Sponsorship’s transition to net zero

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2022 was heralded as the year of action in our collective journey to net zero. Enough talking, time for action. And it’s true that we’re beginning to see larger actions from governments and corporates than in previous years, such as Biden’s landmark Inflation Reduction Act. But what will sponsorship’s transition to net zero look like?

The term transition makes me think of other transitions – values-led transitions that creep up and blindside. Harry Redknapp, for example, who took the fall as the last man out the door on football’s bung culture. Or, naming no names, the succession of dinosaurs still living in a past where the idea of redress for a quick grope was preposterous. And where the act and expression of racism were easy givens. Values and thinking that were suddenly wiped from the slate of any form of social acceptability. Or, closer again to the field of sport, the emotional abuse at elite sport that wore the mantle of coaching. Maggie Haney’s quote in the New York Times piece, sums it up: ‘Maybe what used to be OK is not OK anymore, and maybe it shouldn’t be. I think maybe the culture has shifted’.

Maggie Haney was suspended for eight years initiall, later reduced to five. Image copyright New York Times

To some extent, something similar is happening now with sport’s engagement with the machinations of soft power. It’s easy to see Putin’s engagement with sport as a means to lull the world into a false sense of security – and to see the events of this year as the endgame. And we’ve transitioned abruptly into a different world and worldview.

The question that keeps nagging at me: how close are we to a tipping point with regard to sustainability and corporates which continue to contribute to climate warming? Specifically, how close are we to a transition in our relationship with petrochemicals?

For years in the UK, BP and Shell sponsorships largely drew the fire of environmental campaigners. LOCOG’s unforced error of conceding the title of Sustainability Partner to BP for London 2012 sharpened the knives of protesters, who used the Games to amplify their campaigning against BP as a totem of the industry, and BP’s deliberate abuse of the Games platform to seed misinformation about its own commitment to renewables.

(As an aside, BP’s first creative tender for London 2012 – either as a Partner or possibly as an impending Partner – had nothing at all to do with sustainability. The entire premise of the tender was to drive appreciation for the refinements of the combustion engine as a response to climate change. And promote visits to its petrol stations, of course. I remember shaking with laughter as I read it.)

One of BP's adverts promoting its commitment to sustainability.

Slowly, one by one, BP’s sponsorships –  with The National Portrait Gallery, The Tate, The Royal Shakespeare Company, the Edinburgh International Festival – all came under attack, and were gradually terminated. Alone, despite strong opposition, the British Museum still holds out. 

I remember wanting to post on BP’s position years ago but struggling to find a defensible stance. After all, sponsorship was and remains vital to many organisations, the arts in particular. And what moral imperative could justify singling out petrochemicals above other categories of sponsor, such as alcohol, gaming or junk foods, each of which can be framed as just as toxic? The only obvious thing to call out at the time was the ham-fisted communication of both BP and its various rightsholders – silence from BP and a coerced defense of BP’s contribution from the rightsholder.

Protest by BP or not BP in Feb 2020.. Photograph: Ron Fassbender

But now I find it far easier to single out petrochemicals. I’m no more radicalised than ten years ago but the imperative and the endgame are much clearer. The 2022 report of the Intercontinental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is very clear: ‘The energy supply sector is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for some 20GtCO2e or 34% of the total in 2019…. The largest share (of the sector’s emissions)– some 14GtCO2e – relates to the generation of electricity and heat. These emissions must be all but eliminated even as demand increases’.

Meanwhile, there’s clear evidence that the large energy producers are ignoring globally agreed climate targets and exploiting the current energy crisis to secure regulatory approval for investments that in the words of the Guardian ‘would drive the climate past internationally agreed temperature limits with catastrophic global impacts’.

The 2022 IPCC reports was produced by a collective of 270 contributors from 67 countries.

Outside of New Zealand and France, Greenpeace has been surprisingly quiet on sports sponsorship – perhaps because cultural sponsorships don’t attract the same fervent levels of support. The Rapid Transition Alliance on the other hand targeted sports with Sweat not oil, identifying advertising and sponsorship deals with major polluters across 13 different sports. Authored by the very smart, Andrew Simms and Emilie Tricarico, the report makes a rational but dry argument for sports to reject the sponsorship of companies promoting high carbon lifestyles, especially automotive, airline and fossil fuel industries, as part of a raft of recommendations (page 36) for sport to make its own net zero transition.  

The recommendations, measured against the growth mindset of the sports industry, are radical – but ultimately inevitable: the vetting of corporate sponsors, the reduction of air travel, the abandonment of events or tours that are not zero carbon (by 2030), zero carbon a condition of public funding and a universal sign up to the UN Sport for Climate Action Framework. Most radical but most remote is the recommendation to prioritise low carbon, low impact grassroots over ‘high carbon’ professional and global sport. 

All of this comes sharply into focus in the context of INEOS’s continued acquisition spree in sport, with its corporate brand reputation the clearly intended beneficiary and founder and majority shareholder Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s declared intention to add Manchester United to his list of sporting assets.

I suspect Sir Jim would see INEOS as a very different beast from BP – responsive, agile, self-made, born and raised far from BP’s neocolonial and deep state machinations. And yet, they have much in common. A deeply ingrained belief in their value to society and the untouchable status conferred by delivering the raw stuff of power. Confident, even like Putin, that they hold the cards. And despite its intelligent incursions into sustainability, ‘addicted to oil’, in the words of Jonathan Porrit. And with no transparent route map to net zero.

Taken from the Greenwashing Files by environmental law charity ClientEarth

The sports industry isn’t rushing at net zero either mind. But momentum is building. The UN Sports for Climate Action Framework continues to attract high profile signatories, institutions like the Green Sports Alliance and the British Alliance for Sustainable Sport continue to grow; more and more professional teams are addressing their environmental and social responsibilities and football clubs like Angel City FC and Forest Green Rovers are building strong positionings based on sustainability.

One of the big questions is how this collective journey to net zero will  play out in public sentiment. Major legislation is already slated in the EU and US, which will further normalise corporate accountability. Tighter definitions of ESG are in the air to make reporting more transparent. With climates around the world already experiencing fresh extremes, and change already impacting our daily lives, a transition in our values, in society’s expectations of corporate accountability is a certainty. There is no question that ESG‘s  impact on sponsorship will be dramatic.

While the court of western public opinion can overlook Saudi Arabia’ peccadillos as distant aberrations, if the petrochemical industry fails to communicate a clear commitment to a net zero transition, for all its wealth and power, brands such as INEOS could quickly become truly toxic. In the case of Man U, if we transition into a more critical relationship with the suppliers of oil and gas, the negative impact of association with the likes of an INEOS, will outweigh the short term buoyancy of the balance sheet.

INEOS is committed to winning the America's Cup on behalf of everyone in Britain!

In terms of sponsorship’s transition to net zero, the large rightsholders need to show more movement. The English Premier League should by now really be signed up to the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework, as should all the big six, not just Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham. But even small steps have huge symbolic value. Despite the frequent presence of automotive and airline sponsors, only one of the EPL’s big six – Liverpool – receives sponsorship from a petrochemical (Petro Canada Lubricants). Now the easiest time for rightsholders to reject sponsorship is before it exists and f the big six of the EPL would agree to renounce sponsorship from fossil fuel companies*,  it would cost them little but represent a big step in the right direction.

*Defined in ‘Sweat not oil’ as firms that have over 80% of their investments in coal, oil and gas and/or operate as companies primarily concerned with selling fossil fuels and their derivative petrochemicals.