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Driving sustainable change in sport

Wed 28 Apr 2021 | 10:22 pm GMT
Helena Mansell-Stopher | Products of Change Writer

Extreme E racing highlights environmental issues

“Sport feels responsible for its own carbon footprint, as well those of its fans.” Simon Gresswell is the founder and managing director of independent sports licensing consultancy SGLP and has nearly 30 years’ international experience across all aspects of the licensing, merchandising and retail business. We spoke to him about sustainability within sport – including licensed product – ahead of him hosting a panel session about how the sports industry is working together to drive sustainable change at Brand & Licensing Innovation Summit. The Europe edition of B&LIS takes place online from 9-11 June. Passes can be purchased at www.brandlicensinginnovationsummit.com for £249 with discounts available for groups or Licensing International members (free for qualifying retailers). Where does the sports industry fall down when it comes to sustainability?  I think it’s in transition, rather than falling down as such, and I believe sport also feels responsible for its own carbon footprint, as well those of its fans. This is not unique to sport, other entertainment, travel, and leisure industries are finding ways to counter the same challenges, but it is a little different to the F&B sectors where their sustainability focus can be primarily on their own operations, staff and supply chains, but their consumers’ ‘journey’ is different. The typical shopping habit of nipping to the local supermarket, or even home delivery, doesn’t seem to have the same impact as thousands of fans going to an away game, even in one country, let alone international, leagues, competitions and events. Massive generalisation of course, but recent events in football have shown how acute the relationship is between fans and their club. That emotional attachment and unwavering loyalty will be a hard one to change in sport and perhaps doesn’t exist to quite such an extent in some of F&B and grocery sectors, albeit there is nothing like HP Brown Sauce on a bacon sarnie, Marmite on toast or Cadbury’s chocolate as a treat, IMHO. What has been done to combat this to date, how and by whom?  Many initiatives have been put in place by clubs, sports, sports brands and federations from ocean plastic-based club kits from the likes of Adidas, to the eradication of single use plastic drinks vessels at sports events, pioneered by the likes of Sky Sports around cricket and fixed and variable venues, like Twickenham or The Open, right through to fully sustainable design and build plans by big clubs in football, such as Spurs’ amazing new stadium and right across the board, from vegan food to plans for a new wooden stadium, by Forest Green Rovers, under the guidance of Dale Vince and his team at Ecotricity. Like any major industry sector, sport is evolving in the area of sustainability and it’s evolving fast. Major sport series such as SailGP ‘Powered by nature’ TM and Extreme E, have been built on foundations of environmental and sustainability platforms and as athletes’ voices become louder and louder with regards to many social impact and environmental issues, Olympic Gold Medallists like our very own Hannah Mills (champion in the 470 sailing class in Rio) have been outspoken and created their own initiatives, to rally fellow athletes and the IOC to act to protect their sporting environments and beyond. Hannah’s own fantastic initiative is www.bigplasticpledge.com. Do check it out. What targets are in place?  Each major federation and club that I am in contact with has set, or is setting, its own targets as individual businesses. Many follow the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a foundation and many have smartly told their sustainable stories, as a further fan engagement mechanism, characterising their plans as unique to their club and fans. Liverpool’s ‘The Red Way’ is a great example. The Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022 has highly ambitious sustainability and carbon neutral plans and most major sporting events are addressing these issues and challenges as core parts of their strategies, albeit these are moving feasts as well. Those keen-eyed watchers of the Rugby World Cup 2023 draw, may have noticed the team balls being drawn by various French celebs and dignitaries, were very clearly made of wood and the event itself has put great staid by its eco plans. Who is responsible for making sure they are hit?  Again, like many other industry sectors, sports brands and organisations have been quick in the last 5-10 years (and particularly the last 2-3 years), to hire specialist senior executives in the area of sustainability. As the topic touches pretty much every aspect in the delivery of any sport from the pitch/field/court/course to the fan, via various media, energy and resources are used at every single point along the way. Having major energy and now major eco energy providers now included as sponsors of many sports clubs and events, also makes a lot of sense, to highlight the issues, as well as seek more customers of course. What happens if they are missed or ignored?  I think any sporting institution will be at pains to achieve their sustainability goals going forward, as they will have not only their boards of directors and investors to answer to, but also their sporting organisation peers, commercial/broadcast partners and sponsors, fans and potentially their Governments, too, although I don’t believe Governments should have the power to impose sanctions in this area, as was seemingly bandied around as the possible case regarding the ill-fated attempt at the ESL. Great innovation has taken place and is taking place all the time in the performance of sport and the delivery of sports and its associated products. Remote TV production was pioneered by Sky Sports and their production partners Telegenic, some 2-3 years ago and has been widely adopted during the pandemic period, creating impressive reductions in carbon emissions. And we are of course likely to see an Olympic Games this summer in Tokyo without international visitors, so whilst this has a grave commercial impact on the hosts and other commercial partners, it greatly reduces the footprint that would have been left. Specifically in relation to sports licensing, what needs to be done, why and by whom?  Like many areas of business, sports and sports licensing needs to understand its fans’ habits, beliefs, and principles, as well as its responsibilities, more acutely. More investment needs to be channelled or just increased, into sustainable forms of design, sourcing, manufacturing, shipping, and retailing and these should all be considerations for any future sports licensing endeavours. With brands like Adidas six years into their Parley for the Ocean relationship and challenger/disruptor brands like ON already offering a circular subscription service in the running shoe sector, full circularity for famous and infamously expensive product like football kits, must be under consideration by all major teams and cannot be far away. All other product categories will follow, as sure as any fan will follow their team, forever.
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