Last year SportsPro and Laureus teamed up to launch the Laureus Sport For Good Index, an annual list of the brands that are leading the way in delivering positive social or ecological impact through sport. The purpose of the Index is to shine a light on those organisations that are having a meaningful impact, celebrate their successes, and provide compelling evidence for the role that sport can play in driving sustainable change.
But the Index itself was only the start. In year two, as we invite brands to nominate themselves for inclusion and to celebrate the impact they are making, our aim is to go one step further by providing actionable insights and real-world case studies that will equip companies of all kinds with an essential toolkit as they embark on their sport for good journeys.
To that end SportsPro and Laureus, with the support of presenting partner Salesforce, are collaborating to produce an exclusive content series outlining how brands can create and implement a fit-for-purpose sports sustainability strategy, drawing on best practice and learnings from the inaugural Laureus Sport For Good Index cohort.
Running until the release of this year’s index in November, the five-part series will serve as a reference point for any brand looking to ensure their efforts in sports sustainability are financially viable, champion a clear and compelling message, inspire and mobilise communities, and are measured and reported frequently and transparently.
So where to begin? What must brands consider from the outset? And what are the critical ingredients for a successful sports sustainability strategy?
Start with materiality
Every good business should know its values and its purpose. A clear understanding of why you exist is fundamental to identifying what causes are material to your brand, and what you can do to support them.
When devising a sports sustainability strategy from scratch, the guiding principles that constitute your company’s core mission and belief system are a good place to start. From there it is critical to identify which sports are directly relevant to both your business and your brand ethos.
Water conservation is a natural fit for beverage companies, for example. For them, water sports such as sailing and surfing are obvious candidates for investment, but other disciplines where a lot of water is consumed by participants, such as endurance and mass participation sports, might also be considered. Another approach could be to partner with organisations in resource-intensive sports like golf and soccer that rely on vast amounts of water for course and pitch maintenance.
“There’s lots of ways that you can play that out in a few different sports,” says Aileen McManamon, the founder and managing partner of 5T Sports Group. “What’s material to your business? What would consumers expect you to be working on? Or what would your business partners expect you to be working on?”
Ultimately, the objective is to avoid leaving people scratching their heads. Authentic alignment is critical to ensure the messaging is clear and every stakeholder understands and embraces your intentions.
As such, clarity of objective is vital. What is the social impact you are seeking to achieve? What are the problems you want to solve? How are you delivering against that brief and is progress measurable? This is the fundamental difference between empty claims and tangible results.
One shining example among the inaugural Laureus Sport For Good Index cohort is Beko, whose Eat Like A Pro campaign has been hailed for its simplicity and effectiveness. First rolled out in partnership with the Barca Foundation at a time when the Turkish home appliance brand was the main shirt sponsor of FC Barcelona, the campaign aims to promote healthy eating and combat childhood obesity by teaching kids how they can eat nutritious diets like their sports star heroes. To date, the programme has raised millions of dollars for Unicef programmes across the globe, reaching hundreds of thousands of children.
Healthy eating is an obvious cause to support for a brand that manufactures kitchen appliances, but for some brands the notion of materiality may not be so clear cut. Companies that operate across borders might also find that what constitutes materiality differs by geography.
To use the beverage brand example, major producers have sprawling international supply chains, with the various ingredients used in their products sourced from different markets. While an environmental programme, such as a water conservation or biodiversity project, might resonate in a country where a brewing company operates a major bottling plant and therefore uses lots of energy, in another market where its grains are grown, financial support for programmes to end food poverty could prove far more impactful.
In that respect, the most logical local partner is likely to be different in each market. Yet while on-the-ground activities within local markets might vary, the overarching message should remain consistent with the overall brand ethos and objectives.
Ultimately brands can credibly support multiple causes, provided the end goal is the same. After all, being responsible with resources, whatever form they take, is critical for long-term sustainability, as is ensuring the welfare of workers and the local population.
Take a holistic ESG view
Corporate investments in sports sustainability and social purpose have evolved considerably over many years. Following the industrial revolution, when significant wealth began to shift towards corporations, such investments essentially fell under the umbrella of philanthropy. Back then, money was simply given away to good causes as charitable donations.
Over time, corporate social responsibility (CSR) became more of a focus, with philanthropic efforts becoming more expected within society but still seen as discretionary. Many companies formed separate foundations and legal entities to oversee CSR investments and activities, with the idea being that doing good was good for business.
Today, that line of thinking has developed further alongside wider societal shifts. Brands nowadays define and approach sustainability in myriad ways, but most now realise that prioritising environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors is essential for long-term growth and prosperity.
As such, some have come to view their purpose investments in sport as branding or marketing initiatives that are part of broader promotional campaigns and corporate communications. Others utilise them to boost employee satisfaction or community engagement, or as a financial reporting line. Increasingly, major brands are starting to see such investments as all of the above.
Whatever the approach, purpose-driven activities should align with a company’s overarching ESG objectives. Investments should be based on more than just being good corporate citizens – they must positively impact the bottom line and help drive better business performance.
“Now this evolution means that ESG is infused in the company strategy,” explains McManamon, who has advised many major brands on their sustainability programmes, including prominent beverage and oil and gas producers. “It is part of the product team, it is part of the human resources team, it’s part of the financial reporting team for sure because that’s now a requirement. It is living everywhere and infused everywhere.”
Does our business model bring others along? That’s really your own starting point in terms of getting your house in order.
That strategic shift mirrors the modern-day trend away from shareholder capitalism towards stakeholder capitalism, whereby companies are not only looking out for their shareholders but also whoever and whatever their brand touches, either directly or indirectly. It is for that reason that ESG has come to be defined as ‘an economic and moral imperative to take better care of people and the planet’.
“You do need to sit down internally and say, ‘what is our ESG strategy in terms of the triple bottom line: the people, planet and, in my case, I refer to this now as prosperity in terms of shared prosperity,” says McManamon. “Does our business model bring others along? That’s really your own starting point in terms of getting your house in order.
“How are we treating our people or the people that we impact, that we sell to, or that we buy from? How are we treating resources? How are we acting in our ecosystem of the economic market, not the financial market but the economic market? Are we providing true value?”
Perhaps the most celebrated champion of this ESG-led approach is Patagonia, which featured among 29 brands in the inaugural Laureus Sport For Good Index. By taking a clear stance on a range of social, political and environmental issues, and publicising its efforts frequently and transparently, the outdoor apparel and equipment brand has clearly demonstrated its commitment to ethical business practices over the course of its 50-year lifespan.
That, in turn, has fuelled the perception among consumers and employees that Patagonia exists solely to make a positive impact, boosting the company’s public image and performance against certain ESG metrics while ultimately driving sales.
Another, far younger brand championing the same approach is Hylo Athletics, a running footwear manufacturer which also featured in last year’s Laureus Sport For Good Index. Co-founded by former soccer player Michael Doughty, the three-year-old company trumpets its raison d’etre – to protect the future of the planet – at every opportunity.
Notably, a lengthy section titled ‘Impact’ is positioned front and centre on the retailer’s website, detailing all facets of its overarching commitment to environmental sustainability. What’s more, its guiding principles are articulated openly and at length in the company’s Hylo for Planet document, which sets out the impact framework upon which the brand is built and acts as a guideline to all employees and business partners by setting a clear direction and goals.
“We realised quite early on that not any one aspect of sustainability is the right approach or the silver bullet to alleviating environmental impact,” explains Doughty. “The reality is that all products have an impact – and that’s the first misnomer of this space. You know, the word gets banded around a lot, but what does that actually mean?”
To help answer that question, Doughty says he and his fellow co-founder Jacob Green leaned on the advice of two external consultants – one who helped conduct a life cycle assessment (LCA) of Hylo’s products, and another who supported on devising their overarching strategy whilst developing their own understanding of the issues at hand.
“What we realised was that we needed a holistic strategy because it’s so nuanced,” Doughty adds. “We quickly moved away from the word sustainability for that very reason and focused ourselves on impact. Because impact is much more tangible, much more quantifiable, and we want to drive that objectivity into our reasoning.
“Impact allows us to really understand things better and once you understand it, you can improve it.”
Align your purpose with global standards and targets
To be truly effective, ESG goals must be connected across departments and tied to strategic outcomes. To achieve them, each team should be empowered and incentivised to contribute towards the overall goal.
Your sports sponsorship and marketing departments, for example, will need to keep ESG priorities in mind as they negotiate with prospective partners and plot their activities. This thinking can manifest in myriad ways. If your company’s ESG objective is to transition to a low-carbon future, for instance, one step towards that goal could involve subsidising the cost of public transport for match-going fans. Similarly, if improving gender equality and diversity is a strategic priority for your business, a logical investment would be to work with a sporting foundation to administer girls’ health and education programmes.
When it comes to goal setting, a good starting point is the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were set out by 193 governments in 2015 and are intended as a ‘blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all’.
McManamon says that, in her experience, most brands are prioritising at least six of those goals. Laureus Sport For Good Index honouree Nike, for example, has identified half a dozen areas where it has the biggest potential to contribute to the SDGs, given the nature and scale of its business. These include good health and wellbeing; gender equality; decent work and economic growth; responsible consumption and production; climate action; and partnerships for the goals.
“At the end of the day, everyone needs to be looking at these overarching goals that have been identified,” says McManamon. “And the other good news is that, for a lot of these sectors, that work has been done by an international association or a UN working group of people in that sector who have said, ‘OK, we’ve made a roadmap and this is what you should be doing’.”
Whichever goals you decide to prioritise, it is important to benchmark yourself against international standards and to back up any statements or pledges with data and certifications. There are countless international rankings, independent ratings and indices for measuring sustainability efforts and corporate performance against ESG-related metrics. While many are industry specific, some are applicable across sectors, such as ISO 14001, the Carbon Disclosure Project, and the Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index (GEI).
Formal certification of your sustainability credentials need not be an immediate strategic focus, but objective recognition from these types of independent bodies certainly helps build credibility and accountability.
Hylo Athletics is a case in point. Doughty explains that the company never set out to secure and wear certifications like badges of honour, but over time such recognition – including that of the Laureus Sport For Good Index – has come to play a greater role in achieving its strategic aims and validating its core mission.
“It’s quite easy to think that you have all the answers and solutions when you are trying to create something, because we all have our lens and how we see the world,” says Doughty. “But by having independent third parties come in and do some analysis on you, or by signing up to a mutual goal, you’re getting a sense-check on what your objective should look like and how well you’re performing.
“That objectivity piece is massive for us. Who am I to say whether we’re successful in our impact work? I’m too biased. We need that independent accreditation.”
If we were to take one shortcut here that quickly leads to another over there, then we’ve ended up unravelling the very premise of why we exist.
Now a certified B Corp, Hylo became a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), an alliance of sustainable producers in the consumer goods industry, in 2021. Among other things, membership of the SAC commits the brand to ensuring compliance and minimum standards throughout its supply chain in areas like labour rights, worker wellbeing and environmental impact.
Doughty accepts that any commitment to being more ethical and sustainable generally comes with associated costs, pointing to Hylo’s use of sea rather than air freight as one example. But he’s convinced that such commitments will only pay off both for the planet and the company in the long run.
“These types of commitments that we make sometimes create new challenges for us,” he continues. “But if we were to take one shortcut here that quickly leads to another over there, then we’ve ended up unravelling the very premise of why we exist.
“Ultimately, this global challenge we’ve got of navigating climate change isn’t solely going to be delivered by Hylo. It’s going to be a collaborative problem-solving approach where we share, educate each other, sign up to things where we can get better data, get better information and make better decisions.
“If we build a really successful business but ultimately the world is in a worse place from an environmental perspective, the mission of Hylo is not complete and a bit irrelevant, really.”
Sport for good 101: The dos and don’ts of an effective strategy
Don’t try to win championships in your rookie season.
Proclaiming lofty goals is one thing, but no sports team would justifiably expect to win a league championship with a team full of rookies. Set ambitious yet realistic targets, track progress constantly and be prepared to fall short from time to time.
Don’t try to fix every problem.
Sustainability need not be a zero-sum game. Prioritising environmentalism does not mean your brand is not supportive of social issues like improving racial justice or boosting diversity, equality and inclusion in the workplace. Pick your battles wisely but never apologise for prioritising one cause over another.
Do your due diligence.
Find business partners who are making sustainability a priority, reflect your values, have internal workforces and leadership teams that live by those values, and who are transparently reporting their efforts to independent auditors. Mitigate risk by scrutinising prospective partners as thoroughly as possible to ensure they’re on the right track, preferably one that is adjacent to yours, then do everything within your power to hold them to account.
Don’t be afraid to seek outside help.
It is highly likely that every company setting out on their sustainability journey will require some outside help to reach their end goals. Experts in the space can help devise and hone the overarching strategy in line with broader business objectives, identify ways of overcoming internal challenges and shortcomings, and ensure structures and processes are in place for effective delivery.
Look to companies in your sector for inspiration.
What works in another sector might not work in yours, while the expected timeframes for achieving certain ESG-related goals will be different in other industries. For example, it might not be unreasonable for a financial institution to achieve net-zero status by 2025, but for oil and gas companies that timeframe simply isn’t feasible. Benchmark yourself against your peers, but always measure against international standards.
Don’t silo your sustainability efforts.
Brands don’t necessarily need an employee with sustainability in their job title to meet their objectives. As with any ESG goal, accountability can and should sit across multiple departments, but ideally there would be people within the organisation to provide oversight and check and challenge every proposal.
Find the right mix of partner organisations and ambassadors.
Credible messengers exist right across the sporting ecosystem. Teams, leagues, governing bodies, athletes, media companies, foundations: there are countless entities and individuals who can help amplify your brand message and implement your campaigns authentically. The ideal mix of partners will depend on your company footprint and brand objectives.
Don’t claim to have everything figured out.
No brand is perfect and there is no silver bullet when it comes to sustainability. Whatever strategy is settled upon at the start should remain subject to periodic review. Revisions will invariably be made as priorities change and new challenges arise. So long as you stay true to your values and your materiality – the immutable ‘why’ that governs everything you do – people will embrace your efforts in the right spirit and won’t be left scratching their heads.
The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals – https://sdgs.un.org/goals
Sport x SDGs Index (5T Sports Group) – https://5tsports.com/resources/
B-Corp Accreditation – https://www.bcorporation.net/en-us/
Green Sports Alliance – https://greensportsalliance.org/
How your company can advance each of the SDGs (United Nations Global Impact) – https://www.unglobalcompact.org/sdgs/17-global-goals
What is ESG and why is it important? (ESG | The Report) – https://www.esgthereport.com/what-is-esg-and-why-is-it-important/
Five ways that ESG creates value (McKinsey Quarterly) – http://dln.jaipuria.ac.in:8080/jspui/bitstream/123456789/2319/1/Five-ways-that-ESG-creates-value.pdf
Sustainability Marketing: How to Effectively Speak Greening in the Sport Industry (Sheila Nguyen) – https://www.taylorfrancis.com/chapters/edit/10.4324/9781315881836-13/sustainability-marketing-sheila-nguyen
Measuring Stakeholder Capitalism: Towards Common Metrics and Consistent Reporting of Sustainable Value Creation (World Economic Forum) – https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_IBC_Measuring_Stakeholder_Capitalism_Report_2020.pdf
Employees and sustainability: the role of incentives (Journal of Managerial Psychology) – https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/JMP-09-2014-0285/full/pdf?title=employees-and-sustainability-the-role-of-incentives
This is the first instalment of a five-part series outlining how brands can create and implement a fit-for-purpose sports sustainability strategy. The next four parts will focus on the following:
- Rationalise – how to ensure your strategy is financial viable
- Communicate – how to amplify a clear and compelling message
- Mobilise – how to inspire and activate your community
- Report – how to measure and report impact against objectives