Op-Ed: Brand silence on the environment is not an option

09 Jul 2021

By: Sport Industry Group

As sustainability considerations in sport sponsorship become a must-have rather than a nice-to-have, Lucy Cadel, Senior Account Director at The Maverick Group, looks at who’s innovating in the space, and how brands that haven’t done so yet can play their part. 

Sport can be a force for good, supporting social responsibility as well as bringing people together.

In our industry, Marcus Rashford’s recent work to end child food poverty is a case in point, and shows how sport is increasingly becoming a platform for change, with athletes inspired to spearhead progress.  

In other sectors, too, there’s a growing trend for visible, explicit commitments to sustainability and social responsibility. In the entertainment world, global market leaders including Ticketmaster, Live Nation Concerts, Festival Republic, Academy Music Group, C3 Presents, LN  Media and Sponsorship, and Artist Nation Management, have come together to ‘empower the Earth’ through a new alliance called Live Nation Entertainment. The partnership aims to ‘demonstrate leadership on climate action’ by setting targets to reduce greenhouse gas emission in line with the commitments made in the UNFCCC’s Paris Agreement.

The message is clear: silence is not an option.

As the shift towards greater corporate social responsibility grows, the focus is not just on brands that act, but also on those that don’t. Organisations that disregard public pressure may find they’re hit where it hurts: on the balance sheet. They risk appearing out of touch, callous or apathetic, and consumers will vote with their feet. However, those that rush to adopt causes purely for PR reasons should beware: the public can smell inauthenticity a mile off.

For brands that are serious about sustainability, there’s a great deal of thought and self-analysis ahead. What does the company stand for? What causes does it touch at a fundamental level? Is it really prepared to commit? What about supply chain - is that the best place to start?

Increasingly, organisations are realising that CSR is not a separate concept they can tack on to the business, but integral to its success and goals. For that reason, some have looked to collaborations to achieve the impact they seek – and have even teamed up with rivals.

Take the partnership between adidas and environmentally friendly sportswear company, Allbirds. They’re collaborating to create the first shoe with a carbon footprint of less than 3kg. It’s a great example of a corporate brand uniting with a direct-to-consumer business from the same industry to achieve mutual sustainability aims.

Encouragingly, there are many other role models out there, making sustainability an integral part of their business.

The UN’s Sports for Climate Action Framework sets out exactly what sports organisations can do to achieve global climate change goals, while its signees include the IOC, World Rugby, La Liga, and a host of Premier League teams. Newer series such as Extreme E - following on from Formula E - put sustainability, climate change awareness, and gender equality at the heart of the sport itself.

The drive for sustainability has brought all kinds of names together, and sport can learn from other industries, too.

Take Disney and the Bahamas Ministry of Education, who have developed an environmental activity book that promotes marine conservation in the curriculum in Bahamas' schools. Since its development in 2010, the book has been distributed to over 1,500 children in public and private schools. It’s all part of the efforts of Disney’s Cruise Line to support education and community outreach. 

Additionally, Comfort, Cosmopolitan, Elle and Oxfam came together to organise a pop-up store in London’s Soho to explain the benefits of making clothes last longer to a millennial crowd. Visitors were also invited to swap their unwanted clothes – a way of engaging fashion-conscious young consumers with sustainability and the Comfort brand.

But for sustainability partnerships to work for bands, they need to think carefully about their goals before choosing who to team up with. 

So here are five considerations to end with:

1. What matters to the brand?

The first step is to go back to basics and look at your brand’s purpose, culture and direction.

Identify the issues that matter most to the company and its stakeholders. If there’s one that’s not been addressed or requires outside help, this may be the point to consider potential partners – ones who can bring the know-how and credentials to achieve your sustainability goals.

2. What’s in it for your sustainability partner?

Remember that this partnership must benefit your collaborator, too. How can it support
their strategic objectives? Do they share your end goals? 

3. Collaboration is king

There needs to be mutual trust and equal respect, with both sides pulling their weight and sharing decisions from the beginning. Being on the same wavelength is absolutely crucial. Make sure you have the same understanding – and revisit it regularly. 

4. Communicate, communicate, communicate

Opaque or badly promoted initiatives risk attracting the dreaded greenwash label. Make sure yours is clearly explained from the start, with well-defined goals, commitments and regular updates on progress. 

5. Don’t be afraid of commitment

Achieving sustainability in any meaningful way is unlikely to happen overnight. You have to be in it for the long haul – are you ready to dedicate time and resources for some time to come?

Establishing a sustainability partnership can have its pitfalls, but also its rewards. Get it right, and you can make an impact that goes far beyond your brand and creates a better world.