Sustainability in Sport 2023 – Day 1: Invigorates discussion, highlights challenges, and explores opportunities across the seven sustainable pillars of sport
Stakeholders from all sectors of the sports industry, including federations, host cities, regions, leagues, venues, teams, clubs, suppliers, consultants, academics, tech innovators, media and athletes, all came together this week for Sustainability in Sport 2023, held online on 17th and 18th April. Across two discussion-packed mornings, speakers highlighted challenges and opportunities facing the sports industry as it tries to adopt a more sustainable future.
The course, delivered as a partnership between InSport Education and Global Sustainable Sport, aimed to highlight how sport can become more sustainable, the role the industry can play in meeting the sustainability agenda, and how sport itself is uniquely placed to be a catalyst for change. Drawing on wide-ranging expertise, the course provided real-world examples of how sports stakeholders can build a sustainable commercial business alongside purposeful sustainable activities in all areas of their operations.
The seven sustainable pillars
Mike Laflin of Global Sustainable Sport kicked off the course by providing an overview of the current state of sustainability in the industry and introducing the seven Sustainable Pillars of Sport.
The sports industry, he argued, is waking up to the importance of sustainability, particularly over the past two years. Examples of good practice are emerging from both smaller and larger-scale organisations, including Borussia Dortmund’s comprehensive sustainability reports, the International Biathlon Union (IBU)’s sustainability programme, Birmingham County FA’s Save Today, Play Tomorrow initiative, and UEFA’s sustainability strategy.
However, there is still no standard framework available for reporting on sustainability in sport. He noted that existing sustainability frameworks, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), ESG, and official certifications such as ISO, while important, do not capture the scope and potential of the sports industry. Without a comprehensive framework to identify sustainability work and measure progress, the sports industry will struggle to know where it’s going, how it will get there, and when it has arrived. Just like an athlete working towards a PB, the industry needs a clear plan in place if it is to help meet ambitious sustainability targets.
The seven sustainable pillars of sport—partnerships, participation, people, planet, power, profile, and prosperity—have been purposefully designed to capture all areas of sport and to address the lack of an industry-specific sustainability framework. The remaining sessions of the first day covered the first three of these: participation, people, and profile.
Participation: The importance of getting people active
The first discussion addressed the importance of getting people active from a range of industry perspectives. Chris Robb, CEO of Mass Participation World, Damian Hatton, founder of inFocus Consulting, and Mel Berry, founder of Her Spirit discussed their current work and highlighted key issues in encouraging physical activity, running mass participation events, and how the industry can use physical education programmes to achieve the SDGs.
Damian Hatton, who founded Street League and inFocus, has worked on several projects in the sport for development field. He discussed some of his recent work with governments and intergovernmental agencies, including UNESCO’s Fit For Life project, which aims to enhance the contribution of the PEPAS (Physical Education, Physical Activity and Sport) sector to attain specific sustainable development goals. He emphasised the importance of ‘intentionality’ if the sector is to help achieve the SDGs: within the PEPAS sector there is a wide range of organisations, from mass events to community programmes, and ensuring full focus from all players on achieving the SDGs is crucial. He explained the Theory of Change and emphasised that sport needed to “up its game” and deliver better outcomes at all levels of the participation pyramid: working from recreational exercise right up to elite sport.
Next, Mel Berry, one of the co-founders of HerSpirit, discussed her experience of encouraging women to take part in physical activity by addressing barriers to participation. HerSpirit, an all-female online community that provides coaching and live-streamed classes, aims to help women become fitter and healthier by eliminating typical participation barriers. The app was launched in 2018 and emerged from an understanding of the specific barriers women who wanted to engage in sport were facing: a lack of confidence, limited time, and reduced motivation. By targeting these areas directly, HerSpirit has grown a large and diverse community of active women. Berry’s experience of growing HerSpirit is a perfect example of how to improve participation through a deep, research-backed understanding of the needs of a target demographic. The project has been supported by two rounds of funding but is now trying to develop a mix of subscription revenue, private, and public funding. To date it has engaged over 30,000 women participating its three core activities of running, swimming and cycling.
Finally, Chris Robb, CEO of Mass Participation World, addressed challenges facing the mass participation industry, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic, and emphasised the need to focus on social and commercial sustainability as well as environmental sustainability. The lower entry levels, reduced sponsorship, staff changes, and higher costs seen since the pandemic may seem like a ‘doom and gloom’ scenario, but Robb argued that the industry should see these new challenges as a real opportunity to create new, more sustainable business models, which in turn can help drive environmental initiatives. He focused on whether the industry needed to re-think its approach and emphasise broader health and wellbeing rather than focusing on the getting people active, which might engage the health budgets of most countries, which are often significantly larger than sports budgets. Robb also discussed the ‘trickle-down’ effect when a single person exercising could potentially stimulate over 200 other people to get active, a research programme that he is currently looking to fund.
Together, the three speakers addressed some critical issues to consider when looking at participation: the need for collaboration and partnerships, particularly with governments and non-governmental organisations; ensuring intentionality and targeted measures; and the importance of a new commercial approach.
People: Engaging fans and communities
After concluding the discussion on participation, the course moved on to focus on how sports stakeholders can engage fans and communities to enhance awareness of sustainability issues. Alexandra Rickham, Head of Sustainability at World Sailing, and Katie Cross, Founder of Pledgeball, discussed their own experiences of directly engaging sports fans.
Katie Cross, who founded Pledgeball in 2019, explained how the organisation uses peer-reviewed research to encourage sports fans to address sustainability. Pledgeball taps into existing fan communities to encourage supporters to make individual environmental pledges and to tackle paralysis and pessimism. Cross argued that, rather than focusing on ‘educating’ fans, which is a very top-down approach, creating dialogue and empowering action makes people feel involved, which ensures wider-reaching and more long-term behaviour change. She added that, while there is plenty of evidence that ‘doom and gloom’ messaging does not work, focusing on positive messaging while providing evidence and statistics can drive sports fans to take action.
Building on this, Alexandra Rickham, Head of Sustainability at World Sailing, provided an overview of how the organisation has sought to engage its fans. She noted that sailing, like winter sports, is often ahead of the game in the sustainability conversation because of the very visible impacts of climate change on the industry, including issues with water quality, delays and cancellations, and plastic pollution. World Sailing has built on this engagement by creating a sustainability strategy, Agenda 2030, and resources and educational materials. The focus has been on bringing the sailing community together as a collective: even when fans and communities are already engaged individually, Rickham argued, organisations can work to bring them together and push for change collectively.
Profile: The power of athletes to drive sustainability
Building on the discussion on how best to engage fan communities, the final session of the day addressed the role of athletes in driving sustainability. Hugo Inglis, New Zealand hockey player and Managing Director of High Impact Athletes, and Ellis Spieza, electric racing driver with Ellysium Racing, discussed their individual journeys and shared ideas on how athletes can make their own contributions as well as use their profile to drive sustainable outcomes.
The two speakers addressed the question from different vantage points: Spieza, who is at the beginning of his career as an electric racing driver, explored how a younger generation of athletes are using new technologies and ways of connecting with fans and followers, while Inglis, who has already achieved an impressive career as a New Zealand hockey player, provided insights from his work over several years.
Spieza, who is an EcoAthletes Champion and a High Impact Athletes Ambassador, argued that electric racing is growing in popularity and reach, and as a result is providing new opportunities to connect with sustainable sponsors who, until now, have not engaged with the racing industry. He noted that the growth of the electric racing industry, exemplified by the increasing number of events such as the NXT Gen Cup and the ERA Championship, is lowering barriers to participation because of the reduced costs and maintenance of electric cars, and is also paving the way for innovation and investment in greener, cleaner technologies. As a young athlete in an emerging field, Spieza is using his platform to improve fan engagement in sustainability.
In the broader sporting industry, Inglis discussed his work as Managing Director of High Impact Athletes, which helps athletes to donate to and support the most cost-effective, evidence-based charities with the highest impact. Focusing on global health and poverty, environmental impact, and animal welfare, High Impact Athletes works with charity research organisations such as GiveWell to assess charities and provide recommendations for athletes who want to give back. Inglis argued that many athletes have the desire to address issues that fall under the sustainability umbrella, and that using data and evidence-based research to help athletes make the most impact is crucial. This way, athletes can also be confident when publicly lending their support to causes.
The discussion that followed addressed critical issues such as the role of offsetting in athlete travel, the impact that ‘mega’ athletes should play in driving awareness of sustainability, and the importance of data, information and transparency to ensure athlete confidence.
Lessons from day one
After a rich session packed with lessons, examples, debates, and questions spanning participation, people, and profile, there was a resounding sense that, while there is still a long way to go and plenty of room for debate, important change in the sports industry has already begun. Continued opportunities to discuss and share best practice will be important on the road to 2030. ‘We need to act and we need to act boldly,’ Inglis said. ‘But we can change things.’
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