Positive education: FISU’s captive audience for global sustainability efforts

September 07 2023

Fresh from the Summer World University Games, which concluded in the Chinese city of Chengdu last month, the International University Sports Federation (FISU) is already looking to the future with its evolving and burgeoning sustainability strategy, as outlined by Director General Paulo Ferreira.

Positive education: FISU’s captive audience for global sustainability efforts

Among the complex spectrum of global governing bodies in the sprawling sports industry, FISU is in a powerful position to drive positive change in sustainability.

As a starting point, FISU operates major sporting events that feature a significant number of participants. These include the Winter World University Games – which took place in Lake Placid, USA earlier this year – and the recently concluded Summer World University Games in Chengdu, China, which drew some 9,500 athletes and officials from around 100 countries.

The biennial editions of the Summer and Winter World University Games are accompanied on the calendar by the FISU World University Championships and the FISU University World Cups, which feature the athletes in competition on a university-versus-university format.

However, university sport’s reach extends far beyond FISU’s flagship events.

There are some 200 million students at more than 25,000 higher educational institutions worldwide. Many of them are advocates of a sustainable agenda in society, business and sport – and FISU is determined to leverage such a powerful, common consensus.

Strategic focus

The first step on FISU’s sustainability journey was to develop a dedicated focus area in the governing body’s overall growth strategy under the umbrella of ‘Legacy and Sustainability’. Approved by the FISU Executive Committee in 2021, this strategy included embedding sustainability into FISU’s existing activities and encouraging member federations and universities to take action in their communities.

This focus has now been fine-tuned into three areas in which sustainability is addressed, making the strategy more manageable in terms of implementing and operating:

– FISU as an organisation (activities related to FISU staff and FISU headquarters);

– FISU as the owner of university sports events (FISU sports event properties);

– FISU as the leader of the university sport movement (targeting the overall movement, including membership and universities).

FISU, which is based in the ‘Olympic capital’ of Lausanne in Switzerland, has committed to reducing its carbon emissions by 50% by 2030 – with 2019 as a baseline – through signing the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework in June 2022. FISU has been supported in its efforts to calculate emissions by an external consultancy, The Shift, with funding having been secured from the Canton of Vaud to support the project.

“We were the first sports federation in Lausanne to receive this funding, which has been extremely important for a few reasons,” FISU Director General Paulo Ferreira told Global Sustainable Sport.

“First, the funding accelerated our efforts and allowed us to conduct our carbon audit externally, which also allowed our internal sustainability officer to focus on the bigger picture of the sustainability strategy towards planning the next steps. Secondly, a condition of the funding was that upon completion of the mandate for which the funding was used, organisations must submit a detailed strategy demonstrating how the information gathered will be used moving forward. The external consultancy that we enlisted was able to assist us with this, as FISU worked with them to use the results of their work to define a concrete strategy with detailed action items for future progression of the overall sustainability strategy.” FISU Director General Paulo Ferreira

Positive change

The next step is to give FISU’s members the same calculation tools so they can also measure their own emissions, to provide consistent data. However, as outlined by Ferreira, positive change has to start from within.

“As a governing body, we had to first establish where we had the most impact on the topic of sustainability at FISU headquarters,” he added. “Also, as a global organisation with 164 member federations, many of our activities require us to travel to some extent – of course coming with a large carbon footprint as a result. This is why we decided to focus on environmental sustainability and our carbon emissions as we also saw great opportunity here for us to come up with some smart travel principles, such as planning our trips more strategically, determining whether travel is really necessary, taking the train when the option is available, etc.

“This topic is coming to the forefront of every organisation and management of carbon emissions with global goals related to climate change, which is why we decided to start with addressing this topic as it will indeed affect the feasibility of hosting our events in the future.

“However, we quickly realised that the word ‘impact’ does not only imply the negative effect that are a result of our activities. We must not forget that we have an opportunity here to have a positive impact and give university campus communities to become more sustainable with regard to a more holistic approach in addition to the environmental aspect.”

Healthy Campus Programme

With this in mind, the FISU Healthy Campus Programme was launched as a progressive and multiple-tiered label for universities to achieve through creating activities around the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The programme consists of over 100 criteria defined by experts in various fields in seven domains: Physical Activity and Sport, Nutrition, Disease Prevention, Mental and Social Health, Risk Behaviour, Environment, Sustainability & Social Behaviour and Healthy Campus Management. These seven areas are assessed and audited on a regular basis, resulting in a FISU Healthy Campus status for any given university.

FISU is also working on other projects related to the SDGs, including collaboration with the European Union and Erasmus+ university programmes.

Additionally, the governing body is in the process of establishing a dedicated sustainability programme for youth to facilitate projects in their own communities around the SDGs. FISU is hoping to launch the programme in 2024.

People pillar

FISU’s approach to sustainability is driven by the People and Partnerships sustainability pillars, which is exemplified by the governing body’s own Executive Committee and staff.

“From gender equality to enhancing education globally, support from the FISU Executive Committee and staff have been and exceptional support,” Ferreira said. “We held a successful staff workshop in late 2022, not only to talk about FISU’s sustainability goals, but also to initiate interest in each staff member’s own sustainability goals within the organisation and departments.

“When it comes to our partnerships, we have also had an overwhelming response as we are now working with some key stakeholders to further develop our activities around sustainability. For example, we are working closely with the International Olympic Committee to shadow their internal processes around sustainability. Like the IOC, FISU is a multi-sport federation on a global scale, which will help us greatly in addressing certain topics. In addition, we are also working with many universities to develop projects around sustainability. We also recently initiated a project with the UN Environmental Programme and the University of Oxford to create a resource for universities to enhance and manage biodiversity on university campuses.”

“I think our federation is of big interest for organisations and partnerships because of our overall goals for young people. Being the leaders of tomorrow, these young people are key in addressing many of the pillars as they are the ones who will be making key decisions in the future, if they are not doing so already.”

A passion for all ages

However, Ferreira said that it would be an error to assume that only younger people can make a valuable contribution towards sustainability.

“Young or old, we are all passionate about something and have a desire to make change in the world for the betterment of society and this is the impact we hope to have on our university students worldwide,” he said.

“I think it is very important not to disregard the views of older generations. What we are seeing through our programmes is that this sometimes mentioned ‘generational gap’ is just a misunderstanding due to the lack of education on the topic of sustainability. Traditionally in any organisation, the key decision makers consist of a mix of younger and older generations. If we can get them to come to a consensus on sustainability priorities, this is where we see true progress being made and action being taken.

“The approach to sustainability, however, is much different these days with younger people. Nowadays, we are seeing first-hand more young people question ethical decisions made when hosting an event – to an extent for some that they will not even participate if an event is not sustainable.

“We are seeing athletes at our events even picking up waste at our venues, using sustainable water sources while using their own bottles, and promoting active mobility as transport, just to name a few examples. Young athletes are even not taking free gifts such as pins or mascots if they are wrapped in plastic or have been produced unethically. This to us shows that sustainability is important to our stakeholders, which is why it has become such an important topic for us.”

Hosting partners

FISU is also keen for sustainability to become an increasingly important pillar for its event hosts. Fortunately, the cities themselves have been equally willing to build sustainable initiatives into their event plans.

For example, the main sub-theme of the Lake Placid 2023 FISU Winter World University Games was ‘Save Winter’. Tree planting, efficient waste management and smart energy consumption were just a few examples of sustainable activities that were part of the Games in Lake Placid, in addition to a dedicated FISU World Conference that carried the ‘climate change’ theme.

“The beauty of the word ‘sustainability’ at sports events is that it is not a one-size-fits-all approach, as each city, region and country will have their own definition,” Ferreira said.

“Chengdu was a prime example of this. As per the original name of the event, the Chengdu 2021 FISU Games was meant to be held in summer two years ago but was postponed to 2023. They used these two years to reassess what they could do better and realised that FISU and the rest of the world was putting an emphasis on sustainability when it came to sports events. As a result, we not only saw environmental sustainability at play – such as the expansion of green space, carbon emissions calculations, and a full electric vehicle fleet for client groups – but a big focus was put on social aspects of sustainability.

“Chengdu’s focus of the FISU Games was to use the Games to launch Chengdu into becoming one of the most healthy and liveable cities in China. The green space developed for the FISU Games means that more people will have access to bike lanes, pedestrian paths and space to perform physical activity, while many other initiatives are still ongoing even though the FISU Games are finished. The collaboration between Chengdu city and FISU has just begun with a focus on aspects of sustainable development, and we are excited to see how it develops further.”

Future challenges

FISU is already working closely with future and potential event organisers, having appointed a sustainability officer to serve as a dedicated point of contact.

“Working with our event organisers to tailor the approach to sustainability is key for success,” Ferreira added. “We do not impose any specific programmes or initiatives to our event hosts, but rather we use our legacy and sustainability strategy to guide the approach that our event organisers would like to take. The strategy is designed to keep the overall FISU Global Strategy, vision and mission in mind. If we follow these guiding principles, solid sustainability strategies and execution can be made by FISU and host regions.”

When it comes to FISU’s key sustainability challenges of the future, Ferreira believes tailoring the approach for different individuals, regions, countries and continents will be a major task “as various people from different backgrounds all have a varying understanding when it comes to sustainability.”

He added: “The good news is that the integration of sustainability itself within many organisations has developed quite a bit and is almost ‘retrofitting’ the topic into the existing structure of organisations. Our understanding of sustainability includes what has become important for us, our stakeholders, and the organisation, so I can tell you that we have not covered every single aspect of sustainability out there.

“Taking this approach allows us to work with other organisations, to touch on other areas of sustainability that they may be better versed in while being beneficial for our university communities. Therefore, we see the importance of the cross-sectoral approach to sustainability and are looking forward to collaboration with stakeholders, both internal and external.”

Images courtesy of FISU.

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