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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Derrick

Sustainable sport: an introduction

Sustainability, remember that term? It's taken a backseat lately due to the pandemic as we pump our efforts into eradicating the virus that has shut so many of us away. But with things like Game Zero bringing sustainability back to the forefront, we thought it would be helpful to remind ourselves how sport can transform our world into a sustainable one, through the power of brand.

What do we mean when we say sustainability?

Sustainability is broadly defined as "meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" categorised through social, economic and environmental actions. Put simply, a lot of consumer habits have been based on a linear trajectory. We should be focusing on a circular motion where we introduce less new into the world and re-use what already exists.

How can we use brand to create a sustainability strategy?

Brand drives differentiation. And differentiation results in audience and profit growth. It sets you apart from your competitors. It gives fans a reason to consume your product or service over anyone else's. So we can actually use brand to push beyond simply ticking the sustainable checkbox and instead create a unique, innovative and ownable approach to being a sustainable business; thus ensuring fans consume your brand over anyone else's. Even if yours costs more due to its sustainability (a big hurdle for businesses to overcome).

Examples of brand-led sustainability in sport:

  • Incorporate sustainability into your brand foundation: Ideally in your purpose and include sustainable innovation into your growth plans and budget e.g. World Rugby

  • Creating good partnerships is the best opportunity for sustainable through brand. Work partners that have similar sustainability goals as you or that complement your offering. For example, the FIVB (Fédération Internationale de Volleyball) partnered with Ghost Diving in a unique partnership where they used ghost fishing nets, collected by Ghost Diving, and created volleyball nets. The result was GoodNets

  • Solve through design: What materials do you use now that could be innovatively replaced to be more sustainable and, at the same time, more unique to your brand?

  • Create the change you want to see in the world: Create the solutions you need as a sport but also that others in the world need to be sustainable. A good example is F1's goal to create a more sustainable engine to reach their net zero goals but also that all cars can eventually use

  • Don't think Web3 is your solution: It's not. And if I was being controversial, I'd be surprised if the Web3 even becomes half as big as 'experts' are predicting. NFTs, Blockchain, Crypto are some of the worst things to happen to all three sustainable spaces. High-profile people are already turning their back on NFTs before they've even really begun.

How can we be environmentally sustainable in sport?

Environmental sustainability is what we automatically think of when someone says 'sustainability'. For sport, environmental sustainability focuses on how we combat climate change and its effects, from grassroots through to the professional game.

Examples of how sport brands can improve their environmental sustainability:

  • Keep your travel miles down: This could include introducing electric buses, walking initiatives, more accessible public transport for fans as well as smaller teams travelling and less away games for sports teams. For the community, venues should be using local suppliers for food, drink and merchandise that use less air or road miles

  • Improve waste management: Incorporate re-usable products and recycling initiatives

  • Offset carbon emissions: Introduce tree planting programmes and/or carbon sinks

  • Protect natural habitats: Whether you're thinking about building a new venue or work within an existing, consider your local community's natural biodiversity and protect it all you can (even better, enhance it!)

  • Weather management and preparation: With climate change comes extreme weather changes. Summers will be warmer, Winters colder, Autumn's wetter etc. Invest now to prepare for the future. Consider world-class circular run-off to irrigation systems, water stores and tanks and interchangeable coverings

  • Eradicate fast fashion: It's time to put a stop to fast fashion, an industry that is causing more climate change than international aviation and shipping combined. We need to move away from seasonal drops and cheap apparel and move towards better quality, longer-lasting clothes. A great initiative just launched by Allbirds is their new platform, ReRun which allows customers to sell their old Allbirds for credit whilst creating a more economically accessible brand as people adopt second-hand purchasing

  • Eradicate fast kits: Recycle kits not just between games but year-after-year too. It's incredible sports teams are still getting away with using (and throwing away) 3+ kits per player a game or match

  • Diversify beyond the game: Forest Green, a team where a miracle would need to happen for them to get to Premier League status, decided to become the greenest football team (if not sports team) in the world. In making this their purpose, it opened up opportunity to launch offerings off the pitch

  • Innovate your pitches: Rather than replace grass pitches with 3G, look at investing in designing and building a world-class irrigation system that stores rainwater during the winter to replenish pitches during the dry summers. Or, where grass isn't your ground, incorporate kinetic energy stores that can energise the floodlights, club house and local community.

How we can be socially sustainable in sport

Social sustainability is creating an accessible, inclusive, connected and engaging brand that sits within the community.

Examples of how sport brands can improve their social sustainability:

  • Develop with community in mind: Build pitches, courts, play areas, teams, clubs and community spaces in areas that are lacking. Thinking of building a new stadium? Consider building it in a place that benefits and connects the community - local community members should be able to walk there. Create initiatives that attract locals to your sport

  • Create an inclusive environment: Ensure you create an open, inclusive and accessible space for people of all race, sex, gender, age, size, shape, faith and ability. This includes everyone, players, spectators, officials, loyal, new, confident and non.

  • Use athletes to educate: The more we can educate and show people how to be sustainable, the more change can be made. If you can see it, you can believe it. If you believe it, you'll do it

  • Invest in the free: Put investment into highly accessible sports such as running, walking, cycling and to an extent, swimming, casual team sports like backyard cricket or 5-a-side football to continue to prove the value of sport even when purses are pinched.

How can we be economically sustainable in sport?

Being economically sustainable means utilising the local community for employment, responsible procurement, infrastructure, supplies and experiences.

Examples of how sport brands can improve their economic sustainability:

  • Be a fair employer: Hire from within your local community first. Develop apprentice programmes, training schemes, work for the homeless. Provide opportunity for roles in your sport that pushes beyond the physical playing. And of course, pay a fair wage

  • Employ staff and recruit suppliers from the local community, prioritising independent suppliers over chain stores

  • Price your admissions, hire fees, tickets, merchandise, food and beverage fairly. Review your margins. Allow more to be involved in your sport. Focus on quality not quantity so your customers get many years out of their kit, equipment or merch.

For help with your sustainability goals and how to incorporate brand, get in touch!

References if you want to read further:

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