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Sport Sponsors Climate Pledge – leveraging the power of partnerships

July 27 2023

17 Sport and ChangeNOW are driving for transformational change in terms of long-term sustainability in sport after unveiling a game-changing pledge in Paris.

Sport Sponsors Climate Pledge – leveraging the power of partnerships

In the complex and sprawling global business of sport, it is impossible to escape the reality that money makes the world go round.

From up-and-coming athletes seeking sponsors that can support their livelihoods as they train for a shot at the big time to the top-tier partners that attach themselves to sport’s biggest clubs so they can attract the best players, commercial agreements make a vital difference.

However, amidst the growing recognition of the importance of sustainability in sport over recent years, sponsors have traditionally sat in something of a blind sport. Many believe that it is fans, rather than commercial partners, who are most vociferous when it comes to applying pressure on sporting entities to adopt a sustainable approach. This outlook, though, could be changing.

"Sport is an extremely powerful platform for encouraging changes in behaviour." Carine de Boissezon, EDF’s Chief Impact Officer

Sport Sponsors Climate Pledge

Founded in 2020, 17 Sport’s mantra is to help businesses use the power of sport to build a more positive future for the world whilst accomplishing commercial goals. With a team that spans seven countries across three continents, the Certified B Corporation’s name is inspired by the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals and anchored to a belief in the power of partnerships.

In the framework of the recent ChangeNOW summit – the world’s largest gathering of solutions for the planet, which took place in Paris over three days in May – and as part of the ‘Sport For Change’ programme launched by ChangeNOW in collaboration with the organising committee for the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games, ChangeNOW and 17 Sport unveiled a dedicated pledge signed by several major companies and sponsors from the national and international sports world.

The Sport Sponsors Climate Pledge (SSCP) states the following three points:

  1. ‘From 2023 onwards, we will call all the sports organisations (clubs, federations, competitions, event organising committees) we partner with to demonstrate climate transparency. We will call on them to commit to GHG (greenhouse gas) emission reduction objectives aligned with the Paris Agreement, and to validate these targets by 2025 with the SBTi (Science Based Targets initiative) or a third party mutually agreed upon.’
  2. ‘We will co-create a framework and toolkit to help our partners and the sports industry move from talk to action.’
  3. ‘From 2025, all our sponsorship investments in the sports industry will be contingent upon the following criteria for the sports organisations we partner with:

a) For private sports organisations with a turnover equal to or above €40m/year: A GHG emission reduction target which is aligned with the Paris Agreement and validated by the SBT initiative.

b) For all other sports organisations: A commitment by the sponsored sports organisation to setting GHG emission reduction performance objectives aligned with the Paris Agreement, verified and validated by a third party mutually agreed upon.’

Significant support

Several large international enterprises, including EDF, Accor, Sodexo and Orange are among the signatories so far, while the French Football Federation publicly supports the pledge.

Carine de Boissezon, EDF’s Chief Impact Officer, said in a statement to Global Sustainable Sport: “Sport is an extremely powerful platform for encouraging changes in behaviour. It can reach millions of people around the world, raising awareness of the importance of combating global warming and encouraging them to take action. EDF is also the largest producer in the world of electricity without direct CO2 emissions and carbon neutrality is at the core of our corporate mission.

“Signing this pledge allows us to combine what we have been doing for over 30 years, which is to promote and encourage sport for all, in line with its values of diversity, inclusion, performance and responsibility, but also to ensure we bring all our stakeholders and value chain in this journey towards net zero. It is critical for the sport industry to understand and measure its environmental impacts in order to minimize it and adapt. Climate change is not a 2050 discussion. It is here and now.”

De Boissezon argues that commercial partners need to be authentic in their approach for sustainability in sport.

“Corporate responsibility needs to be truly embedded in every project we develop, every commercial decision we undertake, otherwise it becomes material for greenwashing. Part of the success for our net zero journey lies with our employee’s involvement. Through our sponsoring activities, we ensure their support and hope to develop their own sporting activities. Playing an active role in decarbonizing the sports industry is an element of pride and consistency for our employees.

“We hope for the pledge to become viral, as we need to move fast and at scale in light of the climate events we are facing all around the world.”

“Sport has that unique power of raising awareness and opening eyes to new realities." ChangeNOW Co-Founder Kevin Tayebaly

A unique tool

The organisations behind the pledge believe the SSCP is a unique tool to accelerate the drive towards sustainability in sport and wider society.

Not only does it directly address the issue of emissions reduction in the sports and business world versus carbon neutrality – which does not commit organizations to reduce their emissions – but it also integrates the notion of third-party certification, a novelty in comparison with other initiatives.

Perhaps more importantly, though, by addressing sponsors directly, the pledge will drive bottom-line benefits for the most proactive organisations in sport.

As ChangeNOW Co-Founder Kevin Tayebaly outlines: “In the future, the most committed sports organisations will be the best financed.”

Tayebaly adds to Global Sustainable Sport: “I believe the SSCP is a game changer for the sports industry and the next step in its commitment to real climate action. By correlating for the first time sponsorship with planet-warming emissions reduction, the pledge leverages financial capability and social pressure to change behaviours, within the sport ecosystem and in society as a whole.

“In other words, with this pledge and the commitment signatories, we are making concrete systemic change happen.”

The list of pledge signatories is already growing, with many other major companies set to be announced by 2024, according to Tayebaly, who adds that the level of interest among athletes is also high. Among the big names supporting the initiative are handball stars Nikola Karabatic and Luka Karabatic, synchronised swimmer Virginie Dedieu, three-time karate world champion Laurence Fischer, former rugby players Julien Pierre and Benjamin Kayser, French wheelchair tennis player Michael Jeremias and sailor Stan Thuret.

Responsibilities

Tayebaly says that whilst major organisations in sport have championed United Nations guidelines on sport and climate action, there are “still too many recent examples of the industry shying away from its responsibility,” including last year’s Fifa World Cup in Qatar.

“Athletes have thankfully started voicing their concerns… others are refusing to travel by plane to major events,” he adds.

“Sport has that unique power of raising awareness and opening eyes to new realities. But to do so, it must set the standards we aim to adopt globally. If the sport ecosystem agrees to show the way forward, it could play a vital role in this race against climate change and accelerate exponentially our collective ability to respond to these global challenges.”

At the outset, major event organisers should “get moving… by measuring their emissions,” Tayebaly says.

“Once you measure, then you can start identifying ways to reduce and then set emission reduction strategies and targets that are in line with the Paris Agreement and certified by a third party.

“Today, there are many organisations and tools available to help these organisations conduct these carbon trajectory audits and make progress. We’re here to help and make them available to all stakeholders involved if needed.

“Our role over the next two years will be to onboard the CSR and sponsorship teams within the signatories’ organisations as well as partners, so that they are fully aware that this becomes an integral part of the sponsoring process. We’ll be there to support them during the commitment application process.”

Transformational change

It is hoped that such support will gain momentum and drive transformational change among businesses and sport.

François Singer, Senior Purpose Partnerships Manager at 17 Sport, says: “We believe it is the role of all of us to accelerate the transformation of sports into a force for good. Every organisation needs to take the 17 Sustainable Development Goals into account for their CSR strategy, or try to reduce the pressure on the nine planetary boundaries.

“Through this pledge, ChangeNOW and 17 Sport share the same mission: to transform how the business of sports operates, deploys financial capital, and leverages technology to drive positive social, environmental, and commercial outcomes. Before the pledge, there was no real alignment between sustainability and sponsorship strategies.

“We still see too many organisations working in silos or negatively impacting each other’s actions. We created this mission to drive every stakeholder to commit to a shared decarbonisation strategy that is aligned with the Paris agreement and certified by an external third party.”

Challenges

However, significant challenges remain – particularly for organisers of major events, which are essentially hubs of consumerism. Singer says that transportation is a key pain point for fans and athletes alike, representing about 80% of an event’s total carbon footprint.

“We expect to have several top new Paris-aligned international sponsors joining us, as well as new supporters from clubs, federations, and athletes who commit to transforming sports into a force for good,” Singer adds. “We also expect sports properties to make a serious commitment to accelerate their decarbonisation and implement a sustainable strategy aligned with the Paris Agreement.

“The energy transition is a necessity. It must take into account planetary limits, equity, and other factors if it is to be complete and initiate the necessary transformations.

“The idea that humankind will change completely overnight is unrealistic — the energy transition will be the result of ongoing negotiations with historical interest groups whose dominant positions are under attack, and with various players whose interests diverge.

“We must all commit to ensure that the trajectories are in line with these objectives, and defend these values.”

Read more about 17 Sport and ChangeNOW.

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