SUSTAINABILITY ISSUES SUCH AS CLIMATE CHANGE, economic inequality and social injustice are “pressing concerns” for the sports community, says the International Olympic Committee (IOC), both in its management of day-to-day affairs and its “responsibility” towards young people and future generations.

With the publication of its sustainability strategy in late-2016 and the recently-unveiled Sustainability Essentials guide (from which the above paragraph was taken an paraphrased), the IOC has become unequivocal in its stance that both itself as an organisation, and the wider sporting industry, must be leading lights in sustainable practice due to its high profile and status.

Earlier this year at the Sustainable Innovation in Sport Conference in Amsterdam, the governing body’s head of sustainability, Michelle Lemaitre, cemented that position by “making a wish” – “for sport to step up and be the leading industry in sustainability”.

It’s true that for many organisations in the sports industry sustainability is just not a priority. But as it has become a key focus for the IOC (as demonstrated by its inclusion as one of the three strategic priorities of the body’s Agenda 2020 vision), it’s inevitable that related organisations will have to follow that director of travel.

The scope of the IOC’s own sustainability strategy is large, with several strategic intentions around five areas: infrastructure and natural sites; sourcing and resource management; mobility; workforce; and climate (see below).

Acknowledging that National Olympic Committees, International Federations and other sports organisations may feel overwhelmed when trying to follow that ambitious blueprint, Lemaitre and the rest of the sustainability team – Marie Sallois, the director of corporate development, brand and sustainability, and sustainability manager, Julie Duffus – decided to launch a suite of guides designed to offer practical advice, starting with Sustainability Essentials.

Positioned as an entry-level guide, Sustainability Essentials covers topics like the benefits of sustainability (including cost savings, reputation, legal compliance), defining strategies, engaging with stakeholders, and setting objectives and targets.

But the key message of the document is that sports organisations need to approach sustainability in an integrated way – not by developing individual projects, but by incorporating sustainable practice as a process used throughout the whole company.

The guide tips its cap to sports organisation that are “already actively engaged in individual aspects of sustainability”, highlighting environmentally-focused “greening” initiatives and social responsibility projects benefiting the “wider community”.

“True sustainability, however,” the guide states, “goes much further than individual projects. It is about looking closely at what you do as an organisation, the way you interact with society at large, and ensuring you have appropriate governance structures, policies and processes in place that will secure your long-term future for the benefit of your organisation, society and environment.”

Lemaitre suggested that to see her wish come true, the sports industry had to ask itself a question: “How can sport move from ad-hoc initiatives and projects – that are great, but are done in isolation – to really integrated sustainability across our operations?”

Michelle Lemaitre speaking at the Sustainable Innovation in Sport Conference 2018 in Amsterdam

The truth is, it’s about understanding and perception. David Stubbs, who has worked on the sustainability programmes for the London 2012 Olympics, UEFA Euro 2016 and the World Economic Forum in Davos, says that there’s an “awareness gap to bridge”.

“Not many people understand sustainability as a way of working,” he tells SSJ. “A lot of them think they’re being sustainable by recycling or changing light bulbs or working on some environmental project. All that is fine, but it’s only part of the story. The key part is really understanding what effect your activities are having on the environment, the local community and people more broadly – and then, what decisions you’re making by taking all of those factors into account.”

It’s noteworthy that within the guide the IOC makes a point of trying to demonstrate the difference between truly integrated sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR). The guide notes that the two are often used “interchangeably”, with sports organisations struggling to distinguish between the two.

Sustainability, says the IOC, “encapsulates a long-term and future-facing purpose” with a sharp focus on making sure any actions are done without “diminishing the quality of life” for future generations. CSR, in contrast, is about doing good things as an organisation, but “do not tackle the underlying issue”.

Stubbs explains that to be sustainable, organisations have to address their actual impact, and uses an aviation analogy to demonstrate: “Take, for example, the airline industry. Some planes, when you’re boarding, give you the opportunity to donate to charity. That’s fantastic and it supports a worthy cause. But it doesn’t do anything to address the impact of an airline.”

To move the needle on this, Lemaitre says the distinction must be grasped at the very top of organisations, even suggesting that some chief executives, executive managers and directors may benefit from one-on-one sustainability workshops in closed environments so they “feel safe to ask questions”.

The importance of governance in the adoption of integrated sustainability is referenced many times within both the IOC’s sustainability strategy and the Sustainability Essentials guide. The former explains the IOC’s approach, detailing the role played by the Sustainability and Legacy Commissions (chaired by Prince Albert II of Monaco) and revealing the day-to-day interaction its sustainability team has with all other departments of the organisation.

“The very best examples of sustainability derive from good leadership, whereby the actions of top management inspire others to become involved,” states the guide. “Ultimately, sustainability is a shared responsibility that needs to be woven throughout the organisational structure and connected with partners and other stakeholders; but this has to start at the top.”

However, as Stubbs pointed out during a panel session at the same event in Amsterdam, the sports industry can be extremely conservative. A general resistance to change has even contributed to the UK government publishing a Code for Sports Governance, which stipulates that sports governing bodies within the nation must make progress on issues like inclusion, sustainability and transparency to maintain their public funding.

Some organisations, though, are bucking the trend. In the guide the IOC highlights work done by the International Fistball Association (IFA) and World Flying Disc Federation (WFDF). The former has added sustainability-related criteria to the event bidding process, while the latter has appointed a sustainability officer.

World Sailing, under the guidance of chief executive Andy Hunt and sustainability programme manager Dan Reading, has recently published a comprehensive Agenda 2030 sustainability strategy, while the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) has its own Environment and Social Activities Committee chaired by Beate Grupp.

World Sailing recently published its Agenda 2030 sustainability strategy

All of which bodes well for the IOC’s vision. And the publication of Sustainability Essentials and the subsequent guides in the series has left the sports industry nowhere to hide. Those who complained of having good intentions but no practical knowledge should now have little excuse for not integrating sustainability throughout their organisations.

According to the guide it’s about day-to-day work. Processes. Not grand pronouncements. And the principles of integrity, inclusivity, stewardship and transparency. Whoever adopts these will go some way to helping Lemaitre’s wish come true.

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