How can sport use social media to drive sustainability?

April 11 2024

In the fight against climate change, communication is crucial – and social media platforms like TikTok, YouTube and X reach billions of users each year.

How can sport use social media to drive sustainability?

Social media is one way that sports organisations can raise awareness, educate audiences, and encourage behaviour change.

But what are some of the challenges we face when we use social media to promote sustainability? And is sport making the most of this key opportunity?

The power of social media

It’s no secret that social media has a vast global reach and a powerful social and economic impact. Since the very first social platforms were launched in the late 1990s and 2000s, the media landscape has been transformed.

In 2019, social media platforms were used by one in three people in the world.

Some platforms, like TikTok or Snapchat, are more popular among younger age groups, and in OECD countries around 90% of people aged 16-24 use some form of social media.

But social media isn’t only for younger people: in 2019, 38% of US adults over the age of 65 used YouTube, and 46% were on Facebook.

The growth of social media use over the past twenty years is striking. In 2005, only 5% of US adults used social media – but, by 2019, this had reached 79%.

Meanwhile, as awareness and urgency of the climate crisis has grown, the number of people discussing the topic online, sharing climate-related content, and organising communities through social networks has also increased.

In 2021, the Pew Research Center found that 56% of Gen Z respondents – those born from 1997 onwards – had seen content about climate action on social media in the past few weeks.

But older age groups had engaged with climate content too: 44% of the Boomer generation – those born between 1946 and 1964 – had seen content about the need for climate action.

The benefits of social content for sport sustainability

In this landscape, it’s clear that social media is a key tool in the fight to raise awareness and promote behaviour change.

“Ultimately, social is where more and more people are consuming their news and info, so if you want to reach people, you have to use it,” Jess Rogers, co-founder of Carbon Jacked, tells Global Sustainable Sport.

Carbon Jacked is an environmental start-up that helps businesses and sports to combat climate change creatively – often using social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram to help sports organisations reach their audiences.

Rogers has found that there are some major benefits to using social media platforms to reach fans.

Any sports organisation, from major clubs to grassroots teams, can use social media to connect with their fans, capture attention on issues, and also build a sense of community around their sport or club.

“The ability for almost anyone to really capture people’s attention and get them excited is a major benefit of social,” says Rogers.

Using short-form video content, such as the videos shared on platforms like TikTok, is a key part of this.

Compared to long articles and densely written texts, visual content can be far more engaging, and can be a more effective way of capturing attention and connecting with people.

In February, TikTok was announced as an official partner of Team GB and Paralympics GB ahead of this year’s Paris Olympics. The partnership is an attempt to help athletes ‘share their unique journeys, connect with new audiences and grow their personal fanbase’.

Social media is particularly useful for sharing ‘authentic’ or ‘relatable’ stories. Research has shown that using personal stories about climate change can engage more diverse – and even more sceptical – audiences.

The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication recommends telling personal stories and featuring diverse voices as two ways to make communicating on sustainability topics more effective.

Dr. Timm Döbert, a conservation scientist planning a 30,000km expedition to raise awareness of threats to nature, told Global Sustainable Sport that telling human stories like his can help cut through and engage wider audiences.

“It’s just so difficult for people to understand abstract numbers – it just doesn’t resonate,” he says. “So how do you communicate this differently?”

Rogers of Carbon Jacked agrees that the ability to tell personal stories is a major benefit of using social media platforms.

“Raw footage from behind the scenes with athletes at training, mealtime or celebrations or commiserations after a match packs more of a punch than a stock photo or reel,” she says.

Many athletes use social media to raise awareness of social issues, often through formal partnership agreements.

Manchester City player Jack Grealish, for example, is a Brand Ambassador for the Special Olympics GB team, while  others, including Tottenham Hotspur player Amy Turner and skier Chemmy Alcott, have used their platforms to promote environmental issues.

When it comes to sport specifically, this form of content can also help athletes, as well as clubs and organisations, to engage directly with their fan base.

Discussing the wider issue of fan engagement, Chris Argyle-Robinson, Research and Strategy Director at Redtorch, told Global Sustainable Sport last year that sports rights-holders increasingly need to find creative ways of connecting with their fans – and social media platforms offer an opportunity for direct engagement.

In this way, effectively using social media can be hugely beneficial for communicating on sustainability topics – and this can also help a sports organisation’s wider community and engagement strategies.

Jess Rogers, Co-Founder at Carbon Jacked, at the Purpose and Impact Breakfast held at the Spring Restaurant at Somerset House, London. 10th August 2023. Photo: Andrew Baker for SailGP.

Jess Rogers, Co-Founder at Carbon Jacked, at the Purpose and Impact Breakfast held at the Spring Restaurant at Somerset House, London. 10th August 2023. Photo: Andrew Baker for SailGP.

Navigating challenges

Despite these opportunities, social media use also presents its own set of challenges.

At its most dangerous, content on social media can allow false or misleading information to spread and create conflict and division.

The dangers of mis- and disinformation on social media are well-known, but when it comes to sustainability, it can seriously set back the cause.

Sport must address these dangers, says Rogers.

“The sport and sustainability conversation is mired in debates about things that really shouldn’t even be a conversation. When more than 99% of scientists agree on something as evidence-based as climate change, you’d think you’d have a consensus, but – in large part down to social media – we don’t,” Rogers explains. “This lack of consensus heavily impacts people working on sustainability at every sports organisation.”

Meanwhile, sharing sustainability content can sometimes be used as a substitute for concrete action, or prohibit more meaningful changes.

Creating and sharing sustainability content that reaches millions of users might seem impactful, but unless it’s connected to a wider strategy – as with Forest Green Rovers’ wider environmental work – then it may not be meaningfully contributing to wider change.

Part of the problem here can be the way that the algorithms powering social media feeds can promote divisive, controversial, or shocking content above anything else.

“One of biggest downfalls is that the major social media platforms algorithms typically play to human’s base emotions – fear and hate,” says Rogers.

Finding a way to create content that actually reaches users’ feeds, without compromising on quality, can be difficult.

This links to the fact that creating a social media strategy and high-quality content demands dedicated time, attention, and expertise.

Speaking to Global Sustainable Sport last year, Argyle-Robinson of Redtorch pointed out that video content in particular, such as that shared on YouTube and TikTok, requires a significant investment of time and resources.

Future of sport, social media, and sustainability

 Given the potential impact of smart social media use, sports organisations that are committed to sustainability should take their social media strategy seriously.

By investing in social media as a strand of wider sustainability work, athletes, clubs, and organisations could take the work that’s already taking place – from decarbonisation to fan engagement – and take the message even further.

But integrating the use of social media into wider communications and sustainability strategies requires time, investment, expertise, credibility, and creativity.

Without these elements, there is a risk of creating more harm than good.

Ultimately, though, social media presents an opportunity for sports organisations committed to sustainability – even two decades on from the creation of the first social media networks.

“There’s a gap in the market when it comes to sport sustainability and social – and in the social media space, a gap is rare,” says Rogers. “Although lots of people are putting out sport and sustainability content, typically it’s woefully clichéd and ineffective.”

If sports organisations are serious about sustainability, then, it may also pay to be serious about social media. And with the urgency of the climate crisis growing, sport has no time to lose.

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