Feature

Sustainable partnerships: sincerity, authenticity and switched-on ambassadors

May 02 2024

With the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games looming on the horizon, how can brands leverage athletes and their platform to support and encourage sustainable practices?

Sustainable partnerships: sincerity, authenticity and switched-on ambassadors

Paris 2024 is just around the corner, with the Olympics taking place between July 26 and August, and the Paralympics running from August 28 and September 8. 

With less than three months to go until one of the world’s largest sporting spectacles, brands and sponsors have ramped up their promotional work. Paris 2024 organisers have attempted to embed as many sustainable practices into the event as possible, meaning brands have also opened up their eyes to sustainability.

Any athlete can be sponsored by a brand, undertake promotional work, and claim they care about the environment for a campaign on social media.

However, consumers are increasingly aware of ‘green-washing’ and insincerity, especially on social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok. The constant pressure to purchase goods and live the same lifestyle as ‘influencers’ online – who usually make commission on anything you buy through their platform – is indeed, unsustainable. 

But as the years have gone on since the early days of ‘influencer’ culture, audiences have woken up to the detrimental impact on mental health – and their own footprint – that attempting to keep up with trends, fast fashion and buying from the right brands, can have. 

We have already witnessed this decline over the last couple of years, with Rolling Stone’s Robbie Murch writing in 2022: “The decline in trust of social media and influencers from consumers has meant that there is a heightened need for brands to humanise, as young consumers crave more meaningful interactions.”

This idea of “meaningful interaction” and “trust” has transcended the ‘influencer’ bubble and now covers celebrity or sporting brand ambassadors, and advertising campaigns. 

Especially when it comes to topics such as environmental sustainability and social impact causes. 

Team Panasonic

Panasonic is a universally recognised electronics and technology brand, originally founded over 100 years ago as Matsushita Electric Housewares Manufacturing Works in 1918.

While companies the world over tentatively embark on their sustainability journeys, Panasonic has focused on sustainability throughout its lifetime.

This can largely be attributed to the company’s Japanese heritage, explains Anne Guennewig, General Manager of Corporate Communications at Panasonic Europe.

In fact, one of the first products manufactured by Panasonic’s founder Kōnosuke Matsushita was a light socket made from recycled materials.

“Panasonic is a company with a history of more than 100 years. Sustainability is part of our DNA, and not just since it became fashionable to be green. The first product that our founder invented was a light socket made out of recycled metals, because at that time, metal was a scarce resource,” Guennewig tells Global Sustainable Sport.

“When most people speak about sustainability, they talk about ecology, but we also see it in the wider sense that encompasses the social component as well.

“And this is also really because of our history. Our founder grew up in fairly poor circumstances, and his call was always to support society. Even though we are a private entity, we must contribute to society. That may sound very high aiming, but in Japan it really is meant that way.”

Panasonic’s commitment to sustainability can also be seen through its Green Impact initiative, which includes goals to reduce its own CO2 footprint, support society’s shift to reduce its carbon output, and to promote a circular economy.

Additionally, the electronics company has taken its most recent iteration of Team Panasonic and focused on sustainability ahead of this summer’s Olympic and Paralympic Games in Paris.

Team Panasonic sees the electronics company work with athletes the world over.

“Our previous slogan for promoting our Olympics engagement was ‘Sharing the passion’ and actually that hasn't changed. We have a passion for the environment and we have a passion for sports." Anne Guennewig, General Manager of Corporate Communications at Panasonic Europe

While the North American market has its own Team Panasonic with the likes of athletes Katie Ledecky, Michael Phelps, Nathan Chen and Noah Malone, it was Europe’s time to shine given France is set to play host.

Team Panasonic may have evolved over the years, but the focus has largely remained the same.

“Our global slogan for promoting our Olympics engagement has been ‘Sharing the passion’ and actually that hasn’t changed. We have a passion for the environment and we have a passion for sports,” says Guennewig.

The European communications team didn’t want to shove a product into the hands of an Olympic or Paralympic athlete and tell them to promote it – of course there will be some promotion, as this is also the point of brands working with major sporting events – but they wanted to spread a message around sustainability.

“We were completely open, whether it be Paralympic or Olympic athletes, male or female, any other gender,” explains Guennewig.

“But our main criteria was that the person needed to be sustainably engaged. We are very conscious of green-washing, and we didn’t want to put a ‘green sticker’ on an athlete’s jersey and say like ‘wow’ this athlete is a green one.

“We want transparent communications, we want to see that this athlete has already turned their mind towards issues that are related to climate change.”

Authenticity was required when sending out a message on sustainability, with Panasonic Europe wanting to work with athletes that were competing this summer and had already turned their attentions to this space.

This proved a little tricky for the European communications department.

Stella Richetti, Manager of Corporate Communications at Panasonic Europe, explains: “It was really challenging, because there are a lot of athletes that are willing to collaborate with brands, but it was not so easy to find ones that are already doing something on the sustainability side.

“They are just so focused on their sports, on their specialism. In the case of the Olympics, we were focused on athletes that are going to compete. And when it was one year to go until the competition, they are obviously dedicating 99% of their time thinking about the Olympics.”

While British two-time gold medallist sailor Hannah Mills will not be competing at Paris 2024, her commitment to sustainability meant that she was perfect for Team Panasonic.

“Hannah Mills was great for setting the bar. She is an athlete that has opened her eyes to sustainability,” explains Richetti.

“When we first spoke with her there was a chemistry, and she said ‘yep, but for personal reasons I am not going to be competing at Paris 2024’. However, we felt that she had all the ingredients: she’s engaged, she understands, she’s super knowledgeable. For example, she would ask very specific questions about what Panasonic is doing in terms of sustainability reports and so on.”

Mills is already a sustainability ambassador for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), as well as the ‘Global Purpose Ambassador’ for SailGP. With support from the IOC,  Mills helped to launch global campaign the Big Plastic Pledge, which inspires athletes and fans to reduce their reliance on single-use plastics. Additionally, Mills is the co-founder of Athletes of the World, an athlete group campaigning for positive impact around climate change.

Completing the line-up for Team Panasonic is British Paralympian and wheelchair racer, Hannah Cockroft, German Olympic long-jumper Malaika Mihambo and Tahitian surfer Vahiné Fierro, who is set to feature at her first Games.

“Cockroft was engaged very much in the social part and was already working with English Athletics to reduce single-use plastics, and working on how they could make their events more sustainable,” says Richetti.

Guennewig continues: “Fierro, similarly to Mills, is focused on the ocean. There are so many beautiful, wonderful areas that are endangered, including around Tahiti especially. The rise of the temperature in the ocean endangers coral, which is a source for biodiversity. So, this is where Vahiné works together with another NGO [non-governmental organisation] in Tahiti to replant corals and bring back biodiversity in the area around Tahiti.”

Sustainability is a team effort

Panasonic chose to work with these four women because they were already active in sustainability. Their dedication to highlighting issues around climate change, and societal matters, would help Team Panasonic’s sustainable Olympic campaign to appear sincere and promote actual change.

“We need to capture the minds of all that might not have been thinking about [sustainability] in the first place,” says Guennewig.

“We don’t want to leave anyone out, it’s especially important to get everyone on board, from the youngsters to people in their more mature ages. So, this is where we see these athletes as a fantastic opportunity to address different age groups, and different people that are following these women, who have a passion for sports and sustainability.”

"Sustainability requires companies, citizens and athletes to be engaged so that we can make the change." Stella Richetti, Manager of Corporate Communications at Panasonic Europe

Additionally, the campaign focuses on social media, with the partnerships running in the build-up, throughout the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and beyond.

A running theme within the sustainability space is that slowing down the effects of climate change can only be done collectively. This is where social media can be a powerful tool – it can reach a wide range of people; but rather than old school advertising and media campaigns, it can also provide a platform to discuss issues and reveal steps to be more aware.

“The campaign had to be social media-led. It can’t be classical media-led like it has been over the last century,” explains Guennewig.

“It can’t be broadcast for several months, it is not flexible. It has to be flexible to the events that happen in the world, it has to be flexible to events that happen around the athletes. It should also be able to include anything new from Panasonic obviously.”

Richetti adds: “It was obvious that it needed to be social media-led. These athletes were already leveraging their own social media, their own platforms, to talk about sustainability. And that’s how we also found a true connection.

“The campaign is already running and will run throughout the Olympics, and we are portraying the message ‘Together, Action, Progress’, where we will say that sustainability is a team effort. Sustainability requires companies, citizens and athletes to be engaged so that we can make the change. Change our habits, to do something that is meaningful. With some, we are supporting with this content creation together.”

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