Sustainability in Sport: what can we learn from UEFA's new sustainability strategy?

Phil Taylor, Senior Consultant and specialist in strategic planning at Oaks Consultancy, breaks down UEFA’s new sustainability strategy - ‘Strength Through Unity 2030’ – and explores what this might mean for the future of strategic planning in sport.

If we are to take one message from the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow last November, it is that swift and decisive action towards the climate emergency has never been more important. There has since been a perceptible increase in the level of public engagement towards climate change and sustainability, but with just 100 companies still responsible for over 70% of the greenhouse gas emissions generated worldwide, it is the large and influential organisations that must take accountability if we are to make real progress.

Over the last few years, there has been increasing recognition among sporting associations and federations of the prominent position they hold within this ecosystem. As both national and international custodians of their sport, the environmental impact of its various stakeholders must become a core priority. This shift was beginning to be reflected in strategic planning pre-COP26, however, the increase in development and publication of sustainability-focussed strategic plans since it took place suggests a growing recognition among sporting governing bodies of their vital role.

With approximately 3.5 billion fans worldwide, there is no sport with a more global reach than football. This huge audience is a fantastic opportunity for football’s national associations and federations to become pioneers of sustainability, setting the industry standard for sport across the world. It was promising to see FIFA, the largest international governing body in football, make public commitments to sustainability last year, with an ambitious pledge to reduce emissions by 50% by 2030 and become climate neutral by 2040. Further information can be found in their full Climate Strategy, setting out their vision for “football to be a unifying tool to drive global climate awareness and action.”

To make any significant progress towards sustainability, a certain level of alignment between influential stakeholders is required. It was therefore great to see UEFA be the first of FIFA’s six regional confederations to launch its own football sustainability strategy - Strength Through Unity 2030 - in December.

Setting out UEFA’s plans for sustainability, ‘Strength Through Unity 2030’ will look to “inspire, activate and accelerate collective action to respect human rights and the environment within the context of European football”. The strategy’s structure and the depth of detail included suggest that UEFA are fully committed to this vision.

The strategy is set out in three parts:

- Inspiration provides an insight into the fundamental views and guiding principles underpinning the strategy

- Activation presents an overview of the processes behind the development of the document, and highlights the importance of stakeholder collaboration for strategy delivery. Most importantly, this section also provides a template for other football organisations to develop their own strategies or align existing commitments with this framework

- Acceleration sets out a detailed action plan with supporting key performance indicators for all 11 of UEFA’s new sustainability policies

From a strategic planning perspective, it is encouraging to see that UEFA have acknowledged that these 11 policies cannot be achieved in isolation. This strategy is therefore underpinned by an action-oriented focus across five key areas: UEFA internal organisation, UEFA events, UEFA members, the football ecosystem, and partners and society - which includes groups such as sponsors, fans, and global institutions. This level of detail and recognition of multiple stakeholders is consistent throughout. Interestingly, Strength Through Unity appears to hold a higher level of detail in terms of specific actions and KPIs than FIFA’s earlier Climate Strategy, which will be helpful when it comes to implementation and impact monitoring.

‘Strength Through Unity’ is more than just a title, it is a crucial message that appears multiple times throughout the strategy. Collaboration both within the sector and with the wider world is identified as the key to success, and is evident from the acknowledgement of the complex and diverse system of stakeholders that the strategy must account for. In this regard, it is reassuring to see that UEFA have aimed to align their processes and ideas with pre-existing sustainability frameworks. One example of this is present in pages 50-60, where UEFA’s 11 policies are then aligned to the UN Sustainable Development Goals - a globally recognised framework that has been used since 2015. This is particularly positive given previous criticism towards football’s leaders for distancing themselves from wider global issues and conversations.

Now that football’s responsibility towards sustainability has been acknowledged at the top level, it will be interesting to see the extent to which the entire ‘football family’ can collaborate over the next few years to help tackle the climate emergency. Through the launch of ‘Strength Through Unity 2030’, UEFA have provided the blueprint for more federations to develop their own sustainability strategies. This is a fantastic opportunity for governing bodies across the sector to collaborate and maximise their positive impact, and the time to act is now.

At Oaks, we look forward to continuing to work alongside UEFA’s national associations to deliver actionable strategies with sustainability at their centre.

If you have any questions relating to this article or any of our strategic planning work, please do get in touch – we’d love to continue the conversation.