creating a circular economy is fundamental to sustainability because it reduces the use of finite resources; cuts greenhouse gas emissions, water and energy usage, pollution, and waste; and protects nature and biodiversity.

The impact of sports apparel and equipment 

Circular economy principles can be applied across the sports industry, from food and catering to packaging, events, and energy.

But two of the biggest areas of impact are apparel and equipment.

Within wider society, fashion has a vast, well-documented environmental impact.

The fashion industry is responsible for around 10% of global carbon emissions, which is more than international flights and shipping combined. Meanwhile, some estimates suggest that the textile industry consumes an amount of water equivalent to approximately 86 million Olympic swimming pools every year.

In the EU, approximately 5.8 million tonnes of textiles are discarded annually. Despite the proliferation of clothing recycling schemes, including those on the high street, only 1% of used clothing is recycled.

In sport, apparel is no different.

“Sports apparel has significant impacts on the environment,” Joanna Czutkowna, Director at 5THREAD and researcher in circular economy in sport, tells Global Sustainable Sport.

Sports apparel includes athlete kits, as well as merchandise, replica shirts and branded apparel sold to fans.

According to UEFA, football’s European governing body, disposal rates of professional team kits reach as high as 60% at the end of every season, with kits and merchandise being among the main contributors to clubs’ carbon footprints.

The majority of football shirts are made from polyester, which is made from extracted fossil fuels and does not biodegrade. Meanwhile, shirts and kits change each season, often due to changing sponsors, and so have a short shelf life. Business models focus on growth and encourage fans to purchase more and more apparel each year.

“The volume of sports apparel is of significant concern,” says Czutkowna. “Especially if you consider what that includes – professional kits, replica fan shirts, sportswear from brands like Nike and Adidas, and athleisure wear.”

Meanwhile, equipment used in sport, including balls, rackets, and boots, also contribute to the problem.

Tennis balls, for example, which are traditionally made of felt and rubber, have a very short life cycle, not least because professional tennis rules require six new balls every 30 minutes.

“Traditional tennis balls have a textile felt containing synthetic fibres made from nylon or polyester,” Hélène Hoogeboom, CEO and Founder of Renewaball, tells Global Sustainable Sport. “The synthetic fibres are not biodegradable, and contribute to worldwide plastic pollution.”

Approximately 325 million tennis balls are produced each year, creating 20,000 tonnes of non-degradable waste.

As the industry increasingly turns its attention to sustainability, embracing a circular economy will be necessary if the industry is to reduce the impact of apparel and equipment. But how exactly is sport addressing this problem?

UEFA’s Circular Economy guidelines

Last November, UEFA announced the publication of its new circular economy guidelines, which form part of its wider sustainability strategy.

The guidelines focus on four areas of activity in football – food and beverage, apparel and equipment, event materials, and energy and water – and promote a ‘4R’ approach – reduce, reuse, recycle, and recover.

The industry body recognised that the growth of apparel as ‘fashion items’, the rise of additional kits, the increasing range and accessibility of garments available via online stores, and the demands of changing sponsorship were all driving the growing emissions and waste created by football apparel.

Critically, UEFA recognised that the current business model for apparel prioritises year-on-year growth and increasing sales volumes – and this needs to change.

Experts on circular economy, including Czutkowna of 5THREAD, agree that a fundamental shift is what the industry needs.

“The business model is based on a linear model of take-make-use-waste and relies on sales of increasing volumes of new products,” Czutkowna says. “To transition towards a circular economy and still remain commercial, brands need to adopt business models such as resale, repair, and refurbishment.”

UEFA’s policy is one of the first examples of a leading governing body creating in-depth, specific guidelines on a circular economy for its clubs and associations, and is perhaps a sign of the shift to come.

Emerging industry initiatives

Meanwhile, initiatives and start-ups elsewhere in the industry are increasingly focused on producing more sustainable kit and equipment.

In tennis, Renewaball created ‘the world’s first-ever circular tennis ball’ in 2019. The environmental footprint of Renewaballs is 29% lower than traditional balls.

To create the Renewaball, the team collect old tennis and padel balls from clubs around Europe, separate the materials into felt and rubber, recycle the felt, and use the rubber as raw material to create new balls, along with pure biodegradable felt, wool and cotton.

More recently, performance wear brand Reflo, which specialises in golf apparel as well as active- and leisurewear, recently made headlines when footballer Harry Kane came on board as an investor and ambassador.

Reflo make apparel predominantly from recycled polyester, which uses 50% less energy and produces 70% less carbon emissions than virgin polyester.

The brand has also recently introduced Reloop, a range of garments designed to be fully recycled at the end of their use.

“As we strive to be the most sustainable sports performance wear brand in the world, this is our solution to a problem we see far too often in the apparel industry – garments ending up in landfill and not being recycled,” Rory MacFadyen, Founder at Reflo, tells Global Sustainable Sport.

The growth of sustainability-focused sportswear brands, and the participation of elite athletes as ambassadors and investors, suggests that there is a growing commercial awareness of circular economy principles and the need for a shift in how garments and equipment are produced.

Traditional suppliers of kit and equipment are also introducing more circular initiatives, though this is often on a smaller scale. For example, Macron, the kit supplier for UEFA referees, supplies the same shirts to both professionals and fans, which enables clubs to sell off excess inventory rather than disposing of it.

Meanwhile, businesses like Classic Football Shirts go beyond the creation of kit and help to create a culture of reuse among fans. Classic Football Shirts collaborates with clubs to resell excess inventory, which in turn could reduce demand for a newer, shinier kit every season.

In line with the growth of resale and reuse platforms like Vinted and Depop outside the sports industry, platforms that encourage resale, rental, and reuse of garments are on the increase.

“With second-hand clothing predicted to be one of the fastest growing sectors, sports could see a resurgence in nostalgia for vintage kits and we already see this being successful through resale platforms such as Classic Football Shirts,” says Czutkowna.

Work is also taking place at grassroots level to encourage reuse and make kit and apparel more accessible.

For example, Kidd3r, a kit reuse platform, allows families to buy, sell, exchange and donate pre-loved sports kit.

Kidd3r shows that the principles of a circular economy can also be effectively implemented at grassroots and community levels – but support from the wider industry is needed for initiatives like these to become established.

“What’s truly needed is funding, guidance and backing to establish mandatory longer-term kit re-use programmes,” Claire Moffat, Founder of Kidd3r, tells Global Sustainable Sport.

Future challenges

Industry guidelines like UEFA’s, and brands like Renewaball and Reflo, are driving an industry shift towards a more circular approach – but there are still plenty of challenges ahead.

One issue with sports kit and equipment in particular is the demand for complex, high-performance designs, which might not be easily produced or reused.

“A challenge for us has always been creating sustainable kit that balances high performance and durability,” says MacFadyen of Reflo. “Making sure the fabrics we use meet the rigorous standards required for technical features in sports apparel like moisture-wicking, breathability, and durability can often be a complex task.”

In short, making sure that apparel is high quality and designed with circularity in mind is a major challenge.

“Professional players require high-performance materials with particular properties and which are durable. This needs to be considered when discussing materials and their environmental impact,” says Czutkowna. “It is counterproductive to have a garment designed for circularity but which is not fit for purpose.”

As the emphasis on circular economy grows, greenwashing or token claims of ‘sustainability’ are also an increasing concern.

MacFayden of Reflo warns against brands using sustainability purely as a marketing tool. “The full approach needs to be thinking sustainably,” he says. “This is a key challenge in the sustainable sports apparel industry where the bigger, more established brands tap into sustainability for profit.”

At the same time, to transition to a circular economy, the industry will need genuine commitment from everyone involved in the creation and sale of apparel and equipment.

At UEFA’s Circular Economy conference in November, Senior Director in Sustainability Direction at Adidas, Viviane Gut, told the audience that the industry needs stakeholders across the entire value chain to play their role.

“We can’t do this by ourselves. We need everyone. We need the suppliers, we need the factories,” she said. “We design products that hopefully have a lower footprint. We need the consumer to understand where to bring back these apparel pieces. We need regulators to actually set up a system that makes it financially viable for us to create these products in that way.”

Hèléne Hoogeboom of Renewaball agrees. “In sustainability, you need to collaborate, because if all brands are keeping on doing their own thing, we don’t solve global warming and save the planet,” she says. “So bottom up and top down, otherwise nothing will change.”

But experts also argue that a circular approach is not just a ‘nice to have’. Legislation is increasingly being introduced to make circular economy principles more widespread.

In 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on a new circular economy action plan, and there are currently 16 pieces of proposed legislation in place focusing on apparel and circularity.

Ultimately, the industry needs to see a total shift in its approach to apparel and equipment and an overhaul of the underlying business model.

“The volume of products produced for sports is growing and a linear business model of take-make-use-waste is inherently unsustainable in the long term,” says Czutkowna. “Brands who want to future-proof themselves need to adapt and innovate.”

As with so many elements of sustainability, the tide seems to be turning when it comes to circularity in sport.

However, ultimately, clubs, brands, manufacturers, governing bodies and governments will need to work together, rethink their business plans, and commit to a completely new vision of the industry if their claims of sustainability – and a circular sports industry – are to hold their weight.

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