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Sport and the SDGs: Should we expect sport to solve the world’s issues?

March 21 2024

Sport has a well-established status as a launchpad for societal change, and the industry’s businesses and organisations often cite the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a worthy framework to which they can aspire. However, is sport weighed down by these expectations, and are the SDGs truly applicable, relevant and achievable in a sporting context?

Sport and the SDGs: Should we expect sport to solve the world’s issues?

In Danish researcher and author Dr. Bjorn Lomborg’s acclaimed book, Best Things First, he describes the United Nations’ current Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as “so impossibly long and ambitious that it is no surprise that it has generated little progress”.

Set to run until 2030, the SDGs, which came into force in January 2016, are now past the halfway point – and Dr. Lomborg is by no means alone in questioning whether they are working.

In sport – an industry in which the SDGs are commonly cited by decision-makers as a worthy structure for sustainability strategies – many admit, in private at least, that these goals that have contributed to their own sustainability frameworks are simply unattainable.

The SDGs are split into 17 pillars: no poverty; zero hunger; good health and wellbeing; quality education; gender equality; clean water and sanitation; affordable and clean energy; decent work and economic growth; industry innovation and infrastructure; reduced inequalities; sustainable cities and community; responsible consumption and production; climate action; life below water; life on land; peace, justice and strong institutions; and finally, partnerships for the goals. Each goal then has a number of subsections. 

These goals are transparently ambitious – and advocates may insist that lofty targets spur progress along the lines of author Norman Vincent Peale’s famous quote: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you will land among the stars.” However, for critics, there is a danger of unrealistic targets leading to a tokenistic, box-ticking exercise.

Too many goals?

While predecessors of the SDGs did not achieve their goals in their entirety, some improvements have been made since the initial idea of a goal-based system in the 1990s, and the introduction of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in the early 2000s.

The MDGs were coined by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and a small team, along with insight from the International Monetary Fund, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the World Bank. The result was a list of eight goals and 18 specific targets which set out targets that ranged from reducing poverty and hunger to fighting disease and providing access to clean water.

As Dr. Lomborg points out, whilst some of the targets outlined in the MDGs were not reached over a 15-year period, a huge collective investment from governments of rich and poor nations at the very least “turbocharged progress towards them”.

However, many believe that the relative success of the MDGs has not been replicated by the SDGs. So, if international governments and institutions are making little progress towards the SDGs, why is sport burdened with these unachievable expectations?

SDGs and sport – a disjointed union?

Tanja Ferkau is the Founder and Managing Director of climate-focused non-profit IMPCT, while Stefan Wagner if the Founder and Managing Director of the Sports for Future consultancy.

Together, Ferkau and Wagner have collaborated on Sports20, a consultancy that has created a framework utilising the SDGs to make them more tangible. The pair believe that the SDGs provide a useful framework, but require condensing to be more applicable in a sporting context.

“We very quickly realised that we were very much aligned when we think about sustainability, and the role of sports and what this should be like,” Ferkau tells Global Sustainable Sport.

“Then there is the gap to what is actually happening in sports. We have a lot of pledges and nice things, but there was a lack of global and very ambitious approaches. That’s the founding story of Sports20, because we both know that sport has a tremendous gift and the geographic advantage to change things. There is nothing in the market like that, that affects so many areas and sectors, not to mention the pure number of people.

“We thought about what kind of frameworks we have on the market, and we both think that the SDGs are a great framework. There are 17 very inter-connected goals, 169 under-targets and many indicators.”

Sports20 took the SDGs and converted them into six main areas, with a number of subsections that can be applicable to “real-life people”.

Ferkau adds: “It has something to do with the real life of the people. I think that is one of the obstacles that the SDGs don’t overcome.

“Between 2015-19, I would say that the SDGs have not been really relevant to anybody. There were very few people working with it. You had some in the market, but I think on a broader and mainstream scale, nobody really noticed the SDGs.”

However, Ferkau believes that this has started to change, especially over the last two years. The issue is that the SDGs, says Ferkau, are often used in the wrong context.

“You see the SDGs are being used in a superficial way – for example ‘oh yeah, we are working with three SDGs’. But that is not how it is meant to be. It was meant to bring all the global problems into something smaller, into 17 packages, to solve these issues. But this cherry picking is not really contributing to what the UN had hoped.”

Handprints and footprints

The six areas used in Sports20’s framework have been curated to apply to different organisations. These are responsible management and public leadership; responsible supply chains; responsibility for people; responsible use of resources; minimising impact on the environment; and sustainability in context.

“We work with a footprint and a handprint,” explains Ferkau. “We asked ourselves, ‘what are things that sport should do?’ At the moment, we are only really talking about footprint, the negative things, but we are never talking about the leverage we could have – the handprint.

“Our framework works with both sides, equally. You have a roadmap to improving a footprint, because that is still what we need to do – reduce, recycle etc. But on the other side, there needs to be strong implementation drive towards handprint, because that is the true leverage that sports can have.”

Sport’s leverage should be a key vehicle for sustainable development, according to Brian McCullough, an Associate Professor in Kinesiology and Sport Management, and Director of the Center for Sport Management Research and Education at Texas A&M University.

“Sport is a definitely a platform to use. It’s not the only one, but it is a way in which both environmental sustainability and the SDGs can be communicated more broadly,” he says.

“We tend to think of sport as the magic pill that is going to fix everything, but it’s still an effective tool to communicate with people, to connect with people, to make it more relatable to people, especially if they are participating in sport or experiencing the negative consequences – for example the impact of climate change on sport.”

Sport and environmental sustainability

Elsewhere, the UN has specifically focused on sport in an environmental sustainability context, with the introduction of the Sports for Climate Action Framework, which was launched in 2018.

McCullough contributed to the UN’s Sports for Climate Action Framework, which has two overarching goals: achieving a clear trajectory for the global sports community to combat climate change, and using sports as a unifying tool to federate and create solidarity among global citizens for climate action.

Signatories of the Sports for Climate Action Framework have committed to halving their emissions by 2030 and aiming to achieve net-zero by 2040.

However, as the title suggests, this framework only concentrates on a few of the SDGs that take environmental sustainability into account. Elsewhere, there is also the Sport for Nature Framework, developed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), International Olympic Committee (IOC), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in collaboration with the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and a range of sports organisations.

Additionally, McCullough mulls over why many place so much expectation on sporting entities being active in all areas of sustainability.

“Sporting organisations are just one avenue – not to excuse these organisations from not doing or needing to do those things – but it’s interesting that people lean so much on sporting organisations,” he says. “They say ‘you should be doing something’, but why aren’t they getting on to the likes of Google or Apple, who have trillions of dollars and thousands of employees? They hold sporting organisations to the same standard.”

Wagner notes that sport does not always have the power to influence what really, truly needs to be done. For example, decarbonising aviation for events.

“What we are doing with the Sports20 framework, is that we are not just addressing the sport itself, but we are addressing the political decision-makers for example,” he says. “This is because, most of the time, you won’t have a neutral Olympics without decarbonised aviation. And the sport itself won’t decarbonise aviation, so you have to address the issue elsewhere. We are trying to go in both directions, political and economic, as well as sport itself.”

SDGs in a sporting context

As well as contributing to the UN’s Sports for Climate Action Framework, McCullough has worked alongside the Commonwealth on sustainability and sport.

He has also co-edited The Routledge Handbook of Sport and Sustainable Development in 2022 and The Routledge Handbook of Sport and the Environment in 2018.

Through this research, McCullough and his co-editors found that organisations engage with various aspects of sustainability – but this was not always highlighted in many resources. Similarly to Ferkau’s point on the SDGs needing to be applicable to real people, McCullough says that there needs to be an integration of initiatives to influence sports fans beyond a sporting context.

“For example, in the US, life with water might not be the most important, and not as applicable as elsewhere. But we made an argument that it can be applicable to all organisations in some regard, and you can implement it within or through your organisation,” explains McCullough.

“So it needs to be in a company’s operations. How are we educating people? How do we engage with communities – as so many sporting organisations are? Their mission could be specifically focused on community.

“The challenge then is how do we get people to think beyond the sporting context and then apply this to every aspect of their life? So I think that some of the initial SDG work within the sporting industry, from my perspective, has been CSR [corporate social responsibility] type initiatives, especially as this goes beyond the organisation. But it shouldn’t be limited to that alone, and I think it’s just the introductory aspect of how to integrate these two things together.”

Sport can clearly be utilised to work towards achieving targets set out by a number of the SDGs, such as good health and wellbeing, gender equality, sustainable cities and community. However, sport cannot change the world alone.

Images: Pixabay/Gonzalo Facello/Riccardo

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