Going for gold: the business case for sustainability in sports

When the President of the International Olympics Committee (IOC) warns that global warming is reducing the already-sparse number of Winter Olympic candidate cities, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calls on sports organizations to reduce their carbon emissions by 49 to 72% by 2050, the call to action couldn’t be clearer.

Sustainability and sports may not often be heard together, yet sports have a consequential impact on the environment and vice versa. The sports world is built on the natural environment, so environmental issues lead to sports issues.

The two worlds are now coming together to create positive change. They must. As risks grow and consumer expectations evolve, many sports organizations see that addressing the environmental impact of their events is good business sense. Visionary organizations even understand how their sustainability efforts can have a massive impact well beyond the four walls of their organization, inspiring changes in society.

Quantis has worked with diverse sports organizations over the past ten years to co-create environmental strategies. During this time, we’ve seen that embedding sustainability in sports takes strong leadership, strategic collaboration, and robust metrics. Let’s take a look at why smart sports organizations are stepping up to the plate and how they build a winning strategy to drive sustainable change in sports and society.

Embedding sustainability in sports takes strong leadership, strategic collaboration, and robust metrics

Changing planet, changing sports

Sports are directly experiencing the impacts of climate change, especially those with outdoor facilities and that depend on the natural landscape. In the mountains, winter sports businesses watch their future plans melt away with the snow. In the U.K., more extreme weather patterns are now par for the course where events and facilities are rocked by heavier rainfall, drier summers, and crumbling coastlines. Beyond global warming, air pollution is a growing concern in urban marathons, sports infrastructures have important effects on biodiversity, and inadequate event waste management can contribute to ocean plastic leakage.

There’s no doubt it’s in the sports industry’s interest to act fast to reduce their impact on the planet. What’s more, fans and spectators increasingly expect sports organizations to take responsibility for and work to reduce their impact on the planet. These financial and reputational risks present new opportunities. As consumer expectations grow, taking environmental action can boost the reputation of sports organizations and open new avenues for sponsorships (see graph below).

sustainability in sports with quantis

Nielsen Sports’ recent global sports industry trends report show that spending is expected to increase on “sponsorship campaigns that exhibit brands’ credentials on diversity, sustainability and other social issues.” From physical risks to brand opportunities, the case for solid environmental action is evident.

Sports inspire people to change

Environmental action in sports is about so much more than good business sense. The global community is racing against the clock to build a world in which people and nature thrive. And in that race, sports can do what few other industries can. Sports capture the hearts and minds of millions, even billions. Sports products, events and services can creatively inspire businesses, organizations, and individuals to make more environmentally-responsible choices. This is what going for gold in sports sustainability looks like: modeling responsible production and consumption to inspire broader societal change.

What does this inspiration look like? It looks like the IOC joining the UN Environment’s Clean Seas Campaign to raise awareness and tackle ocean plastic pollution. And it looks like the Lausanne International Horse Show creating ticket incentives for spectators to make more responsible transportation choices. Indeed, sports have the power to contribute to sustainable development in a range of ways, helping us build the world we want to live in.

Leadership + collaboration + metrics = a winning sustainability strategy

Planning, coordinating, and driving environmental change is not easy for an industry as complex as global sports. It takes leadership from the highest level to transform hierarchical organizational structures built on associations and clubs. It also takes profound collaboration within an organization, among organizations, and even with participants and spectators. (Since the bulk of many events’ environmental impacts are outside the direct control of sports companies, engaging fans and spectators is essential to any effective environmental strategy.)

sustainability in sports with quantis

Building your strategy on robust metrics allows you to assess your impacts, identify meaningful actions, set science-driven goals, find disruptive innovations, and track progress on your targets. And for sports organizations with a global reach, having a shared tracking and management methodology is essential.

As part of its sustainability strategy, the IOC places great emphasis on driving climate action across the Olympic Movement. To support this ambition and achieve its objective of making the Olympic Games a catalyst for sustainable development, the IOC requires Olympic Games Organising Committees (OCOGs) to calculate the carbon footprint of their Olympic Games and develop and implement reduction plans and measures. To facilitate this task, the IOC commissioned Quantis to develop a common carbon footprint methodology that could be used by all OCOGs.

When the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships 2019 in Åre, Sweden, committed to a fossil fuel-free and climate-neutral event, it worked with Quantis to conduct a pre-event environmental footprint and co-created an action plan to address high emissions areas and offset residual emissions. “Conducting a pre-event analysis of our event’s carbon footprint was critical for us to be able to focus our efforts on where they would make a real difference,” stated Åre 2019’s Head of Sustainability, Riikka Rakic.

By using metrics and collaboration to drive environmental action, sports organizations have a winning strategy to mitigate risks and capture brand opportunities. And because of sports’ power to influence society, these bold and intentional environmental actions will inspire change well beyond the stadiums, the seas, and the slopes. Ready to get the ball rolling?

Quantis Team

Contact Information 

Denis Bochatay
Senior Sustainability Consultant,
Sports Sector Lead
+41 21 353 59 10