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Sportswashing or what?

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By Praveen Gupta

· 6 min read

As regulators tighten the screws and media sharpens its scrutiny, several manifestations of greenwashing emerge. Sports and events, outside of financial services and fossil fuel industry, throw up growing challenges. Columbia professor Shiva Rajgopal is optimistic:“Regulation, enforcement and awareness of greenwashing issues has increased… Some of the charlatans that entered the space will leave”. Will they or is it wishful thinking?

Climate pledge arena

Standing face to face with the Climate Pledge Arena, in downtown Seattle - the first time - I could not take my eyes off the large signage atop the venue. When lit up post sunset - it glows bright green. Greenwashing is all that rushes and echoes in my head.

My exploration leads me to the innovative features and how it’s setting new sustainability standards for arenas around the world:

  • Zero Single-Use Plastic: The first arena and NHL Team to announce an intention to eliminate single-use plastics, committed to being 100% free of by 2024.
  • Water Conservation: Arena owners promise to create the “greenest ice in the National Hockey League (NHL)”. However, the claims are much more dubious, says Todd Myers - Director, Center for the Environment at Washington Policy Center.
  • Zero Waste: By greatly simplifying supply chain it targets a 95%+ diversion rate, which is considered ‘zero waste’ in the industry.

Formula One

Are Singapore Formula One Grand Prix green claims glossing over a huge carbon footprint? The flood-lit F1 night race says it is going green by encouraging the use of public transport, digitising tickets and using LED lights. Critics say communications to promote these measures overlook the carbon cost of a sport that consumes as much energy as 30,000 homes in a year. Four-time World champion Sebastian Vettel has called for an independent body to monitor and hold Formula One accountable. To ensure it meets its target of being Net Zero Carbon by the end of the decade.

British cycling

“Cycling is the epitome of environmentally friendly travel,” says a statement from Friends of the Earth. They are deeply disappointed that British Cycling could think it is appropriate to partner with a fossil fuel giant.

Shell, they remind, is continuing to invest billions in oil and gas projects, while using cynical PR initiatives like this partnership to attempt greenwash its harmful activities.

“Tobacco firms are rightly banned from sports sponsorship due to the damaging health effects. The same should apply to oil and gas companies which are devastating the health of our planet. Shell should have been told to get on its bike.”

Football world cup: a yellow card

Qatar’s upcoming World Cup is already a human rights disaster, as the rapid construction of multiple stadiums has caused the reported deaths of 6,750 migrant workers since FIFA awarded the tournament to Qatar. And there’s yet another controversial issue for soccer fans to face: its devastating environmental impact.

Wherever they take place, World Cups generally produce high emissions due to the construction of stadiums, hotels, and updated infrastructure -plus the air travel of soccer teams and millions of spectators from around the world. But Qatar is claiming its November tournament will be the first-ever carbon-neutral World Cup. In response, an anti-carbon advertising campaign has conferred on the organisers of this year’s Men’s FIFA World Cup an ironic Bad Sports Award. The campaign calls Qatar’s claims dubious, casts doubt on its offset programs, and criticizes its fossil fuel sponsors. Not to mention, Qatar has a record of discrimination, including against gay people; LGBTQ fans have been warned to exercise caution if travelling to the event.

Run by British think tank New Weather Institute, Badvertising is a campaign that pushes back against the advertising of fossil fuels and other high-carbon projects. It has recently begun to highlight how these are promoted in sports advertising. Something that can be even more effective because of fans’ emotional connection to their teams - according to Freddie Daley, a research associate at the Centre for Global Political Economy.

Daley says the aim of the awards is to raise awareness about the polluters, comparing them to the original sportswashers. That’s when companies (or countries) try to use sports to improve tarnished reputations. Daley says if future hosts continue to make the same claims, there’ll be no environmental progress.

The country has announced ways in which it will offset its carbon emissions from hosting the World Cup, primarily through a carbon credit marketplace, which will invest in renewable projects. But a May report from Carbon Market Watch, which outlines why Qatar is not on track to reach carbon neutrality, says it would need to buy 3.6 million or more credits to offset all the emissions. (It is estimated that the country will emit 3.6 million metric tons of pollutants in preparing for and hosting the World Cup).

Needless to mention: “Offsets can mask insufficient efforts from firms to cut their own emissions, they often deliver less than claimed and they may push out other environmental objectives in the rush to capture carbon.”

The current low price of many offsets, which can be purchased from exchanges for less than $4 a ton of carbon dioxide, are providing a cheap way for companies to meet net zero goals which could reduce the incentive for them to directly cut emissions”, a report by Britain’s Climate Change Committee (CCC) said.

Skiing: Saudi

Greenpeace has slammed a “dangerous” ski resort being built in Saudi Arabia. The warning comes days after the desert kingdom won its bid to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games. Saudi authorities claim that the new Trojena resort, in the country’s north west, will operate on “sustainable infrastructure” and renewable energy.

But Greenpeace campaigners have questioned the project’s environmental credentials. “If you change something in one place, it may change something else in another place, and so on, and it can have impacts on neighbouring ecosystems”.


Coca-Cola - the biggest Plastic Polluter - paradrops into the climate ring as a Sponsor for COP27. John Hocevar of Greenpeace calls it “baffling”. According to the Greenpeace press release: Coca-Cola produces 120 billion throwaway plastic bottles a year - and 99% of plastics are made from fossil fuels, worsening both the plastic and climate crisis. This partnership undermines the very objective of the event it seeks to sponsor.

In conclusion

Haven’t we had enough of greenwishing leading to greenwashing, greenwashing disguised as sportswashing or nature rinsing? Borrowing from Greta Thunberg: “We’ve been greenwashed out of our senses. It’s time to stand our ground”.

We need to ensure a speedy transformative change so that the climate goal does not remain a climate delusion. Can we afford to lose time playing games with the likes of cheap carbon offsets? There is an urgency - it is the need for guidance, standards, regulations and to blow a whistle for any deviation from them. Just in time to ensure we sustain a climate for our continued well-being. Is it too tall an order for the COP27? Could this one end up as a fizz, too?

Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Praveen Gupta was the second most-read author in the environment and sustainability space for illuminem in 2022, and the third most read in climate change during 2023. A former insurance CEO and a Chartered Insurer, he researches, writes, and speaks on diverse subjects. His blog captures much of the work.

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