Across industries, the future is being dictated by a focus on ESG –environmental, social and governance issues. Sporting events are no exception. This year, in the grand return of live sports we’d all been waiting for, we saw the Tokyo Olympics put a major focus on using recycled and recyclable materials: athletes’ beds made from cardboard, podiums made from recycled plastic, and even the medals were made from recycled electronic devices.

These steps forward should certainly be championed and emulated. But as part of a bigger picture, they don’t go far enough in making up for the huge environmental and social impact sporting events have on the world. Sport has an enormous societal impact, and when organisations set their minds to making change happen, it works – we’ve seen this over the last decade with football’s support for racial equality, through partnerships like Show Racism The Red Card and Kick It Out. So why can’t we do the same with sustainability?

Seeing sports events in siloes – athletes, associations, fans, suppliers – is clouding the ability to assess the full breadth of the problem. That’s why assessing the entire supply chain, from start to finish, is the only solution.

Finding a solution

In comparison to other industries, like fast fashion for example, in sports, the impact of supply chain and sustainability issues is less widely-known. That’s why now is the time for sports leaders and organisations to act, to find a solution to the problem, and to fix their supply chains in pursuit of achieving sustainability and meeting ESG goals.

But it goes beyond the obvious need to tackle climate change and help the UN achieve its SDGs. There is a business imperative. These days, sponsorship doesn’t only depend on players, leagues, and performances –increasingly, issues like sustainability and diversity are coming to the fore.

It’s no longer a case of whoever pays the most money gets the biggest billboard, or the most lucrative logo placement. We’re starting to see brands unwilling to work with (and fans unwilling to support) organisations who are seen as untrustworthy when it comes to climate change, diversity, and inequality. For sports brands who don’t prioritise ESG, the game could almost be up.

Every step of the supply chain

Just like every industry, sports has a supply chain issue. Take football, an industry worth more than €25 billion in Europe alone. It’s easy to forget when watching a match just how many people are involved in making each match happen – and that this doesn’t just mean back-room staff or football associations.

We need to think beyond the game itself, to its whole ecosystem: who is making players’ kits and boots? Where is the water feeding the pitch coming from? How was the stadium built, and how is it maintained? What’s the impact of major tournaments like the Champions’ League or the Olympics, where hastily erected stadiums and hundreds of thousands of fans take over local areas?

Moreover, are certain actions – like disposable cups in stadiums, or the use of recycled fibres in kits – simply a sticking plaster over much wider issues across the entire supply chain?

We need to consider the impact of every step of this ecosystem: what is the carbon impact of each action? What’s the impact on the people playing a role – are they paid a living wage? What’s the impact on biodiversity, and on local communities? Solving issues like these could go a long way to making real progress on the UN’s SDGs: SDG 1, No Poverty, SDG 14, Life Below Water, SDG 15, Life on Land, and SDG 12, Responsible Consumption and Production, to name just a few.

Turning sustainable ideas into reality

Focusing on a couple of key areas is how sports organisations will start to make real progress on ESG – and continue bringing in the big bucks from sponsorship deals and business opportunities. It will take a holistic strategy focused on design and sustainability, incorporating a partnership model with other sports teams and organisations throughout their supply chain who can help create a more sustainable future.

To make things a little simpler, it makes sense to focus on the five key areas of a strong sustainability strategy: water, waste, carbon, products, and packaging. Thinking back to the impact of movements like racism in football have had, there is no reason why a little design thinking on making sport more sustainable can’t have an equally impressive societal impact – be that kits, fans’ travel, stadium construction, or many more potential areas for improvement.

The sports industry has come a long way, just like the corporate world, but there is still a long way to go. In the same way that hiring more women in boardrooms is a good move – but still not enough to create real, lasting change throughout organisations – the sports industry is moving in the right direction. But now it needs to move from small, incremental steps to meet modest targets, to big, bold moves that will underpin real change.

The Tokyo Olympics may have been the most sustainable yet, but there’s so much further to go.

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