The Need and the Opportunity

The world needs climate action.

The Social Case for Sustainability

Over 3.3 billion people—nearly half the world's population—are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change due to the circumstances in which they live, according to a new U.N. report.50 Unless we make a concentrated effort to transition to low-carbon economies within the next five years, we will not be able to stay beneath the danger threshold set at two degrees.44

Sports, as an industry impacting and impacted by the environment, has a responsibility to lead on this charge. Because of the complexity and interconnectedness of climate challenges, there are countless examples of how sustainability considerations are important to sports:

The Business Case for Sustainability

Beyond the critical need for climate action, there is a business case for engaging in more sustainable practices. Sports fans, especially younger fans, expect and reward businesses and brands for acting sustainably:

Unless greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, only one out of 21 former hosts of the Winter Olympics would still be a reliable site for the Games by the end of the century21

Non-renewable resources and harmful substances emitted during the building and use of the sports facilities needed for elite or professional sports negatively impact the environment31,16

Mega events, such as the Olympics, may emit as much as 3.4 million tons of CO2, and the global soccer industry produces nearly ten times that amount (30 million tons)—approximately the amount of a country Denmark's size52

Travel for sporting events—by spectators, amateurs, and professionals—contributes to emissions.31,16 In fact, air travel by the NHL, NBA, MLB, and NFL (the four largest North American sports leagues) created an estimated 122,000 tons of CO2 emissions in 201859

Sports events generate approximately 39 million pounds of trash each year26

Sports equipment can contribute to environmental damage throughout its life cycle31

Increasing temperatures could make participating in outdoor sports more dangerous58


of sports fans between the ages of 16 to 24 support environmental change and expect brands, athletes, and teams to support their values18


of consumers want businesses to create change on carbon emissions, societal issues, and supply chain26


of soccer fans care about their club's sustainable impact, according to a 2019 study16


"Prosumers" are "leading influencers and market drivers" whose behaviors will be followed by mainstream consumers within 6 to 18 months, as defined by Havas Sports & Entertainment and advertising agency BETC.12

of "prosumers"i think that mega events need to account for ecological issues more seriously, while 89% think that sporting goods—kits and other equipment—need to be more sustainable12


of consumers are likely to switch to more eco-friendly brands,44 showing that consumers and brands are paying attention and will cut ties with organizations that are not acting sustainably

Businesses who are acting sustainably are achieving positive performance indicators and cost savings. Nielsen projected an 11 percent revenue growth for rights holders with a sustainability agenda over the next three to five years.43 These revenue potentials are heightened by the opportunity for large cost savings. Oxford University and investment management firm Arabesque Partners discovered that 90 percent of studies found that high environmental, social, and governance (ESG) standards reduced companies’ cost of capital.44

The Time is Now

Climate action is needed to protect our planet, people, and future. The support of consumers and other stakeholders creates the opportunity for the sports industry to lead on issues of sustainability.

In general, any companies that don’t comply with ESG (environmental, social and governance) criteria will simply disappear. . . It’s the same for sport. First they will lose sponsors and then they will lose fans because they don’t want to be part of a community that hurts the planet. If you don’t help reduce global warming, your sport will be out of business.

Yannick Bollore
CEO of Havas, speaking to
The Sustainability Report

Sports Must be a Leader in Sustainability

'Sustainability' is a broad term, encapsulating multiple topics. It encompasses not only environmental, but also social and governance issues. One well-known definition of sustainability or 'sustainable development' is "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."51 This sentiment is echoed in the mission of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which include social and economic goals (for example, ending poverty, reducing inequality, and spurring economic growth) and environmental goals (tackling climate change and working to preserve oceans and forests).17

The different areas of sustainability—environmental, social, and governance—are intertwined, and it is important to realize the interconnectedness of these issues. The Business & Sustainable Development Commission emphasizes that "the environmental goals [of the UN Sustainable Development Goals] cannot be delivered without the social goals and vice versa," and that making "progress towards the two degrees warming limit and the Global Goals will together in effect “reboot” the world’s economic systems, making normal business activity intrinsically sustainable, socially fair and environmentally stable."44

While recognizing the importance of holistic thinking about sustainability, for the purpose of this report, we will focus on environmental sustainability. Environmental sustainability is changing how people and businesses interact with the world to conserve resources, protect global ecosystems, and keep the planet within safe environmental bounds. This is a broad definition, encapsulating the widespread ways of talking about environmental sustainability, which reveal the many different approaches an organization could take.

Where the Industry Must Focus

Just as sustainability itself is a broad term, the sheer number of ways that environmental sustainability could be approached can feel daunting. By interviewing experts in the field of environmental sustainability and conducting research on the sports industry, we have identified five Sustainability Areas of Focus within the sports industry: Carbon & Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions, Natural World, Circular Economy, Water, and Energy. These focus areas are tightly interconnected, where acting on one focus area impacts another, which creates a hierarchy of initiatives. Carbon & GHG Emissions and Natural World are of peak concern when we think about the changing climate and addressing the environmental emergency the world is in. However, initiatives that are concerned with Circular Economy, Water, and Energy can impact these higher-level goals.

We have defined these areas of focus and their associated sub-foci. In this, we have included both the positive impacts and potential limitations. The goal here is not to create paralysis for fear of doing something wrong, quite the opposite. By arming you with all the information, we want the sports industry to feel empowered to act and knowledgeable about the considerations that have to be taken into account.

The above pyramid highlights each of the impact areas within sustainability; click on a category for more information.

Leaders Say

What is Happening

Of the many types of sustainability initiatives, some are comprehensive, encompassing the whole of day-to-day operations of a sports organization; others are event-focused, examining holistic aspects of an event to ensure that it has a minimal impact on the environment; and some are focused on specific initiatives, where sustainability-focused projects are undertaken to have a positive impact on a specific focus area. The use cases identified here are chosen to illustrate the different action opportunities that exist, both on a comprehensive and highly focused level.

It’s important to note here, that no initiative is perfect, and in fact, the cliché holds that perfect can be the enemy of good. What’s most important is that real, substantive steps are taken to do and be better. As highlighted before, there are important questions to consider when approaching any sustainability project to ensure that the overall impact is positive—but they are important in their own ways, nonetheless.

How to Move Forward

Although there are no perfect solutions, there are best practices to support an organization's efforts to act sustainably and create positive impact.

The Time is Now

To meet the global need for climate action, we need a collective commitment, where leaders in every industry—including the sports industry—work towards sustainable solutions.44 Sports, in particular, has the opportunity to not only foster positive change across their industry, but to also be a shining example for industry and the world at large to look toward. The language of sports crosses societal and geographic barriers and can be used to promote both the necessity and the best practices for climate action on a global scale. 

Sports depend on a team working together—not just on the playing surface, but across all stakeholders involved in sports at all levels. The collaboration that exists in sports lays a powerful foundation to use these partnerships in environmentally responsible ways.16 There is the opportunity to enact sustainable solutions operationally, while also considering the intersection of the three areas of sustainability: environmental, social, and governance. Without action, environmental issues will continue to heavily impact the reach and availability of sports, especially at the grassroots level.21 

The changing environment already affects the availability of safe and consistent conditions for training and competition in a wide variety of sports, from snow to support winter sports to green grass for sports such as golf and baseball.21 As conditions continue to change, fewer individuals will have the opportunity to play.21 Eventually, such a lack of accessibility threatens the future of the sport itself.

By implementing holistic, operational solutions, the sports industry can help ensure that the world is safe and enjoyable for future generations. The sports industry must champion sustainability to their stakeholders, partners, fans, and government, while internally implementing concrete actions to improve the sustainability of sports.44 Sports have the power to make these changes, and leaders should be prepared to commit to this for the long term. This endeavor should become part of the industry's long-term identity, and as global citizens, we must keep pushing ourselves to do more.

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