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The winning strategy: integrating sustainability in sports governance

Sustainability in sport is an increasingly hot topic. From the excessive resource consumption associated with mega-events to social inequalities regarding access and safety, the sector has come under growing scrutiny in recent years.

As the custodians of their sports on the global stage, associations and federations have a responsibility to lead the charge. In this article, we explain why environmental, social and financial sustainability will be integral to the future of strategic planning in sport, and how governing bodies can become pioneers of change.

Why should associations and federations focus on incorporating sustainability into their strategies?

Build resilience from within. Sustainability is not just a buzzword - it is a strategic imperative for long-term success. By building it into your strategic plan, you ensure that your organisation remains relevant and adaptable in a rapidly evolving world. Sustainability goals help you anticipate and address emerging trends and challenges such as climate change, resource scarcity, and social inequalities.

Promote social impact and community engagement. Sport has the power to unite communities and make a meaningful impact. Integrating sustainability into your strategy allows you to harness this power for social development. By setting goals that promote diversity, inclusion, and community engagement, you can use sport as a catalyst for change. Encourage initiatives that promote accessibility, equality, and social integration. Engage with local communities, support grassroots programmes, and build relationships with organisations dedicated to social causes.

Demonstrate leadership and responsibility. Taking a proactive stance on sustainability showcases your commitment to ethical practices, environmental stewardship, and social responsibility. It positions you as an advocate for positive change, inspiring others within the sport sector and beyond to do the same.

Engage your stakeholders. Strategic planning for any organisation is a collaborative process involving rigorous stakeholder consultation. This is particularly true of governing bodies in sport, who must often manage a complex and political ecosystem of stakeholders. By actively seeking input on your sustainability goals, you can create a sense of shared responsibility and a culture of sustainability across the entire system.

Improve your reputation. Incorporating sustainability into the heart of your strategy will build a positive reputation among stakeholders and the wider world, and attract socially conscious partners, sponsors and supporters who align with your vision and mission.

By taking this approach, associations and federations can approach sustainability integration in much the same way as any strategic planning process:

1) Review your current performance and practices

Begin by conducting a thorough assessment of your current sustainability practices and policies. For governing bodies in sport, this could involve extensive stakeholder consultation around a number of different environmental, social and financial aspects, including:

  • Infrastructure and sites: how they relate to the natural environment and local communities.

  • Supply chain and resource management: how the sourcing and usage of products and materials impacts the environment.

  • Mobility and travel: how mobility is monitored and managed to and from all facilities and events related to your organisation.

  • Workforce: working conditions, the encouragement and facility of a healthy lifestyle among staff, and the exemplification of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

  • Climate: which carbon reduction policies are currently in place, and the extent to which they are followed. How climate change is being factored into the planning of facilities and events.

  • Education: the extent to which your organisation is taking steps to educate others on socially responsible practices and climate action.

  • Income diversification: ensuring that income is generated from multiple sources or streams to reduce reliance on a single source. This can mitigate risks, present various opportunities, and create a more stable and resilient financial foundation.

Sustainability was placed 'at the heart' of the strategy for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games - it was the first Games to strive to create a carbon neutral legacy.

Having collected your data, the next step is to analyse your performance. Group your data and stakeholder feedback under common themes, which will form the basis for your sustainability goals. Identify areas of strength and weakness.

Next, verify your findings through performance benchmarking. You can use different sustainability frameworks and standards, including the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the latest Progress Report for data on global sustainability standards, the Global Reporting Initiative to find industry averages, or simply carry out desk-based research into strategic plans in sport to compare your performance to similar organisations.

Examples of recent sustainability strategies include UEFA’s Football Sustainability Strategy, UK Sport’s Environmental Sustainability Strategy or the Lawn Tennis Association’s Sustainability Strategy.

2) Establish sustainability goals

Led by the common themes and topics that emerged during the analysis process, develop 3-5 high level sustainability goals that will propel you towards your overarching strategic vision. Prioritise areas where you can drive tangible change, and align your objectives with international frameworks, such as the UN Sustainability Goals or the International Olympic Committee's sustainability agenda. Example focus areas might include carbon emissions reduction, waste management, water conservation, social inclusion, and community engagement.

3) Develop action plans and implementation strategies

Translate your sustainability goals into actionable steps by identifying the specific actions which must take place for each goal to be accomplished. Assign responsibilities to individuals or teams within your organisation, clearly defining their roles and timelines. Identify specific initiatives, projects, and programmes to be implemented. Ensure that each initiative has clear objectives, targets, and key performance indicators (KPIs) to monitor progress effectively.

4) Foster stakeholder engagement and collective responsibility

Sustainability is a team activity, and stakeholder engagement is critical to success. Engage with athletes, staff, sponsors, fans, local communities, and other relevant stakeholders throughout the strategy development process. Seek their input, feedback, and support to create a sense of shared responsibility. Collaborate with external partners, NGOs, and sustainability experts to leverage their expertise and resources. Consider establishing partnerships to amplify your impact and share best practices.

5) Collaborate and educate

National associations and governing bodies can play a significant role in promoting sustainability throughout the entire sports ecosystem. Foster a culture of sustainability through collaboration with members, clubs, and sponsors to share best practices and knowledge. Encourage the implementation of sustainability measures at grassroots levels and invest in educational initiatives to raise awareness among athletes, officials, and fans.

6) Evaluate and adapt

It is important for national associations and federations to recognise that sustainability is an ongoing journey. They must continuously review and adapt their strategy, staying informed about emerging best practices and evolving stakeholder expectations.

As sustainable transformation becomes one of the most high-profile subjects in the sporting landscape, the number of resources out there to support organisations has grown rapidly. For governing bodies seeking help with their sustainability planning, we would recommend checking out:

Global Sustainable Sport aims to ‘drive sustainability through sport’ by supporting sports stakeholders to develop sustainability programmes, evaluate their sustainable activities, report on their performance, and engage athletes and fans. They are working alongside academics and practitioners to develop a standard methodology for evaluating sustainable activations in sport, enabling organisations to showcase their impact.

Green Sports Alliance mobilises organisations, communities, athletes and fans to promote sustainable practices in sport. They share resources and expertise to support stakeholders within the sector to drive meaningful change.

BASIS are the sustainability hub for the UK sports sector. They are a non-profit organisation who harness the power of sport to promote sustainability by sharing best practices, facilitating collaboration between organisations, clubs and venues and educating communities, participants and fans about climate and social action.

The International Olympic Committee’s Sustainability Hub provides news and resources related to sustainable development in the sector. You can also access their Sustainability Strategy for inspiration on how to integrate sustainability into your own strategic plan.

Finally, our team of strategic planning consultants are committed to empowering national associations and federations to embrace sustainability wholeheartedly. Get in touch with us at for support and guidance on your sustainability transformation.

Closing thoughts…

While associations and federations are under significant pressure to integrate sustainability into their strategies, operations and events, this also presents an exciting opportunity. Governing bodies can lead by example: inspiring a culture of sustainability, empowering members to develop new capabilities, and creating a lasting positive legacy for sport and the planet.

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