Companies are promoting “high carbon lifestyles, products and services” through sports sponsorship, according to a new report, which found over 250 sponsor agreements between sports groups and high carbon industries such as the fossil fuel industry.
The researchers call on the sport industry to better screen their sponsorship offers.
Sponsorship in sport is a multi-billion-dollar business. Some aspects of it go back to the ancient days of pre-Olympic games, when races where sponsored. It’s safe to say that since then, the sector has gone through significant changes. Now, with celebrity athletes and huge audiences, sport sponsorship is a key player in the advertising industry. Its impact, however, is more questionable.
Not every sponsor is the same, according to the recent report “Sweat not oil.” Researchers from the New Weather Institute, the Possible climate charity, and the Rapid Transition Alliance identified a total of 258 sponsorship deals across 13 sports globally with companies that offer high-carbon products and services.
“We know about ‘greenwash’ – when polluters falsely present themselves as environmentally responsible. This is ‘sports-wash’ – when heavily polluting industries sponsor sport to appear as friends of healthy activity, when in fact they’re pumping lethal pollution into the very air that athletes have to breathe and wrecking the climate that sport depends on,” Andrew Simms, co-author, told The Guardian.
Simms and the group of researchers argued high-carbon sponsorship of sport has, in many ways, replaced once common and now disgraced deals with tobacco companies. Direct association with high-carbon products poses an increasing reputation risk for sports and contradicts the pledges of climate action that many sports bodies are starting to endorse.
Of all the sports analyzed (including tennis, cycling, basketball, golf, and rugby, among many others) the researchers found that soccer has the most high-carbon sponsorship deals. They identified a total of 57 partnerships with companies in high-emission sectors such as oil and gas extraction, automotive manufacturing, and the airline industries.
The study also highlighted the car industry as the most active high-carbon sector in sports sponsorship, with 199 deals. Airlines were second with 63 partnerships, followed by fossil fuel companies like Gazprom and Ineos. The Japanese carmaker Toyota and the Emirates airline were identified as the largest high-carbon sponsors, with partnerships in most sports categories.
“Many high carbon companies controversially sign onto scientifically dubious carbon offsetting programmed, while keeping their core business practices largely unchanged,” the researchers wrote. “It’s equally questionable for sports organizations to claim climate neutrality while accepting money from companies who are directly undermining their climate commitments.”
The study outlined several policies that sports can adopt to achieve their sustainability targets, such as screening corporate sponsors and rejecting offers from companies promoting high carbon lifestyles, products, and services. Other suggestions include setting annual sustainability targets and canceling or postponing sports events after 2030 that aren’t zero carbon.
A 2020 report, Playing Against the Clock, estimates the sport’s overall carbon footprint to be in a range which, at the low end, would be equivalent to that of a nation like Bolivia, and at the higher end equal to the emissions of countries like Spain or Poland. The Olympics and the World Cup release as much as 7-8 million tons of greenhouse gases, the report showed.