Who is setting the benchmark for sports sustainability?

February 08 2024

The third edition of the Global Sustainability Benchmark in Sports (GSBS) report was recently published, detailing the initiatives of clubs and organisations attempting to be more considerate of their environmental impact. But how many have actually improved on their goals for sustainability – and are any slipping behind in the race?

Who is setting the benchmark for sports sustainability?

As GSBS Chief Executive Christian Hartmann tells Global Sustainable Sport, the taste for competition among sports organisations extends to sustainability. Put simply, they are keen to know where they rank in their efforts and results against others.

So how can a rating or a rank help clubs, bodies and event organisers to make progress when it comes to all areas of sustainability?

GSBS is an independent not-for-profit organisation that analyses and rates the sustainability performance of professional sporting entities. 

The report takes into consideration four pillars across sustainability: corporate, environmental, social and governance. The GSBS reporting framework is applied across some 1,700 total data points depending on availability, before ranking each participating organisation.

This time out, some 500 organisations were invited from all continents to be part of the 2023 reporting cycle, with GSBS increasing the number of participants to 55. This is up from the 300 that were invited in 2022 and the 51 that took part. Of the latest participants, 31% actively provided corresponding data, while 69% were rated on publicly available data. 

Organisations from Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, the UK and the US contributed to the 2023 GSBS reporting cycle. Twenty-nine per cent of the participants were an association, league or competition while 71% were a club, franchise or team. 

"We believe there are good examples out there and thinking only in silos is isolating." Christian Hartmann, Chief Executive of Global Sustainability Benchmark in Sports

Four participants were in American Football; two in baseball; 11 in basketball; two in contact sports; 27 were football clubs; one was a handball outfit; one participated in ice hockey; six were in motorsports; and one in tennis. Unlike a specific sporting index that collates information from different members of that sport on sustainability, GSBS opted to rate organisations from as many sports as possible.

“Organisations nowadays understand roughly where they stand against their peers in their sport, but they want more,” Hartmann explains. “They want to understand where they stand on a global scale against organisations on other continents. We believe there are good examples out there and thinking only in silos is isolating.

“Even if you’re playing American football in North America, if your stadium has some good features, for example if it is very water efficient, then you can apply this to a cricket ground or a football stadium in Europe.”

Christian Hartmann, Chief Executive of Global Sustainability Benchmark in Sports

Christian Hartmann, Chief Executive of Global Sustainability Benchmark in Sports

The purpose is not to pit the participants against each other though, according to Hartmann.

“We are looking at the organisation itself throughout the process, applying our system and then at the end, we can compare them with each other. We are not comparing the organisations throughout the rating systems, because we are looking at so many organisations from different regions, of different sizes,” he says.

The four pillars of GSBS

The GSBS rating systems looks at the corporate, environmental, social and governance aspects of each organisation. Within the corporate pillar, financial and investment behaviour; organisational structure; sustainability approach; sponsorship; strategies and policies; materiality; risk management; value creation; fines; and whether or not there is an ingrained sustainability department are all taken into consideration.

The environmental pillar analyses the usual suspects: emissions; business and commuter travel; fan travel; carbon offsetting; energy, water and paper consumption; lighting; waste generation; intensities; facility management; ground care; food and nutrition; climate change; biodiversity and the supply chain. Additionally, air, light and noise pollution are also considered in the GSBS assessment method.

GSBS’ definition of social does not just highlight outreach programmes or the participation of local groups in club initiatives for example, but also on company-focused aspects. This includes the number of employees; gender; age; diversity; management structure; employment types; employee turnover; employee development; professional athletes; renumeration; human rights and social oppression; health and safety; social impact and megatrends; and supply chain.

The governance pillar inspects board, structure, composition, diversity, policies, pay, anti-corruption, measurements and processes, stakeholder management and more.

In total, 27 main topics are discussed, followed by 109 topics, 129 sub-topics and 26 sub-sub-topics. The GSBS report argues that all of these aspects mean that rankings and ratings are based purely on data.

So, who topped the GSBS Ratings 2023 list?

Formula E stood at the summit alongside German Bundesliga football club Borussia Dortmund on an 81% ranking. Portugal’s FC Porto followed closely behind in third, with 79%.

Formula E was also the top-ranked sports series in the 2021-22 report, with Borussia Dortmund making an improvement on 74% last year, and 72% in 2021-22 which saw the football club top the table. This year’s third-placed Porto did not feature in last year’s report, while last year’s bronze medallist Juventus fell to 12th from a 74% rating to a 68% grade.

When inviting organisations to participate in the Global Sustainability Benchmark in Sports report each year, Hartmann explains that choosing organisations can often come down to key aspects such as size and global following.

“We have a set of certain organisations that we believe are so important and so influential on a global scale, that it should be their natural responsibility to be accountable for their actions, and being transparent with this,” says Hartmann.

“They should report, or provide information – maybe even ideally to us! – so that everybody can have a look at them.”

The hope here is that larger organisations reporting on their sustainability initiatives can influence smaller organisations, and demonstrate the benefits of recording this information.

Hartman notes that the ratings are the result of looking at the whole picture – should one area score negatively, but others highly, this will be reflected in the overall grading. This is why, for example, Formula E is at the top with 81%, despite scoring 69% in the environmental pillar. The electric motor-racing series scored 90% in corporate, 81% in social and 85% in governance, meaning its overall percentage was much higher.

“We have close to 2,000 data points at the end of the day. If there is only one topic that is pretty ‘bad’, it doesn’t have that big an impact,” explains Hartmann.

Breaking it down

Formula E scored highly within the corporate pillar of the GSBS report as it demonstrated a solid top corporate structure, and sound policies and strategies. It also had a dedicated team for sustainability, relayed its materiality, impact and risk analysis, employed working groups and showcased active investments.

Within the environmental pillar, Formula E scored a little lower but made information available on its greenhouse gas emissions; business and commuter travel; energy, water and paper consumption; waste data; and fan travel data.

On the social side of things, Formula E demonstrated an ‘outstanding approach towards employee development and engagement’ while also working within local communities. The sport’s second-highest percentage came in the governance section, demonstrate strong stakeholder management, economic impact and organisation structure.

Development

During the next cycle of analysis, Hartmann and his team at GSBS are looking into creating a measurement focused on ‘greenwashing’. By definition, this is where a marketing team may present products, initiatives or policies in an environmentally friendly way, despite having little to back up these claims.

“What is really critical is that communication is not always backed by the data,” says Hartmann. “So that’s obviously misleading.”

Additionally, Hartmann highlights the trend of increasing carbon emissions, despite more organisations committing to be carbon neutral by 2030. He ponders if committing to these targets can be seen as a form of greenwashing, as organisations look for an easy fix by claiming a target.

“We’ve had the impact from COVID-19, but we used measures where possible to balance that out, but the numbers on [carbon emissions] are usually growing,” explains Hartmann. “Again, when it comes to greenwashing, it’s very critical because some organisations are stretching for something very easy and very quick, with claims to be carbon neutral by 2030, but we are in 2024, so you have to start somewhere.”

When it comes to beginning the journey towards accountability, Hartman understands that some organisations may be worried by the concept of being ‘rated’, particularly on such an important topic as sustainability.

“I can understand that some are scared by a rating, and knowing where you stand against peers,” he says. “But it helps to know where you stand from an independent perspective.

“Depending on our personality, we may think we are amazing, we may think that we are not so good. And then getting an understanding of where you actually stand, and it being purely data-driven, they [organisations] find it very beneficial.”

The Global Sustainability Benchmark in Sports is a global, independent not-for-profit organisation with the clear objective to tackle the challenges of the 21st century by analysing and rating the sustainability performance of professional sports organisations.

Find out more, here.

Main image: Rico Reynaldi on Unsplash

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