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Will the FIFA Women’s World Cup deliver on its sustainability goals?

July 13 2023

The FIFA Women’s World Cup kicks off next week in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, marking the start of the most high-profile event in the women’s football calendar.

The tournament comes at a time when the popularity of the women’s game has never been higher, while sport is increasingly turning its attention to the need to build a sustainable industry. So how will the FIFA Women’s World Cup address the the most pressing social and environmental issues of our time?

With a week to go until the opening match, the Women’s World Cup has laid the groundwork for an inclusive event—but we still have little data on its full environmental impact.

Anticipation grows for a record-breaking event

The Women’s World Cup, which kicks off on the 20th July, is the ninth edition of the tournament, and will take place in venues across Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, concluding on the 20th August. The tournament will feature a record 32 teams, and games will be played in nine host cities including Brisbane/Meaanjin, Sydney/Gadigal, Melbourne/Naarm, Auckland/Tāmaki Makaurau and Dunedin/ Ōtepoti.

More than 1.2 million people attended the last tournament, held in France in 2019, and more than 1 billion people watched from across the world. This included more than 263 million unique viewers for the final, which became the most-watched match in FIFA Women’s World Cup history.

With a week to go, this year’s tournament has already broken records. In June, the event had sold a total of 1,032,884 tickets and was ‘on track to become the most attended standalone women’s sporting event ever’. Demand for tickets was so high that Australia’s opening match against Ireland was relocated to Stadium Australia, which has a capacity of 83,500.

This growing demand chimes with the wider growth in the popularity and visibility of women’s football in recent years. FIFA itself has called women’s football ‘the single biggest growth opportunity in football today’, and in 2018 published the FIFA Women’s Football Strategy. Objectives include growing participation from 30 million to 60 million, doubling the number of girls playing the game globally, enhancing commercial value, and creating a ‘more sophisticated’ women’s football ecosystem.

In the five years since the publication of the Women’s Football Strategy, grassroots interest in women’s football has continued to grow. The 2021 UEFA European Women’s Football Championships, held last year, were heralded as a ‘breakthrough moment’ for the women’s game in Europe. Following the event, there were increased calls to improve access to football for women and girls, including making football accessible for girls at school and improving television coverage.

One sign of the increasing reach of women’s football is the commercialisation of the sport. Broadcast rights have been sold for the first time for this year’s World Cup, while organisers have also increased the prize money: players for teams eliminated in the group stage will each receive a minimum of $30,000, while the national governing body will receive a payment of $1.56 million. For the winners, players will receive at least $270,000, and federations will net $4.29 million.

During this year’s International Women’s Day celebrations, FIFA’s Chief Women’s Football Officer Sarai Bareman highlighted the power of the tournament. “That is one of the beautiful things about a Woman’s World Cup,” she said. “It’s a huge platform to highlight the progress that has been made in women’s football and sports.”

This year’s Women’s World Cup has the perfect opportunity to translate growing interest into concrete investment and structural change.

Increased scrutiny of sustainability claims

Beyond the growth of women’s football, however, the Women’s World Cup is also being held at a time of increased awareness of the climate crisis, its impact on sport, and the need to take action to build a genuinely sustainable industry.

Large-scale international tournaments in particular can have a huge effect on the environment, generating substantial carbon emissions through factors including venues, catering, and spectator and athlete travel.

The impact of large events can be notoriously difficult to track, and FIFA has attracted criticism for past tournaments. The 2022 Men’s World Cup, held last year in Qatar, claimed to be the world’s first carbon-neutral World Cup. Since then, however, the Swiss Fairness Commission has upheld complaints from five countries arguing that these claims were unsubstantiated, highlighting the tournament’s alleged underestimation of emissions and a lack of credibility surrounding its offsetting programme.

In April, FIFA’s Head of Sustainability Federico Addiechi addressed the European Parliament during a session on environmental sustainability in sport. He acknowledged the need for events like the Women’s World Cup to address their own impact and use their platforms to raise awareness of sustainability issues.

In an attempt to address the issue, FIFA published a FIFA Women’s World Cup Sustainability Strategy in September 2022, which lays out its approach to social, environmental, and governance issues. The approach aligns with FIFA’s wider Climate Strategy, which was launched at COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021, and FIFA’s commitment to the United Nations Sports for Climate Action Framework, which aims to reduce emissions in line with a 50% reduction by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2040.

The Women’s World Cup Sustainability Strategy and Sustainability Progress Report

Despite this emphasis on sustainability, the official Sustainability Strategy is thin on concrete objectives. Instead, it emphasises how the tournament will align with the FIFA Women’s Football Strategy, FIFA’s own global sustainability goals, and local needs in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand.

The tournament has identified four areas of focus: accessibility, environment, human rights, and safeguarding.

Social priorities include promoting gender equality by creating joint initiatives with local partners; ensuring an inclusive, discrimination-free event, including ensuring engagement with First Nations and Māori people; ensuring accessible venues; and protecting workers’ rights. Climate priorities include estimating and mitigating the event’s GHG emissions; minimising waste; and ensuring sustainable buildings and procurement.

More recently, FIFA has published a Sustainability Progress Report, which tracks progress on these goals.

Achievements under the human rights and safeguarding focus include introducing an all-women First Nations Australian and Māori advisory panel; providing Safeguarding and Welfare Officers for each participating team; training all staff and volunteers on safeguarding issues; and integrating a sustainable procurement process.

FIFA have also partnered with UN agencies to raise awareness of eight social causes during the two-week event, including inclusion, gender equality, and peace. Following consultation with its advisory panel, the event will use Traditional Place Names for host cities and team base camp locations, and the indigenous flags of Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand will be flown at each match.

Inclusion of indigenous communities has been part of the event’s sustainability strategy from the beginning. In a statement, FIFA President Gianni Infantino said:

FIFA recognises the importance of First Nations in Australia and Māori as tangata whenua in Aotearoa New Zealand in the hosting of the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023. An important step in the delivery and preparation of the tournament was the establishment of an all-women cultural advisory panel to create enduring relationships in partnership with First Nations and Māori communities and to ensure meaningful engagement and inclusion for all cultural touchpoints across the tournament.

Meanwhile, under the accessibility focus, organisers have launched audio descriptive commentary training courses for local commentators; carried out accessibility audits of all stadia; and developed a volunteer programme with roles catering to specific accessibility requirements.

But, when it comes to environmental goals, the event has not estimated its carbon emissions or published concrete strategies to mitigate them. Some measures organisers have taken include prioritising use of low-emission or recyclable and reusable materials and developing programmes for waste dissolution and emissions mitigation. All ten event venues have now received green building certification, and a series of installations under the theme of ‘Football Rewilded’ will be positioned at each venue to bring attention to local biodiversity. Despite these measures, though, the lack of clear data on emissions is glaring.

Building on a global platform

Given its vast platform, the Women’s World Cup also has a huge opportunity to promote the women’s game, raise awareness of sustainability issues, and lead the way in transparent reporting.

The event has certainly provided an opportunity to shine a light on issues facing women’s football, including women’s increased risk of ACL injuries and the problems of playing on poor-quality pitches. Meanwhile, on its own platforms, FIFA has shared stories of local fans, clubs, and athletes under each of their four areas of focus: human rights, safeguarding, environmental sustainability, and accessibility and inclusion.

The Women’s World Cup has also provided a focus for activism and sustainability-related initiatives from around the globe. For example, The Ball, an initiative developed by Spirit of Football to promote gender equality and climate action, has travelled across the world for the last twelve months for the opening of the event, holding workshops with young people to raise awareness of climate action and gender equality along the way.

The first person to sign The Ball was New Zealand international Katie Rood, who plays for Hearts FC in Scotland. She said: “Everyone loves the World Cup, but if we are to be able to continue playing it in the future, we need collective and urgent climate action. The journey of The Ball from London to New Zealand is an opportunity for football to get its environmental act in order. I am going to take action. Are you?”

Meanwhile, Pledgeball, a UK-based charity that encourages football fans to make pro-environmental pledges, has launched its own Women’s World Cup campaign focusing on reducing emissions and supporting girls’ access to sport and education.

Despite these positive examples, though, there is little transparent reporting around the environmental, social and governmental impacts of the event. This makes it difficult to measure how much genuine progress the Women’s World Cup has made across all seven GSS Sustainable Pillars of Sport.

Some progress on inclusion, but a long way to go

The Women’s World Cup is a global event with a vast platform, and the potential to provide a model for the rest of the industry is huge.

So far, initiatives around human rights, inclusion, and raising the profile of the women’s game have made tangible progress, particularly around the inclusion of First Nation Australian and Māori New Zealand communities and the emphasis on accessibility.

But the sustainability strategy has not laid out any concrete goals and targets, particularly when it comes to addressing the event’s environmental impact. The Sustainability Progress report fails to set out clear emissions targets and progress towards them.

Given the vast impact of these international events, and the widespread criticism of the Men’s World Cup in Qatar last year, FIFA and the organisers of the event have a collective responsibility to address these issues head-on. If the Women’s World Cup is to make any serious impact, it will need to transparently report on its impacts and mitigation strategies.

As the opening game draws closer, the world will be watching to see whether the Women’s World Cup can deliver on its promises, both for women’s football and for the planet.

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    Read moreBethany White