2023 has already been quite the year for Mikaela Shiffrin. In January, she became the most successful female skier in World Cup history, claiming her 83rd win at the age of just 27. Her impact on the slopes, however, may in time be overshadowed by her impact off them. Just last weekend, Shiffrin was one of the lead authors behind a letter sent to FIS President Johan Eliasch, referring to the fight against climate change as ‘our most important race’, and calling for FIS to reach net-zero for all operations and events by 2035.
Winter sports are uniquely affected by climate change, often relying on snow for their surface. But the debate around the responsibility of sport in fighting climate change is applicable to all. Research has shown that younger generations are more concerned about the environment than any previous generation, and this includes the athletes. Now - more than ever - sports organizations must take a stance.
The power of sport to inspire social change and contribute to climate change awareness has long been acknowledged. In 2015, the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which recognized the unique potential of sport to engage relevant stakeholders in sustainable practices. The IOC made sustainability one of its three pillars in the Olympic Agenda 2020, providing a series of guidelines for sports stakeholders to help them better understand the topic. The trickle-down effect of this has been significant. The International Automobile Federation (FIA), for instance, became fully carbon neutral in 2021
With all that said, there is a danger that the concept of 'environmental sustainability' becomes something of a buzz phrase, and thus loses its impact, or indeed is equated to cynical marketing tactics such as greenwashing.
So what are the steps that sports organizations can use to ensure their messages resonate with their audiences? Here are three key recommendations:
1. Authenticity - Be true to your brand
Your social impact must not separate from your brand. This is particularly important in sports, where the brand is so closely tied to the product – the sport itself. FIA, for instance, is doing a great job with their PurposeDriven initiative, focused on health and safety, the environment, diversity and inclusion, and community development. This strategy is clearly unique to their sport, ranging from the actions to the language that is used.
2. Simplicity - make complex sustainability ideas more understandable
Small steps can have a big impact, but it is important that your fans understand your initiatives, so please keep it simple! Complexity in communications will generally lead to skepticism, and sport’s diverse range of fans makes simplicity in conveying messages all the more important. A fine example here is the IOC’s “How to be a sustainable champion” guide, giving athletes and fans easy to understand tips to live a “planet-friendlier and healthier life”.
3. Transparency - avoid perceptions of greenhushing
While some organizations are boosting their sustainability messages – and the progress of their actions - others have remained silent or quiet to avoid scrutiny amid fear of a backlash - an act known as greenhushing. The challenge around greenhushing is that, in today’s environment, there is an expectation to not only be active in sustainability, but also be open in terms of the results, or lack of, that it is bringing. A spirit of openness is vital to build trust and galvanise others.
The role in sport in fighting climate change will ultimately come from actions, not just communications. But by ensuring that these communication principles are followed, sports organizations can not only contribute to one of the most pressing challenges of our time, but also inspire sport’s various stakeholders to up their game too. The results can be extraordinary.