By Joe Levy, SportsPro Media
With Real Betis bidding to become La Liga’s greenest club, SportsPro looks at how they and others across the sports industry are stepping up to tackle the climate change question.
A recent report from the World Metrological Organisation (WMO) found that the physical and financial impacts of global warming are accelerating, with temperatures reaching ‘increasingly dangerous levels.’
Although hardly new, this terrifying and all too real narrative regarding climate change and the future of our planet has progressed from a steady stumble into a rampant roll towards a dangerous conclusion.
Even as action is being demanded the world over – such as April’s Extinction Rebellion protests in central London that brought the city to a standstill – naysayers are pushing back. Whether that is by bullying 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirls on Twitter or, in the case of US President Donald Trump, revoking his country’s acknowledgment of the Paris Accord.
With little action being taken at the top the responsibility falls to individual actors to rise to the challenge. That is none more so the case than in sport, where a collective environmental effort is yet to emerge.
Sports and the environment are symbiotically linked. Each one impacts the other, the inside and the outside in a constant tussle. The pitch, court, rink or pool is not separate from what surrounds it; the environment reacts and lurches to the impact of those that come to watch it or bid to stage it.
Whilst a considerable collective action is yet to emerge, that is not to say that individual stakeholders are not developing solutions and resolutions to environmental questions. English lower-league soccer club Forest Green Rovers have gained worldwide acclaim for their work in sustainability, whilst the National Hockey League (NHL) is actively trying to reduce the impact of its carbon guzzling venues.
In Spain, Real Betis announced plans in March to become the first climate neutral club in their domestic soccer top-flight.
“I hope that Real Betis will light the flame,” Ramón Alarcón Rubiales, tells SportsPro. These are not empty words, Alarcón is a club director and the leading figure on Betis’ sustainability charge. Alarcón is also true betico, a Real Betis fanatic, and wants his club to be a leading figure in soccer’s sustainability efforts.
“If many other clubs follow Real Betis and many other football stars follow us and help to spread awareness of these issues then I will be very happy.”
Here, leading is the operative word. Betis are building a new 50,000 square metre academy which is designed to be fully climate neutral. The project includes environmentally-focused waste management, electricity consumption and plans to plant a small forest as part of bringing the new facility in line with carbon neutral guidelines, as well as buying carbon credits to offset any emissions.
Sports is the lens that connects our network of members and partners with the fans and the community
Roger McClendon, GSA executive director
The club will also implement smart illumination systems and reduce single-use plastics at its Benito Villamarín Stadium.
All very admirable initiatives borne out of a pressing sense of necessity, but also a sense of opportunity. Alarcón recognises the brand and exposure potential for Betis by engaging in these ventures. He continuously reinforces the concept of Betis as the ‘Green Team’, knowing the opportunity in that space is malleable.
The Benito Villamarín on a matchday is a cacophony of forest shades, on the pitch Betis’ play in green and white stripes, Los Verdiblancos; even club president Ángel Haro García runs a company, Wingenia, whose subsidiaries focus on renewable energy solutions. All of these factors, plus a social media reach which puts the club inside European soccer’s top 20 clubs, means that Alarcón’s plans to rebrand the Real Betis as a model of sustainability is totally viable.
Alarcón continues: “It would be great to locate Betis as the Green Team. We are also a brand so it would be great to be the first Green Team in the world.”
Part of tapping into this potential branding is using Betis’ players as means of deliverance. Club legend Joaquín and exciting young stars like Giovani Lo Celso and Diego Lainez provide a means to reach large audiences.
“Our main stars, when they arrive at Betis we tell them they have to try and help us to improve our brand,” Alarcón explains.
“They are helping us with our strategies. Even when the strategies have no money involved, like trying to help the planet, all of them have offered themselves to help Real Betis to promote and help spread the idea that we should start co-operating with initiatives like Climate Neutral Now to take care of our planet.”
Whilst the efforts of one club are good, the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) is trying to instil the importance of utilising brands and sports stars to lead sustainability activations in an entire sport.
Anna Sarafianou, FIVB head of marketing, has fronted its Good Net project, a joint effort with Dutch NGO Ghost Fishing, to repurpose discarded fishing nets into volleyball nets. For Sarafianou, her sport and her sustainable initiative have a core common denominator – team work.
“Through volleyball, if we can help our communities and participate in solving the plastic pollution and animal preservation it will be fantastic,” she says.
In terms of engagement, volleyball claims to be the third most popular team sport globally. Sarafianou recognises the mass audience that the FIVB has access to and by using the vector of volleyball she believes that significant change can be undertaken.
“We [FIVB] want to show a good example for our national federations and at a local level to promote this idea,” Sarafianou adds.
Going local is a sensible, if slightly tentative, initial strategy towards making daily attitudes change. The FIVB launched the Good Net project on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a place Sarafianou calls volleyball’s “spiritual home”. During the 2016 Olympic Games, the FIVB supported schools in Rio and saw the same children turn out three years later to witness national legend Giba explain the importance of the Good Net project to a captivated audience.
“We rely on our athletes because they are great roles models and people love them. The majority of them are sensitive to environmental sustainability messages so the reactions to our methods was very encouraging to us,” said Sarafianou.
But the sports industry cannot go it alone in the search for sustainability. It is here where agencies like the Green Sports Alliance (GSA) come into play. The GSA offers a helping hand to the industry in leveraging sporting passion into what executive director Roger McClendon sees as meaningful change by providing a platform to raise awareness and bring about action.
McClendon previously worked at Yum! Brands, the parent company of KFC and Taco Bell, and as chief sustainability officer lead the vanguard which saw the conglomerate make the 2017 Dow Jones Sustainability Index.
McClendon argues that board rooms and decision makers need to see where sustainability can fit in with the economics, drawing a Venn diagram for altruism and business. Currently that is only being achieved by only a few, which making sustainable practice hard to move on from the drawing board.
Now, as executive director at the GSA, he leads an agency working with nearly 200 teams and franchises across 16 global leagues and 195 sports arenas.
“Sports is the lens that connects our network of members and partners with the fans and the community,” says McClendon.
Whilst the GSA acts as a central hub of information for its satellite partners, it also proactively seeking out similar expert levels of outside expertise.
“We rely on environmental and sustainability experts like WWF, NRDC and others in the environmental and social sustainability space which is a tremendous benefit to the Alliance,” adds McClendon.
This constant strive to learn can then repackaged and redelivered to the GSA’s own partners, putting the agency at the centre of the global drive for sustainability, by using sports as the ultimate portal.
In sports it is clear that partnerships are key to develop genuine change. It has demonstrably been a lesson learned by the likes of Betis and the FIVB, as each is seeking help elsewhere.
Betis were the first La Liga club to sign up to the United Nations Climate Neutral Now initiative; the first soccer club to partner with Green Earth, an company utilising blockchain to fund sustainability; and are a partner of the TACKLE initiative launched by the European Commission’s LIFE programme to introduce sustainable practices at sporting events.
As part of the UN Clean Seas programme, the FIVB is able to rely on the expertise of specialists in an area where as a sporting governing body it does not have the knowledge itself.
The FIVB’s partnership with Ghost Fishing came after two years of searching for a suitable project that felt right. Working with local fishermen to fashion the ghost nets into volleyball standard equipment also reinforces the connection between the governing body and its grassroots.
Whilst the FIVB is working towards raising awareness, Sarafianou wants to see greater engagement in sustainability across global sport.
“I think it would be extremely beneficial if more people are part of this type of movement, the benefit would be for everybody,” she says.
This is similar to the sentiment shared by Alarcón. Whilst the likes of Betis and the FIVB accelerate their sustainable activations and engage with external bodies, he remains frustrated at the lack of urgency from those around him.
“When you talk about it, everybody gives you the response that you have to take care of the planet but nobody moves or does anything to go in that direction,” he laments. “If we don’t start [taking action] we are going to have a really, really big problem because we are going to kill our planet and there will be no way back.”
Perhaps it should be heartening that those same concerns are being expressed by a leader in one of the industry’s most environmentally damaging sectors, sportswear. Puma’s head of sustainability, Stefan Seidel, despite his claims that Puma is not a leader in terms of sports sustainability, it runs carbon neutral offices in Germany and Spain, as well as actively seeking out environmentally conscious partners.
However, for Seidel, those actions merely peacock around the idea of sustainability and add little to the narrative or action.
“If you are only doing a ‘pinnacle collection’ and beneath that there is still unsustainable materials and productions then it becomes a little bit tricky to communicate,” he tells SportsPro.
These unsustainable methods he points towards have been tackled by the German sportswear giants as part of their 10FOR20 initiative, a set of targets set out in the UN Sustainable Development Goals blueprint.
The brand has hit its target of three per cent reduction in emissions before its 2020 deadline and has played a key role in the Fashion Charter for Climate Action (FCCA) – which aims to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Under the FCCA, Puma also plan to have no coal-fired boilers in use its supply chain from 2025.
“The end goal is only positive impact – in a way we are trying to make the world less bad but we also want to make it good. We are prepared to do our fair share to get there,” said Seidel.
Puma do work with a litany of partners throughout the supply chain who are trying to reduce their environmental impact, such as low fuel consumption shipping firm, Maersk Line.
“It is not only beneficial but it is an absolute prerequisite [to work with like-minded brands]. Maersk haven’t found the silver bullet to have greenhouse gas free transportation but if we work with the best in class companies then it also helps us towards achieving our own targets,” he adds.
This comes under a dual-pronged approach from Puma that Seidel feels is paramount for brands, regardless of their industry.
“Authenticity and credibility are essential values that a company should take into consideration,” he said. “[If we] are not open and transparent about the challenges that lie ahead then I think the whole communication would not be credible.”
This authenticity point is admirable and highlights a future-facing strategy that brands need to be adopting. If sporting bodies and brands cannot be held to account or questioned over their motives, then that allows for unsustainable practice to continue.
However, with this in mind, Puma’s journey will present potholes and bumps on the way, which Seidel readily concedes.
Formula One, criticised for being one of the worst offenders when it comes to sustainable practices, uses Puma as a major partner. Puma also sponsors several other motorsport series and it is difficult to measure the conflicting interest between the two.
“Sustainability is a journey and it starts with a step every day so we are not quite there yet and Formula One is one these. It can be difficult to explain Formula One and greenhouse gas emissions but we are all working on that,” Seidel conceded.
Profile provides opportunity, not only does Formula One have a whole lot of it but it is able to deliver good return on investment for partners offering lucrative contracts.
Tobacco giants still pay vast sums of money to have their faux branding on the side of vehicles, so if Formula One can be associated with then why should sustainable-minded Puma ignore the same platform?
Puma’s hard work and continued efforts in the charge fizzle away when the dollar signs start spinning from the exposure motorsport affords. The brand cannot turn down this sort of proposal, especially as they are focused on keeping up with Nike and Adidas.
Sports, as is often noted, is the ultimate form of cultural currency. It allows people to talk and interact and laugh and cry. Environmental issues cannot and will not disappear overnight. However, the continued and progressive efforts by those in the industry are driving us towards a new future.
Germany’s Uefa European Championship hosting bid for 2024 held environmental consciousness as one of its key pillars. Adidas and Parley are continuing to release sportswear made out of plastic recovered from our oceans. Formula E and MotoE continue to rise in popularity and will surely surpass their gas-guzzling forefathers at some pint.
Change is coming and as engagement and consciousness shifts to act, the sports industry can truly tackle the environmental question, where others have failed to step up.