How sustainable is sport?

January 24 2023

With the growing awareness of the challenges that sport faces in the future, and with more and more sporting events being affected by climate issues, the global pandemic, and the outbreak of war in Ukraine, just how many sports organisations are taking the issue of sustainability seriously and developing economic, social and environmental programmes?

How sustainable is sport?

Just last week, the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia was affected by extreme weather conditions with play being suspended on Day Two due to oppressive heat followed by heavy rain. Meanwhile, in Europe, the abnormally warm weather has already seen a number of Alpine skiing World Cup events cancelled in Italy, Switzerland and Austria.

Sport faces many risks and challenges in the future, but it is also uniquely placed not only to address climate issues, but also broader environmental issues like ocean pollution, in particular plastics, and the loss of biodiversity globally. Equally, it can address growing social issues like inactivity, physical and mental health, inclusion, diversity, inequality and poverty.

It is a widely held belief that sport has been slow to address social and environmental issues, particularly around the hosting of major sporting events. Research carried out by Global Sustainable Sport (GS Sport) on major international sporting events hosted in 2021 showed that less than 20% had any formal social or environmental programmes held around their events. This was in part due to the pandemic, but in part because there were no formal social or environmental programmes planned.


Sport has a wide reach and a huge global footprint.

As the Sport Stakeholders pyramid shows below, there are over 180,000 sports organisations globally and well in excess of 200,000 suppliers, sponsors and broadcasters who supply services to the sports industry.

Source: Global Sustainable Sport

Source: Global Sustainable Sport

But sport’s reach is even greater than that, with over 1 billion active sports participants and between 4 and 5 billion sports fans globally.

Sport can play a powerful role not only in adopting a more sustainable approach to its activities but in using its collective voice to reach half the world’s population to encourage its fans and participants to think and live more sustainably in the future.

But just how seriously is sport taking sustainability, and who are the sports stakeholders that are driving the sustainability agenda?

Research by Global Sustainable Sport (GS Sport) has identified over 850 sports organisations that are actively pursuing sustainability programmes of some form. Whilst this does not represent all sports organisations with a sustainability programme, it identifies organisations that are either currently members of some form of climate or sustainable alliance, such as the United Nations Sport for Climate Action initiative, or have some form of sustainable programme.


UN Sport for Climate Action Framework

Analysis of the membership of the UN Sport for Climate Action initiative shows that roughly 270 sports stakeholders are currently members of the initiative.

As the diagram below shows, less than 0.1% of the sports industry are signatories to the Sport for Climate Action initiative. Breaking the signatories down by sector group, the highest membership group are Sports Leagues, Teams and Clubs with just over 100 members, but representing just 0.1% of that membership group. Sports Federations has the highest percentage of members, with 80 members representing 0.5% of total sports federations.

Source: UNFCCC/Global Sustainable Sport

Source: UNFCCC/Global Sustainable Sport

In addition to Sport for Climate Action there are two further UN groups focused on environmental programmes, the Sports for Climate Action on the Race to Zero and the recently announced Sports for Nature framework. Race to Zero has just over 100 signatories whilst the Sports for Nature framework was signed by twenty-three signatories when it was announced in December 2022.

The UN list of signatories has not been updated for some time and several sports organisations have recently signed up to Sport for Climate Action and the Race to Zero, such as UK Sport and FISU, the International University Sports Federation. However, these new additions may be countered by a number of organisations leaving the inititive due to the fact that they did not submit their reports on time in 2022.

Reporting on their sustainability programmes is a huge issue for many sports stakeholders, as is the lack of inter-governmental social frameworks.


Sustainability Alliances

Globally there are a number of sustainability alliances that have been created to address a wide variety of sustainability issues. These bring together a diverse group of stakeholders who, on the whole, are developing their own sustainability programmes.

These alliances include:

Basis – United Kingdom

Green Sports Alliance – USA

Sports Environment Alliance – Australia/New Zealand

There are also a number of alliances that focus on a wide range of largely environmental issues:

Mountain Summitt

Carbon Fibre Circular Alliance



Sustainable Marine Alliance

Sustainable Mountain Alliance

In addition to these organisational groups there are a number of athlete alliances where athletes are driving sustainability programmes within their countries, or within their sports.

These athlete alliances include organisations like:

Athletes of the World


Players for the Planets


Aggregating membership of these various alliances identifies roughly 650 plus organisations who are actively pursuing sustainability programmes.


Economic, Social and Environmental Framework


Traditionally sustainability has been discussed in terms of Economic, Social and  Environment, which has more recently been expanded to an ESG framework – Environment, Social and Governance, with the economic part being merged into governance. This ESG framework was largely established as an investment tool to help investors assess how organisations’ deal with sustainability risks and thus to decide if they are a good investment.

ESG is now front and centre for most major organisations who are required to report on their sustainability activities.


Environment, Social and Governance (ESG)

This reporting has to date largely taken the form of Financial Materiality, the impact that the economy, society and the environment may have on an organisation, or Impact Materiality, which is the impact that organisations have on the economy, society and the environment.

The EU Taxonomy Regulations which come into effect in August 2023 will provide a ‘Double Materiality” framework which will enable organisations to report both their financial and impact materiality.

But sport has its own unique characteristics and even with the new frameworks sports organisations will not be able to report its activities in a complete and comprehensive way.


United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

In 2015 the United Nations defined 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which have been the core focus of reporting for many organisations.

Many organisations align their reporting to the SDGs and this is particular the case in sport. Sport is keen to express its contribution to the SDGs but there is no clear framework for doing so.

“Sustainable Pillars of Sport”


GS Sport has developed a framework to recognise the uniqueness of sport which encompasses the traditional way that sport has reported its impact in the past and connects to the new sustainability frameworks that have been developed today.

The lack of a consistent and compatible framework for reporting sustainability is one of the major concerns of many sports organisations and suppliers .

In the past this incompatibility revolved around economic impact studies and media reports. This now exists around sustainability reporting with many organisations either not reporting on their sustainability programmes or creating their own frameworks.

Sports organisations and events need to combine their old impact and media reports with their new sustainability reporting to create a framework that truly expresses the value of sport to cities, governments, brands and the public. A framework that reports on economic, social and environmental sustainability needs to capture the real impact of sport.

The GS Sport framework is built around seven “Sustainable Pillars of Sport” which seek to express the true value of sport. These are aligned, where possible, to the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals as defined by the United Nations in 2015.

  1. Partnerships

One of the key UN SDGs is SDG 17, “Partnerships for the Goals”. It is clear that the global challenges represented by the 17 SDGs can not be solved by any single nation, city, organisation or individual.

Sport plays a vital role in bringing people together and inspiring people in a way that many other sectors cannot. As is commonly stated, “Sport has the power to change the world”. By coming together in partnership, sport has the chance to use this power, and its global voice, to help drive a more sustainable future for sport and the planet.

  1. Participation

UN SDG 3 focuses on “Good Health and Well-Being”, one element of which is getting people active.

One of sport’s greatest assets is encouraging people to get active. Given the global levels of obesity and inactivity in the world today, sport can lead the way in encouraging people to participate in some form of sport or physical activity. But what is the true value of physical activity and sport and how do we express it? What is the social value of a sporting event, whether it be a mass participation event or a spectator event? Does sport inspire people to become active and how do we connect the digital community with physical activity?

  1. People

UN SDGs 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 10 focus on People, or social activities.

Sport can play a vital role in every aspect of improving social outcomes. Sport can connect with communities. It can address issues like diversity and inequality. It can help improve education and academic performance. It can be used as a tool to help health and well-being.

Sport can play many important roles in improving social outcomes.

  1. Planet

UN SDGs 13, 14 and 15 focus on the Planet or the environment.

Sport can help the fight against climate change, reduce carbon emissions and plastic waste, improve air and water quality and help our oceans and “Life on Land”.

  1. Power

UN SDG 16 focuses on “Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions”, which is frequently presented as Governance or Power.

Sport can lead the way in pushing for world peace, reducing conflicts and promoting good governance.

  1. Profile

An area not really covered by the UN SDGs but that is a key pillar of sport is Profile.

Sport helps to promote cities, countries and brands all over the world. With access to over half of the world’s population, sport can use its global platform to help promote sustainability and encourage people to live more sustainably in the future.

  1. Profit

The UN SDGs 7, 8, 9, 11 and 12 focus on economic activity like clean energy, decent work and growth, industry, innovation, infrastructure, sustainable cities and communities and responsible consumption and production.

Sport can lead the way in driving better economic outcomes and promoting other elements of economic activity like sustainable tourism and travel.


Global Sustainable Sports Organisations

Using three of the ‘Sustainable Pillars of Sport’ GS Sport has analysed over 1,500 sports organisations globally, and has currently identified just over 850 sports organisations that have some form of participation, people or planet programme.

Within those 850 organisations, roughly 62% have some form of participation or people programme, and 65% have some form of planet programme.

The diagram below shows the breakdown of these organisations by stakeholder group.


Again, the largest group of sports organisations with sustainability programmes are the Sport Leagues, Teams and Clubs with 346 organisations, representing just 0.4% of that sector.

The highest percentage group are the Sport Federations, with 210 organisations representing 1.4% of that sector.

Whilst the data shows that 62 countries are home to sports organisations with a sustainability programme, based in 367 cities, this does not represent how many cities and nations have active sports sustainability programmes. Data on this was not available in the first phase of the GS Sport project.

Whilst over 850 organisations have been identified as being active in sustainability, the level of activity varies greatly. Some organisations, whilst signatories to one of the UN frameworks or members of a sustainability alliance, have very little in the way of sustainability programmes. Green washing has been rife within the financial world, with many organisations claiming they have sustainability programmes without properly doing so. In some instances, this seems to be the case in sport.

On the other hand, there are a number of organisations that tick all of GS Sport’s ‘Sustainable Pillars of Sport’, and many of these organisations are referenced in the ‘Organisations’ section of the GS Sport website.


Global Sustainable Sport Features

A number of these organisations appear in the ‘Feature’ section of the GS Sport website.


These features include:

IBU embarks on a mission to become climate neutral to protect winter snow for generations to come

Nathan Chen promotes Panasonic’s GREEN IMPACT initiative at FISU World Conference as it aims to significantly reduce its 110 million tons of CO2 emissions each year by 2050

Six months to kick off: FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 will build on growing enthusiasm for the women’s game across the world

2023 FISU World Winter University Games launch at Lake Placid with a ‘Save Winter’ theme

The Ocean Race sets sail on the most important race ever – the ‘Race to Save the Ocean’

UEFA’s Respect Report shows progress in the first year of its sustainability strategy but plenty of work still to do

“Every end is the new beginning” as ASAP Project draws to a close and Olympic Committees look to implement their new sustainability strategies

Birmingham County Football Association fighting for a more sustainable game

Australian Olympic Committee engages its ‘whole family’ in driving global sustainability

The most recent feature on the International Biathlon Union (IBU) assesses the IBU across all of GS Sport’s ‘Sustainable Pillars of Sport”. The IBU is among a small handful of international sports federations that ticks most of the sustainable pillars and scored well in most aspects of the GS Sport analysis.

Bur despite the huge amount of work that the IBU have done in the last four years the IBU’s Head of Sustainability, Riikka Rajkic, recognises the fact that there is still a lot more work to be done.

“A great deal must be done in a relatively short space of time. Climate change will not wait for the Biathlon family!” Riikka Rakic, IBU Head of Sustainability

Rakic also identified the importance of IBU working in partnership with other stakeholders and using their platform to promote sustainability to their members and their fans

“It’s important that we have our own house in order, but what’s far more important, or impactful, is that we use our unique platform as an international governing body to act as an agent for change through partnerships with our various stakeholders. As the saying goes, no one can whistle a symphony, it takes an orchestra to play it,” Riikka Rakic, IBU Head of Sustainability

As the General Secretary of the IBU, Max Cobb observed:

“Sustainability is an issue that cuts across all areas of the IBU, as it should be for any organisation,” Max Cobb, IBU General Secretary
“For a truly meaningful impact to be delivered, it’s important that the sustainability strategy, and related initiatives, can be shared across the organisation with responsibilities taken on by staff in various departments. Structurally, we’re set-up in this way at the IBU to ensure this concept is a reality.”

Interest is growing but sport has a long way to go

There are many great sustainability programmes being developed around the world of sport, and many sport organisations are recruiting sustainability consultants or in-house experts to deliver them.

2022 saw a significant increase in discussions around sustainability at major sports conferences and judging by the excellent sold-out Sport Positive Summit in Wembley, London last year, sustainability is growing significantly in interest.

But with less than 1% of the sports industry currently active in one or more of GS Sports’s ‘Sustainable Pillars’, sport has a long way to go.

GS Sport aims to encourage, through its global initiative,  at least 1% of the sports industry to have an active sustainability programme by the end of 2024. That represents over 2,000 sports organisations, excluding suppliers, by the end of the current Olympic cycle.

Collectively, with the sports industry comng together, this could represent a significant platform to promote sustainability worldwide and truly make a difference, helping to create a more sustainable future for sport and the planet.

For further information on GS Sport’s “Sustainable Pillars of Sport” and how it could help your organistion or your event contact GS Sport 


Read moreMike Laflin

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