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How tech can help sport boost its green credentials

E&T Magazine

25 October 2021

This article was first published in E&T Magazine

The sports industry’s huge environmental impact means it can play a significant part in helping to achieve sustainability goals.

With COP26 fast approaching, one thing is for certain: in every industry, a focus on ‘ESG’ –shorthand for using environmental, social and governance factors to evaluate the sustainability performance of companies and countries – is top of the agenda. The world of sport is no exception. This year, we have already seen the Tokyo Olympics prioritise recycled and recyclable materials; Tottenham Hotspur play ‘the world’s first carbon-zero football match’, and the Williams F1 team be the first to pledge to be climate positive by 2030.

These are all big steps forward and like measures to increase diversity in sport - such as the MCC’s recent appointment of its first-ever female president - they should be celebrated. There is still a long way to go. The sports industry’s huge environmental and social impact on the world is a challenge, but also a blessing. With plenty of progress having been made on issues like racial equality in football and beyond, there’s ample opportunity to be a leading light globally for sustainability.

Now is the time to build on this year’s achievements to create long-term impact. What is standing in the way of success right now is seeing sports events in silos – athletes, associations, fans, suppliers. Without having the tools or strategy in place to assess the entire supply chain of every organisation, it’s impossible to assess the problem in its entirety. This is stalling progress.

Beyond tackling climate change and helping the UN achieve its Sustainable Development Goals, there’s even more reason for sports organisations to invest in sustainability: it’s better for business. When it comes to sponsorship, some brands are refusing to work with organisations that are seen as untrustworthy on issues such as climate change, diversity and inequality.

Equally, organisations are often accused of greenwashing when they don’t enact real, lasting change – which is just as bad for sponsorship and business deals as ignoring the problem altogether. That’s why tackling the issues at the core of the problem, like supply chains, is key.

Consider an industry like football, worth more than €25bn in Europe alone. When watching a match, even the most eco-savvy fan isn’t thinking about who or what is involved. We need to think beyond the game itself, to its whole ecosystem. Who is stitching players’ kits and boots? Where is the water feeding the pitch coming from? How was the stadium built and by whom?

Every step of this ecosystem has an impact on our planet and its people. Sports organisations need to think deeply about the carbon impact of every step in their supply chain; the impact on the people whose livelihoods it depends on, and the impact on biodiversity and local communities. This will be key to industries such as sport making a lasting impact in tackling climate change and meeting UN targets. It will, in turn, also ensure they have a lasting impact commercially.

All that said, sustainability isn’t a ‘click your fingers’ exercise. It requires investment of time and money to make it a reality. Frankly, it isn’t possible to deliver on ESG goals – especially something as wide-ranging as supply chain transparency – without investing in digital technologies, just as it isn’t possible to achieve innovation without focusing on its ESG impact. The two go hand in hand.

What are the types of innovation that can help sports organisations deliver more sustainable supply chains? One possibility lies in a technology we’ve become increasingly accustomed to during the pandemic: QR codes. Not only good for tracking your arrival at restaurants or contact-free payments, QR codes are one technology that could really change supply chains for good.

Using QR codes on products throughout your supply chain means you can check the provenance of every component or ingredient you’re buying and using, in real-time. For sports organisations, this ensures supply chain transparency – e.g. does the factory this cotton came from pay the living wage? – and helps them understand and ultimately reduce their carbon footprint by mapping a product’s lifecycle.

This is not only better for the planet and its people, but will also create happier customers and be better for business – after all, 73 per cent of consumers are willing to pay more for products that guarantee total transparency. It could also help reduce supply chain waste, creating a more circular economy within the industry.

Another crucial piece of technology in the sustainability puzzle is cloud-based dashboards. If sports businesses create a place to input, store and analyse all their supply chain data – and other data, for that matter – into these dashboards, they can make quick decisions in real-time. This not only leads to cost savings and more efficient operations, but also that means every decision made can be tracked against ESG objectives and sustainability is never left by the wayside.

The sports industry can’t transform itself overnight, nor should it try to. Real, lasting change will come from long-term thinking: a holistic strategy, focused on design and sustainability, with innovating supply chains at its heart. What’s more, no one team or body alone can change the industry, so creating a partnership model with other sports teams and organisations throughout their supply chain will also be a critical step. Sports will play a big role in creating a more sustainable future and there’s no time like the present to begin.

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