The top five sustainability impact areas in sport By Anna Cantwell

We’re now well into summer, which for most of us means sport season. With the FIFA Women’s World Cup, the Ashes, Tour de France, Wimbledon and perhaps the most important of all…school sports day taking place.

Alongside eating copious amounts of strawberries and cream, to celebrate summer sport season I wanted to write a three-part blog series exploring sustainability in sport. The first in the series touches on the five sustainability impact areas in sport.

1. Carbon

  • Travel Emissions: The sports sector contributes to carbon emissions primarily through travel, including athlete and spectator transportation. International events involve extensive air travel, which contributes to a significant carbon footprint.
  • Stadium & Venue Operations: Sports stadiums and venues are energy-intensive facilities, resulting in substantial carbon emissions. These emissions come from lighting, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems etc.
  • Construction & Infrastructure: Construction and maintenance of sports facilities also generate carbon emissions. Think about the extraction and transportation of materials, construction process, and the ongoing operation of facilities.
  • Event-Related Activities: Carbon emissions can also arise from event-related activities such as waste generation and management, water usage, and the carbon footprint of food and beverages.

2. Labour rights

  • Sporting Events: Major sporting events, such as the Olympics or World Cup, have been tarnished by human rights concerns. Issues include forced labour in construction projects, displacement of local communities, and violations of workers’ rights.
  • Athletes: Many top professional athletes earn huge salaries, however there can be significant wage disparities within the industry. Athletes in lower levels often struggle to earn a living wage. Athlete rights, including fair contracts, health and safety protections, and freedom of expression, can vary across sports organisations and countries and in some cases, intense focus on youth development can lead to issues such as labour exploitation and sacrificing of education.
  • Sports Apparel & Equipment: Labour issues in the sports apparel and equipment industry covers a range of concerns related to the manufacturing and production processes. These issues include low wages, unsafe working conditions, excessive working hours, and violations of labour rights. Supply chains are known to involve exploitative practices, such as child labour and forced labour.
  • Support Staff: Coaches, trainers and referees may face long hours, unstable employment, and inadequate compensation. It is also worth noting the rights of support workers involved in services for sporting venues such as cleaners, security guards, hospitality and groundskeepers who often experience forced labour and exploitation.

3. Waste

  • Packaging & Single Use Plastics: Sports events often generate significant amounts of single-use plastic waste like water bottles, plastic cups and food packaging. The packaging of sports apparel, equipment, and merchandise often come in excessive or non-recyclable packaging.
  • Food Waste: Uneaten or unsold food from sports events often ends up in landfills, where it produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
  • Construction & Demolition Waste: The construction and renovation of sports facilities can generate significant waste, including concrete, metals, and other construction materials.
  • Electronic Waste: The sports sector relies heavily on electronic equipment, such as scoreboards, sound systems, and lighting fixtures. When these devices reach the end of their life cycle, they contribute to the growing problem of electronic waste.

4. Biodiversity

  • Habitat Loss: The construction of sports facilities, such as stadiums and golf courses, can lead to habitat loss and fragmentation. Natural areas are often cleared to make way for infrastructure, impacting local biodiversity by displacing or isolating species.
  • Natural Grass vs. Artificial Turf: The choice of playing surfaces in sports, such as natural grass or artificial turf, can affect biodiversity. Natural grass fields support greater biodiversity, providing habitat for insects, small mammals, and plant species, while artificial turf offers limited ecological value.
  • Conservation Efforts: Some sports organisations and events prioritise the protection of biodiversity by choosing venues located within or near protected areas. This promotes the conservation of natural habitats and raises awareness about the importance of preserving biodiversity. Sports organisations sometimes collaborate with conservation groups to raise awareness and support wildlife conservation efforts.
  • Sustainable Landscaping Practices: Adopting sustainable landscaping practices in and around sports facilities can help support biodiversity. This includes planting native vegetation, creating green spaces, and preserving natural waterways, which provide habitat for local flora and fauna.

5. Social value

  • Diversity & Inclusion: The sports sector has been criticised for the lack of diversity and inclusion, both on and off the field. Minorities may face barriers in accessing opportunities, including coaching positions, leadership roles, and representation in decision-making bodies. Gender pay disparities exist in many sports, with female athletes typically earning less than their male counterparts.
  • Health & Well-being: Participation in sports promotes fitness and well-being and can contribute to personal development, resilience, and leadership skills, enhancing individuals’ prospects beyond the sporting arena.
  • Community & Grassroots: Sports have the power to bring communities together. Local sports teams, clubs, and events create opportunities for social interaction, networking, and building relationships. Engaging youth and underprivileged areas of the community in sports serves as a positive outlet, reducing the risk of engaging in negative behaviours.
  • Economic Impact: The sports sector generates significant economic benefits. Major sporting events attract tourists, stimulate local businesses, and create job opportunities.

If you’d like help in identifying your sustainability impacts or developing a sustainability policy or strategy, reach out to our Senior Consultants Anna Cantwell & Imogen Player today.

For more information

Anna Cantwell
Senior Consultant
anna@actionsustainability.com

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