Sports going green

Sports going green: 3 forces behind sustainability trend and 6 areas of improvement

Sports going green! As so many people are interested in sports, it can play a leading role in promoting and supporting sustainability. Influencers, consumers and regulators will be the driving forces behind this trend. Nothing less than a neutral sustainability footprint should be the target!

Sports can play leading role in sustainability

Emission, waste, plastics, CO2, green, our environment! I can continue this list for a while, but no doubt you know what it is all about! It appears like a lot of today’s discussions on the environment are centering around these subjects. In this perspective corporate and social responsibility have become ever more important. Rightfully so! Our resources and our environment are the two main pillars for a healthy and sustainable future for our society. Sports can play an important role in this perspective, as many people can be reached by it. Hence it can lead by example.

The world of sports is getting into action: 3 forces

Why do I strongly believe (and support) such a statement? Well, pretty easy! Something has to be done and the sense of urgency is increasing every day as climate change appears to accelerate. Industries that will not listen to this call will increasingly come under public scrutiny and likely lose out in the end. I believe the world of sports is unlikely to adopt a sit and wait strategy. There are several important forces which are pushing it into action:

1. Sports influencers are speaking out and raising concerns

The list of celebrities voicing their concerns on the sutainability of our planet is ever growing. Coldplay stating that it will not tour the globe until it can guarantee such an event will be carbon neutral. Lewis Hamilton raising concerns on a sustainable environment. Serena Williams regularly speaking out and investing in vegan and sustainable products, the sailing community massively supporting clean ocean initiatives, The list is endless. Although the number of ‘mainstream sports’ athletes speaking out is still limited, this will no doubt increase. Many lesser known ones, particularly those ones active in ‘nature’ sports are aleready doing this. Like the sports celebrities mentioned above, it will be important to practice what you preach.

Why is this important? Because role models are being listened to and this is certainly the case for the new GenZ and GenAlpha generation. They recognize the importance of a sustainable planet. If you are not caring, you ar out! In this perspective repetition of this message pays! If it is communicated over and over again, people will pay attention. As so many individuals are interested in sports, sports can play an important role in awareness of the problem and how to act. No doubt, sports influencers (and particularly athletes) will be used to express their opinion on how this can be done.

2. Consumers are starting to change their behaviour

Consumers are increasingly becoming aware of sustainability issues such as accelerated heating of the earth and depletion of resources. As a consequence they are changing their behaviour and will continue doing so. Moreover, they will increasingly require the products and services they consume to be climate friendly and sustainable. As suppliers are very likely to listen to this call, we may expect further changes in the near future. As sports play such an important role in our society with so many people being involved, this industry no doubt will be frontrunners in this perspective. You can see it happening, whether it is recycable sneakers, reduced waste, local sourcing or renewable energy, the sports industry is leading by example.

3. Regulatory changes

As we all know an ever increasing number of governments has commited to become carbon neutral by 2050. This is partly the result of increasing frustration of citizens no doubt. This commitment will affect many people and industries, including the world of sports. It should therefore be no surprise that sports federations are becoming more active in regulating their members to reduce their ecological footprint, partly forced by sponsors pushing them into it. Some of them have already started doing this, setting an example.

What to think of Formula One? You wouldn’t expect it, but it is this organisation that wants to set a benchmark for the sporting world by pledging that all GP’s will be carbon and sustainability neutral by 2025!

“The intention is to wipe out the carbon footprint by developing synthetic fuel, and making logistics and travel as efficient as possible while ensuring offices, facilities and factories are powered by renewable energy and eliminating single use plastic. Anything that cannot be eliminated will be offset”

Formula 1

Also the World Sailing Federation is leading by example. It has been the first sports federation that received the important international sustainability standard. This standard covers all parts of event management, from caterers and lighting to stage building and participating teams. The strategy includes plans to abolish single use plastics during its events by 2020 and to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent over the next six years. Not bad, isn’t it?

In any case federations and regulators have to and will take the lead in implementing change. More federations will follow suitand best practices should quickly result inimproved sustainability.

Many venues and events are already taking measures

The good news is that many stadiums and events are already pro-actively taking measures. It is very encouraging that many stadium owners and event organizers make sustainability and eco footprint a key ingredient in their product offering. No doubt with the change in sentiment, many will follow suit. Best practices can help in speeding up this change. There is plenty of low hanging fruit that can be grabbed easily. Below we give some examples of what certain stadiums and events have already done to improve their ecological footprint. This listing is by no means complete (both in terms of solutions and in terms of venues/events). However, it gives useful insight in what can be done.

Some examples…..

  • The Johan Cruijff Arena is a climate neutral stadium. It is powered by 4200 solar panels and a wind turbine. Rainwater is re-used to water the field. Residual heat is used for defrosting the field in winter. It has a great energy storage system using second life car batteries. Seats are largely recycled.
  • Forest Green Rovers is probably the greenest club you can imagine and a true leader in its field. In everything the club does, it thinks sustainability first. Hence, not surprisingly, it was the first carbon neutral football club around. An organic pitch irrigated with rainwater, green energy, biodiversity and vegan food are just a few examples of what this club is doing to improve sustinability. The new stadium it recently moved into, called Eco Park, is made of wood and recycable building materials etc etc. As the underlying video shows, the club sets an example for its fans, whilst also outsourcing its knowledge to other clubs, a true benchmark for sportsclubs.
  • Another landmark is the Mercedes Benz stadium in Atlanta, one of the most sustainable in the world. LED lighting reducing energy usage by as much as 60%, water conservation, using local food and a recycling program and active mobility are just a few features of what this stadium has to offer.

Also interesting to read: The top 10 features of future stadiums

  • The Golden 1 Center of the Sacramento Kings is one of the world’s greenest facilities, which amongst others is self supplying 100% of its power needs. It also adopts the circular economy. After the construction of the stadium was completed in late 2016, 95 percent of construction waste was diverted from landfill. Moreover, 99 percent of demolition materials was recycled.
  • Sustainability also plays an important role in events such as the superbowl, Olympics and World Cup football. These events are big polluters. However, all of them are taking measures to become sustainability and climate neutral. The video below shows what they do to make these events more sustainable.

The recent Tokyo Olympics are a perfect example of how events are slowly becoming more climate neutral. It put a major focus on recycable materials, varying from recycable cups to cardboard beds, even to recycable medals. It does not mean, we are already at the finish, it is more a reflection of change being implemented.

6 areas where sustainability can be improved

Most of the initiatives summarised above can be put in one of the following categories:

1. Venue

Venues offer a big opportunity for so called ‘eco improvement’. What to think of sustainable energy choices, stadiums using renewable energy, using rainwater for waterneeds, efficient lighting, recycable building materials, adopting an infrastructure for ecotraffic, multipurpose stadiums etc. But this is not all. As technology is ever improving, you may be able to create your own stadium experience at home with 5G and VR technology.

Also interesting to read: The top 10 basic features of future stadiums

2. Freight 

Freight is a major pollutor for sports events. Fuel efficient trucking, supply chain management for bulk shipments and heavy load drones, may just a few areas for improvement.

3. Waste

But there is much more ofcourse. What about waste during events. Electronic ticketing, team apps to be used during game time to follow the game, recycling of waste and composting programs

4. Food

Local sourcing, vegan, recycable packaging and composting are just a few examples of becoming more sustainable. I believe you know plenty more.

Sports going green

What does Tokyo do to get green games

5. Transportation remaining a problem

Sports going green

All nice and well, as the pie chart above suggests there is still one huge problem that needs to be addressed, travel and tranportation!
The most important problem and biggest challenge remains the transportation of fans and athletes, teams etc. 80- 85 percent of CO2 emissions related to major sporting events are caused by long-distance and local travel as well as accommodation of guests. And I am even not mentioning all the amateur athletes traveling to their own sporting venues.

Ofcourse you can argue that this is not the responsibility of sports but more so of the consumers. However this is not entirely true! Without events and without participation, no travel! Hence I would argue there is a shared responsibility here. Increasingly event organisers and sports clubs are trying to become climate neutral. This can be done in different ways:

Change local travel habits….

  • Encourage alternative transport: Encourage public transportation, car pooling, train traveling, cycling and electric transportation. For example stadiums could build a carbon offset into the purchase of a parking pass or offer incentives for carpooling
  • Change infrastructure: Car traveling and carbon emissions can be reduced. By adjusting the infrastructure towards stadiums, venues and events, car traveling and carbon emissions can be reduced. Some stadiums like the Mercedes Benz stadium are setting the right example; fans can easily walk to the event through new pedestrian-friendly walking paths that allow connectivity between communities. A bicycle valet programme operates on event days, and the available electric vehicle charging stations can charge up to 48 cars simultaneously. The US Open for Tennis is a great example of successful mass transit, with 60% of attendees travelling by subway and railroad in New York to reach the US Open every August.
  • Change location and limit parking spots: Build new multipurpose stadiums in or near city centers with very limited parking space. This will not only lead to better utilisation levels of these stadiums, it also will reduce carbon emission as people will use alternative transportation means

What about international travel?

As far as international travel is concerned, there is a much bigger problem. Certainly huge mega events where fans travel by plane, there is a huge problem. The main solution being used here is the system of carbon offsets (see video below) or credits with which someone can compensate carbon emissions. Buying carbon credits means investing in emission reduction projects around the world – projects that require financing in order to take place. These projects cover areas like forestry and conservation, renewable energy and waste to energy.

You get the message, I suppose. The polluter is paying here! Obviously this is not the ultimate solution. However, as long as international travel produces carbon, it is a way out for the time being.

6. Suppliers and manufacturers

Finally there are the suppliers and manufacturers of the sports industries, whether they are related to sports equipment and materials (varying from apparel, to golfballs, javelins and sportsflooring and everything in between) or consumables (food and drinks, merchandise etc). These industries will have to raise their standards in order to be successful. The consumer calls and no doubt the ones that are frontrunners will win. There are already plenty of examples of how leading manufacturers are changing their strategies. Hence I do not believe this will be the area delivering the biggest problems in realising a neutral carbon footprint.


Concluding, there are a lot of good sustainability initiatives in the world of sports. Simultaneously, there are still many stadiums, events, clubs and supliers which are not actively involved yet. Sports have a public responsibility, as so many people are drawn into it. Federations should play an even more active role in ‘ecolising’ their sports. They have a special role to play in promoting and supporting sustainability. Through leading by example, they can increase awareness with fans and participants. Especially GenZ does not expect anything less. This would not only improve the ecological footprint but also strengthen the image and position of sports within society. Hence a win-win opportunity if you were to ask me!

Also interesting to read: Gen Alpha to create huge changes in sports

This post was originally published on 18 december 2019 and has been updated

Published by Jan Kees Mons

I am Jan Kees Mons. Just call me JK, that’s easier I guess. I am a Dutchman living in the heart of the city of Amsterdam. Right now I am living on my own. However, not for much longer, as I plan to live together with my lovely girlfriend.