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Environmental Sustainability in Sport and Physical Activity - Key Findings

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Environmental Impacts and Challenges

A wide range of environmental challenges are facing the sector. Many of these are common across all sports, but naturally, some sports face different issues to others.

All parts of the sector are already being impacted by the energy crisis and resource availability.  Rising energy costs, and the costs of products and materials were the top-rated perceived challenges in the survey, and this was reinforced in the focus groups and interviews.

Sports and physical activity undertaken outdoors are already being impacted by extreme weather events (floods/drought/heatwaves). 39% of respondents said weather related interruption to play was a challenge they’re facing.

The consultation findings indicate that the biggest impacts the sector has on the environment are: car dependency to travel to/from places where sport and physical activity happens; gas and electricity use from buildings (many of which are ageing, energy inefficient and costly to run); and waste issues (either littering/recycling challenges or sport kit and equipment with a short life span).

A graph showing answers to: Survey question: What impacts, if any, do you think your organisation is having on the environment? Car dependency to get to the club/facility/competitions/matches (58%), gas and electricity use (50%), waste issues - littering, lack of recycling facilities or collection service (36%), waste issues - sport kit and equipment with short lifespan (29%), food and drink consumption (24%), chemical use (18%), biodiversity loss and damages (8%), none of these (6%), other (4%), not sure (3%)

Barriers to acting on those challenges

One of the key questions posed during the consultation, was “what are the barriers to acting on these environmental challenges?”

Not enough funding was the greatest barrier for sports clubs and community organisations in the survey, and the second greatest barrier for governing bodies. 

For governing and umbrella bodies, lack of capacity was the top barrier, with the majority lacking specific sustainability roles.  These findings were reinforced through the interviews and focus groups with governing bodies wanting to “get their own house in order” before they feel they can support their members.

The interviews and focus groups indicated that clubs/groups understand the issues, but the main challenge is knowing where and how to start and having the time and money to do it: there is an implementation challenge.  The survey identified the need to shift from awareness to practical action and behaviour change.

In recreational sport/physical activity, buildings and facilities are often not owned by the club/activity delivery partner, and this lack of control and ability to make changes was highlighted; placing emphasis on the role of influence, collaboration and shared action in achieving environmental sustainability ambitions.

Top VotedDoes your organisation own its own facilities?
1Not enough fundingLack of capacity
2Lack of capacityNot enough funding
3Lacking knowledge and expertiseLack of ability to influence
Top barriers to acting on environmental challenges, depending on whether the organisation owns its own facilities.

475 survey respondents from across GB:

  • 76 different sports and activities represented
  • 86% of respondents believe their organisations are either somewhat or very knowledgeable on sustainability issues
  • 82% want their organisations to be ambitious on environmental sustainability
  • 58% consider reliance on cars as their organisation’s greatest environmental impact
  • 25% of organisations have never tried to access sustainability advice
  • 58% said energy consumption is a key environmental challenge, irrespective of whether they own their own facilities
  • 56% said moral and ethical reasons are the strongest drivers for action, closely followed by business resilience and saving money
  • 55% of organisations see lack of funding as the greatest barrier to acting on environmental sustainability

Support needed

A wide range of responses were provided, indicating that various types of environmental sustainability support would be beneficial for the sector.  In the analysis, we bring out the support Governing Bodies/System Partners need (and where they currently access this support), as well as the support that the grassroots clubs and groups need.

Funding for environmental initiatives was identified as the most desired type of support for organisations: 59% of respondents said this.  Funding and increased capacity for systems partners on sustainability also came through very strongly in the focus groups and interviews.

Other key areas of support needed were:

  • Guidance - online material that could include guidance, templates, toolkits etc
  • Expert support and advice, e.g. through in-person site visits or access to consultants
  • Free training and education sessions (e.g. Carbon Literacy Sports Toolkit)
  • Free downloadable communications tools (e.g. posters)
  • Free environmental measurement equipment (e.g. energy meters, sensors)
  • Joint initiatives/campaigns to participate in
  • Case studies of best practice and lessons learnt

The need to focus on “progress not perfection” was highlighted, so support measures that make it easy for clubs to take bite-sized steps will be important. 

In addition, the consultation has stressed the need for cross-sector leadership: the need for clear direction and messaging, one voice, clarity and alignment.  This reinforces the importance of the Sport Environment and Climate Coalition (SECC), to lead and coordinate the sector's efforts on climate change and broader environmental issues.

The sector is also seeking opportunities to collaborate, network with others on the same journey, share learning and expertise, and even work together to influence commercial partners for example.

The key environmental challenges that the sector would like support to tackle are:

  • Travel: Reducing carbon emissions associated with travel to/from the places where sports and physical activity takes place (training/competitions etc).
  • Buildings: Reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions from buildings.
  • Circular economy: reducing consumption and waste associated with kit, equipment and general operations.
  • Water quality and use: improving water quality (rivers/lakes/sea), managing rising water costs, managing flooding and drought on outdoor pitches and urban green spaces.
  • Adapting to climate change and extreme weather events: to maintain the sector’s ability to participate in sport and physical activity, now and in the future.

The power of sport to engage and positively influence everyday people has been acknowledged for many years. Throughout the consultation, the need for environmental behaviour change by sport and activity providers and participants alike was raised (how we travel, what we buy, avoiding waste, saving energy etc).

Whilst sporting champions/heroes have a role to play, the consultation revealed that it is often coaches/instructors that are respected leaders within the grassroots community, working with participants on a weekly basis. By providing coaches / instructors / managers with training and engagement sessions, and them demonstrating leadership for environmental sustainability action, we could achieve a “ripple effect” of behaviour change and action.

The role of Sport England, sportscotland, and Sport Wales

There are many organisations operating in the sport and physical activity sector, and it is often unclear who is/should be doing what and how all the organisations’ agendas and activities align (or not). 

The key areas where consultation participants felt that Sport England, sportscotland and Sport Wales could play a role, given their position and role in the sector, were:

  • Leadership and influence: Influence “up” to Government (e.g. policy change), influence and enable systems change working with partners, and inspire and support “down” to clubs and participants.
  • Investing in strategic partners: Continue/increase funding of strategic partners – the Sports Councils could fund sustainability roles, which could in turn have huge influence across the sector.
  • Open funding for clubs/groups/facilities: Use grant funding as a lever for change.  Introduce an environmental/climate action grant, and/or introduce environmental criteria as part of other larger Grants Programmes.
  • Funding centralised guidance and resources: Fund free impartial expert advice/expert support, online guidance and action plan templates, free training and education sessions (e.g. help fund the Carbon Literacy Sports Kit). The Sport Councils could introduce central resources that can be adapted / utilised across different sports / facilities – to avoid duplicated efforts. Signposting best practice case studies could be incorporated into this.
  • Facilities and planning: Through our engagement in the planning system, leading sector design guidance and as an investor in sports facilities, the Sports Councils can raise the bar for new facilities and could introduce minimum sustainability standards based on type of facility whilst ensuring that they are realistic and viable.
  • Communications and campaigns: Sports Councils can introduce powerful campaigns and help communicate the message to inspire action. As one stakeholder put it, “We see sport as a vehicle to reach a broader range of communities who might not otherwise engage with climate change.” Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ campaign was quoted several times as a great example of a powerful campaign.  22% of survey respondents thought that joint initiatives/campaigns to participate in would be useful.  Stakeholders felt that the messaging could be focused on ‘why this is important for sport’ - this is important for our young people, future players and participants etc.  Many suggested messaging could also reference the co-benefits, e.g., saving money, social benefits.
  • Coordination role: The Sports Councils could be a coordinator/convenor, perhaps by introducing a sustainability network for representatives from the strategic partners and NGBs that they fund, plus environmental NGOs and sustainability experts.  They could also engage wider sponsors and commercial partners in a sustainability working group or knowledge sharing network, to help drive change.
  • Inspiration and incentives: Through the interviews and focus groups, the need for a “carrot rather than stick” approach was reinforced – i.e. for the Sports Councils to provide inspiration, incentives and support rather than strict requirements or criteria to comply with. The Sports Councils could consider including greater environmental support and metrics within their sports for governance code to have greater parity alongside their focus on participation and inclusion.
  • Link the environment and social agendas: Stakeholders felt there is a key opportunity for the Sports Councils to dovetail the environmental and social agendas rather than consider them separately, as part of the ‘just transition’ and ‘climate justice’.