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New study calls on sports to end sponsorship deals with ‘high carbon polluters’

Report finds total of 258 sports partnerships with companies in high carbon industries.

22 March 2021 Sam Carp

Getty Images

  • Study says that soccer is biggest target for companies whose practices cause pollution, with 57 deals
  • Olympic partner Toyota identified as biggest high carbon sponsor in sport, holding 31 partnerships across ‘most sports categories’
  • Report says deals with companies from polluting industries ‘directly contradicts’ pledges made by sports to tackle climate change

A new study has called on sports properties to end their sponsorship deals with companies it claims are attempting to ‘sports-wash’ their role in the climate crisis. 

The report, which was carried out by 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 promoting ‘high carbon products, services and lifestyles’.

Of the sports analysed – including cycling, athletics and motorsport – the study found that soccer has the most high-carbon sponsorship deals, with the report identifying 57 partnerships with companies in sectors such as the oil and gas, automotive and airline industries.

The study, titled ‘Sweat not oil: Why sports should drop advertising and sponsorship from high carbon polluters’, 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.

In addition, the report highlighted Japanese carmaker Toyota – whose 31 sports sponsorship deals include a global agreement with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) – and the Emirates airline (29 deals) as the two largest high carbon sponsors, with both companies holding partnerships ‘in most sports categories’. 

Commenting on the impact of pollution on sport, the report noted that the industry is ‘particularly vulnerable’ to the present and future impacts of climate change, which it says ‘represent a major threat for the sustainability of the sector’.

The report comes at a time when a number of sports properties have been signing up to the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework, while several organisations, such as the IOC and Formula One, have also set themselves targets to become carbon neutral.

In order to remain consistent with those goals, the study calls on sports to review their sponsorships with companies whose services contribute to climate change.

‘Many high carbon companies controversially sign onto scientifically dubious carbon offsetting programmes, while keeping their core business practices largely unchanged,’ the study said. ‘It’s equally questionable for sports organisations to claim climate neutrality while accepting money from companies who are directly undermining their climate commitments.

‘If global sports is to take the issue of climate breakdown seriously, it must be consistent and coherent and review its partnerships with organisations whose practices go against their efforts to safeguard the future of our planet.’      

The study goes on to outline several policies that sports can adopt to achieve their sustainability targets, including positively screening corporate sponsors and rejecting offers from companies promoting high carbon lifestyles, products and services.

Among the other suggestions are to set clear annual sustainability targets, reduce reliance on air travel and cancel or postpone any sports events or tours after 2030 that are not zero carbon. 

Speaking to The Guardian about the study, Andrew Simms, a co-author of the report and co-director at the New Weather Institute, said: “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.”

He added: “Sport has been a gamechanger 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.”

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