Some of the world's leading corporate polluters have flooded the sports sponsorship market with billions of dollars in a bid to "sportswash" their responsibility for the climate crisis, a study published Monday by the New Weather Institute revealed.
"This is 'sportswash'—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."
New Weather Institute
The study, entitled Sweat not oil: Why sports should drop advertising and sponsorship from high-carbon polluters (pdf), found a total of 258 sponsorship deals spanning 13 sports with companies selling "high-carbon products, services, and lifestyles."
"High-carbon sponsorship of sport has, in many ways, replaced once common and now disgraced deals with tobacco companies," the study notes. "Sport used to rely heavily on tobacco sponsorship until the importance of public health overcame vested interests and largely ended the practice. In 1990 more than 20 different televised sports were sponsored by cigarette brands in the United States alone, and a single tobacco company, RJ Reynolds, admitted in 1994 to sponsoring 2,736 separate sporting events in a year."
Of all the sports analyzed in the study, professional football/soccer had the most high-carbon sponsorship deals, with 57 partnerships involving polluters including fossil fuel companies, automobile manufacturers, and airlines. Among industries, automakers led the way with 199 sponsorships, followed by airlines with 63 deals. Japanese automotive giant Toyota led the world in sports sponsorships with 31, followed closely by UAE-based airline Emirates with 29.
Numerous sports in the study were sponsored by multiple polluters. The 2021 Australian Open, for example, was backed by an oil company, a carmaker, and an airline.
Sport normalises high-carbon lifestyles and reduces the pressure for #ClimateAction when it is sponsored by high-carbon polluters.
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— Rapid Transition Alliance (@RapidTransition) March 22, 2021
"Sport is in the frontline of the climate emergency but floats on a sea of sponsorship deals with the major polluters," Andrew Simms, a co-director of the New Weather Institute and a study co-author, told The Guardian. "It makes the crisis worse by normalizing high-carbon, polluting lifestyles and reducing the pressure for climate action."
"We know about 'greenwash'—when polluters falsely present themselves as environmentally responsible," Simms continued. "This is 'sportswash'—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."
The study recommends reforms such as those detailed in the Rapid Transition Alliance report Playing Against the Clock: Global Sport, the Climate Emergency, and the Case For Rapid Change. These include, but are not limited to:
- Positively screening corporate sponsors and rejecting deals with "companies promoting clearly high-carbon lifestyles, products, and services";
- Joining the United Nations Sports for Climate Action Framework and publishing "a comprehensive 10-year plan to ensure that their own operations and that of their sport, including spectator travel, are zero-carbon by 2030";
- Establishing "clear annual targets and steps on how to achieve them";
- After 2030, canceling or postponing global sports events that haven't met the zero-carbon goal;
- Reducing reliance on air travel; and
- Increasing support for low-carbon local sports.
"It is imperative that calls for climate action amount to more than mere publicity campaigns from sports clubs and events to promote an environmentally responsible image," the study advises. "Sport needs to up its game and adopt policies that reject high-carbon sponsors. Clubs, competitions, and institutions need to take their climate commitments seriously."
A hopeful Simms told The Guardian that "sport has been a game-changer in raising awareness and rapidly shifting opinions and policy on vital issues ranging from child poverty to racism. Now it could be set to do the same for climate change."