I’m going to take my cue from a recent Simon Sinek post which I applauded (virtually, of course): “The primary ingredient for progress is optimism.”

I’ve read a lot about ‘sportswashing’ recently. Companies and organisations that may be heavy polluters using sport to camouflage their inaction on important issues like climate change.

That may be true in some cases. But as a platform, I believe sport can be a potent catalyst for climate action. A gamechanger for raising awareness and rapidly shifting opinions.

As we tentatively emerge from a Covid tunnel, climate change will be a freight train of an issue hurtling towards us. One powered by fossil fuels and chugging black smoke into our blue skies. With an impending date already in the diary for November in Glasgow when COP26 will ignite a global debate.

The first thing to be optimistic about is that we have the solution. We know exactly what’s required to reduce carbon pollution.

I’ll level with you. To date, I’ve been a supportive spectator on the race to net zero. Not an engaged participant. Listening to the discourse, it’s felt somewhat complicated. A Rubik’s Cube of good intention and contradiction.

But listening to the brilliant Emergency on Planet Earth podcast series recently, hosted by Jonathan Overend, was my own ‘ah ha’ moment. As always, a well-chosen data point rammed the seriousness of the plight into my conscience.

The last six years (2015 to 2020) have been the hottest on record. “If we continue at the rate we’re going, sport won’t have a planet to play on.”

As The Office’s David Brent famously put it: “If you can keep your head whilst all around you are losing theirs, then you’ve probably not understood the seriousness of the situation”.

But if the problem is so acute, why the seeming apathy?

It’s a theme explored and explained in this instructive HBR article.

If people are motivated to avoid threats to their existence” it asks, “why is it so hard to get people to act on climate change?” It goes on:

“Unfortunately, climate change involves a combination of factors that make it hard for people to get motivated. First, acting on climate change represents a trade-off between short-term and long-term benefits, which is the hardest trade-off for people to make. Decades of work on temporal discounting point out that we overvalue benefits in the short term relative to benefits in the long term. People don’t save enough money for retirement, preferring to spend money now rather than having it in their old age. People overeat in the present, despite the problems that obesity can cause in the future.”

Marcus Rashford’s name and deeds have reverberated across society over the last year, following his campaigning to make free school meals better and more widely available to children during the pandemic. Doing in hours what politicians and activists could only dream of in years, and even careers.

Persuasion through the prism of something people really care about will only amplify the impact. Imagine if sport really leant into the climate debate and mobilised people behind some simple steps to help address carbon emissions?

What if…

  • Sponsors swapped out their logos and corporate messages – on shirts, on interview backdrops, on pitch-side advertising – to promote these steps.
  • Clubs and organisations’ social content with players urged supporters to play their part.
  • Fans were encouraged on match days to eat less meat by providing interesting alternatives.

Carbon-neutral club, the Forest Green Rovers, are busy doing all these things and have grown their commercial value as a result.

In an age where sponsors are looking for ‘partnerships with purpose’, it’s a bit of a mystery why the coin hasn’t dropped. Especially when a new survey reveals 70% of UK CEOs are concerned about climate change; 31% of whom are ‘extremely concerned’. The only surprise here is what planet the other 30% are living on.

I wondered whether football fans really cared. Increasingly, they do. Read this. But also note that the key to greater advocacy lies in better communication. Ergo sport can do so much more.

What about companies using sport as a fig leaf to camouflage their climate change inaction?

Well, my view would be that sport brings profile but also scrutiny. Companies seeking to camouflage will have their motives questioned and those not able to respond will suffer. Sport can propel good actions – look at the recent launch of Extreme E which kicked off in Saudi Arabia – but it can also be a magnifying glass to greater examination.  

Feel motivated?

Great. Listen to the conclusion summarised by Overend on the last episode of Emergency on Planet Earth. He encourages three things:

  1. Ambition – in the UK we have halved carbon emissions in the last 10 years.
  2. Leadership – it requires someone to start the ball rolling.
  3. Adaptability – acknowledging imperfection but still aiming for the right goal.

To those, I’d also add Sinek’s optimism.

COP26 will turn up the volume on climate change over the next six months. We need pint glasses half full as we embark on the solutions. Together.

Anthony Scammell is a Director in H+K’s Sports + Partnership Marketing Team. H+K blends its Sports and Sustainability expertise to advise clients in this area. Better Impact is our consulting offer that enables brands to have a better impact on people and the planet.