International Table Tennis Federation lays the groundwork for sustainability

October 19 2023

The governing body of table tennis, the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF), launched its first Sustainability Action Plan last month. But as the sport begins its bid to become more sustainable, what major challenges lie ahead?

International Table Tennis Federation lays the groundwork for sustainability

Social foundations for environmental work 

Table tennis has a long history of social sustainability, and the ITTF Foundation, which was established in 2018, runs a wide range of social programmes in areas including public health, humanitarian issues, and diplomacy.

‘The ITTF, and table tennis in general, always had a background in doing social work in terms of working with people with disabilities, promoting women and girls’ sport, and table tennis for health,’ says Karine Teow, Head of Sustainability at ITTF Group.

But, over the past five years, the sport’s governing body has begun to focus on its environmental responsibilities.

Petra Sörling, President of the ITTF and now the first ITTF President to be elected as a member of the IOC, made commitments to environmental sustainability and gender equality central to her presidential campaign in 2021.

After her election, she stated that the ITTF “must make it its mission to focus its efforts towards three key areas: people, planet and prosperity.”

In the years since, the organisation has marked several key milestones: the creation of the ITTF Sustainability Working Group in 2021, signing the UNFCCC’s Sport for Climate Action Framework in 2022, and creating its first Head of Sustainability role and becoming one of the first signatories to the new UN Sport for Nature Framework in 2023. This work culminated in the publication of Sustainability (Planet) and GEDI Action Plans last month.

As sport moves closer to the 2030 Paris goals, the ITTF have made a public commitment to environmental sustainability. But what exactly are its targets, and how does it plan to reach them?

Planet: ITTF’s environmental goals

As with many governing bodies, the ITTF has a range of roles and responsibilities. The ITTF Group is made up of three entities: the ITTF, which governs the sport; World Table Tennis, the commercial and events body; and the ITTF Foundation, which focuses on table tennis for development.

When developing its environmental action plan, the organisation addressed all of its areas of responsibility and influence.

‘We’re looking at ourselves as three entities,’ says Teow. ‘As an organisation, as an event organiser, contractor, and equipment accreditor, and as an international federation.’

The result is a roadmap that lays out four priority areas, with actions and goals under each.

As an organisation, the ITTF will establish a sustainability plan, measure direct GHG emissions across scope 1, 2 and 3, publish an annual sustainability report, align with local and international sustainability standards, and communicate on sustainability to staff.

As an event organiser, the group plans to develop event sustainability guidelines and conduct product life cycle assessments for its ITTF-accredited equipment. The ITTF also plans to measure the GHG emissions of at least three events in 2023-24 to establish a baseline.

As an international federation, the group is focusing on communicating on sustainability to fans and helping its members access advice and guidance on sustainability issues.

Crucially, though, the plan published last month isn’t a reduction plan: it’s a plan to set a baseline. The aim is to integrate a reduction plan into the ITTF’s next overall strategy, which is set to publish in 2025.

‘Where we’ve started is by trying to work out our priorities,’ says Teow. ‘It’s not a reduction strategy yet—it’s a strategy to figure out what information we need so that we can make better decisions.’

But this doesn’t mean that the ITTF are waiting to get started. ‘There are actions we can take now, like taking action at events and developing education programmes, that we can get started on,’ Teow says.

The ITTF’s plan builds on partnerships and follows guidelines including the IOC’s Sustainability Essentials and UN’s international frameworks, including the SDGs and the Sports for Climate Action and Sports for Nature frameworks. This means that they’re now committed to reducing emissions by 50% by 2030.

But what are some of the key areas that table tennis needs to address?

ITTF President Sörling has identified travel and equipment as two key issues.

Meanwhile, Head of Sustainability Karine Teow has thought carefully about the challenges specific to the sport. The ITTF’s role as an accreditor of equipment means that addressing materials and supply chains for balls and rackets could have a big impact.

‘It’s different for elite and grassroots,’ she says. ‘A lot of people have table tennis balls and rackets in their homes, which is interesting for our sport, because it means that if we address our equipment, we can have a big impact.

‘On the elite side, we have things like flooring, which is a big one, because it gets shipped to events, and then there are things like the rubber in the blade. So there are very different things to deal with on the equipment side.’

As with all sports, travel is another big issue that needs tackling. ‘Fan travel and the event calendar will be a big one for us,’ Teow says.

As a federation, the ITTF is also uniquely placed to support its members: the federation currently has 227 members across the world.

As an indoor sport, athletes and fans of table tennis aren’t necessarily confronted with the climate crisis as directly as other sports, which can make education even more important.

‘We’re not a winter sport that needs snow, or a water sport where you’re in nature,’ says Teow. ‘Often, we’re in a hall with electric lighting, so I think that’s also part of the challenge—realising that there is an emergency, and we need to deal with it.’

People and Participation

One way that the ITTF have tried to engage fans on the issue is through its annual World Table Tennis Day, held each year in April. The theme this year was ‘Think Sustainably, Act Now’.

As part of the programming for this years’ event, the ITTF launched a manual on using table tennis to educate on the UN SDGs. Continental federations hosted their own events, including a ‘Table Tennis for All’ event hosted by the African Table Tennis Federation and a focus on ‘Table Tennis for Sustainable Health and Development’ in Argentina.

These events touched on the ITTF’s other core social sustainability focus on gender equality, diversity and inclusion.

Like the environment plan, the GEDI Plan, published last month, is based on UN guidelines and focuses on topics including promoting women’s leadership, preventing violence against women and girls, closing the investment gap for women’s sport, and monitoring and publicly reporting on progress.

It’s clear that the ITTF Foundation’s established history of running social sustainability programmes has laid the groundwork for the group’s new emphasis on environment and gender equality.

Looking ahead to 2030

It’s positive that the ITTF has publicly committed to environmental sustainability, and is gathering data so that it can create a clear strategy from 2025.

But with only seven years to go until the milestone year of 2030, the federation has a huge challenge ahead.

The event calendar, fan and athlete travel, and ensuring the sustainability of equipment will all need addressing soon if the ITTF is to reduce its emissions in time to meet UN goals.

But the ITTF already has an engaged fan base and a track record of social sustainability projects, and connecting and educating the community will be one way to accelerate action.

Looking ahead to next year, Teow is confident that the ITTF, and sport as a whole, will be able to make the changes we need to see.

‘Sport touches most people on the planet, so if all sports really work on this, then I think we have the potential to really make an impact,’ she says.

Next year will see the ITTF take its first concrete steps towards measuring and reducing the impact of table tennis. If sport is going to reach its potential, let’s hope that the momentum can continue.

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