Sport, Fashion, and Tourism: Corporate Greenwash’s New Frontiers at the UN Climate Talks


What do Adidas, Hilton hotels, and the World Surfing League all have in common?

They’re all climate champions, apparently.

They also have a lot of customers and fans. Much more than most climate activists – just take a look at their Twitter followings – which could explain why this year’s annual UN climate talks welcomed them with open arms.

But are the industries serious about addressing the problem, or are they simply following a greenwash playbook rolled out by the fossil fuel industry each year at the talks?


With its global reach, universal appeal and the power to inspire and influence millions of people around the globe, sport is uniquely placed to drive global climate action and encourage crowds to join in”, International Olympic Committee member, former Olympic bobsledder, and Prince of Monaco, Prince Albert II, told the conference.

As countries here in Katowice prepare to turn their climate commitments into reality, we stand ready to leverage the power of sport to support their efforts”, he said. Mainly through making sportspeople ambassadors for climate change, and trying to offset some of the many, many flights major athletes and clubs take.

The sports industry isn’t alone at stepping up to the plate in the former coal town of Katowice, where this year’s talks are being held.

Climate change is “a risk and challenge we take seriously”, Daniella Foster, Hilton’s senior director of Global Corporate Responsibility told a side event. That’s why the hotel chain is looking at ways to “gamify” the “guest engagement piece” of its sustainability strategy – developing an app to help users save energy when they stay. The company has also pledged to cut its environmental footprint in half by 2030.

And as for the fashion industry? Leading companies such as Adidas, Burberry, Hugo Boss and Levi’s signed a “milestone” agreement to cut the sector’s emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.

The charter “recognizes the crucial role that fashion plays on both sides of the climate equation; as a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and as a sector with multiple opportunities to reduce emissions while contributing to sustainable development.”

How will it do that? Through “improved consumer dialogue and awareness” and “exploring circular business models”, according to the accompanying press release.

UN Climate, the organisation that runs the annual talks, was at pains to stress the importance of having all sectors engage in the process, even if the pledges are just as a starting point.

But given the UN’s own scientific advisors recently suggested that the world has little more than twelve years to really, properly, slash its emissions to avoid catastrophic climate change, it’s hard not to feel as though sporty ambassadors, an app, and some business-speak may be insufficient.

Emissions Ambition

Negotiators face an uphill struggle to get companies to decouple their profits from business models that have traditionally relied on polluting practices.

Few sectors are harder to reform than the travel and tourism industry – eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the sector, which emits the equivalent of about 4.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.

In the age of the combustion engine and jet planes, to travel means to pollute.

One study suggests aviation alone will have burned enough carbon to bust the 1.5 degree goal by 2060 if it continues unabated.

But to get the industry to change, it “needs a success story”, James Grabert, UN Climate’s director of sustainable development mechanisms told the conference. Even if that success story is simply the industry turning up at the conference in an official capacity for the first time, as it did this year.

But to affect real change “we need to bring more people to the table. We need the really big players to come to the table”, he implored.

While many ‘big names’ signed the Fashion Industry Charter launched at the UN meeting, the scale of the challenge for that industry is also daunting.

The fashion sector current emits 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. If it continues to grow at its current pace, the industry could burn through a quarter of the carbon budget that would allow the world to keep warming to two degrees.

That would explain why governments – such as the UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee – are ready to push the sector to change, and why the industry is keen to look like it is willing to do so.

But while the fashion industry has the likes of Stella McCartney backing it, the poster child for the sports industry is less well known.

Fans or Fads?

Forest Green Rovers is a small football club in the fourth tier of England’s professional leagues. Around 2,500 people attend the team’s matches at its New Lawn Stadium.

Despite being a minnow in sporting terms, it has become a symbol of the sports industry’s capacity and willingness to embrace sustainability. It has introduced a wide-range of technological innovations including watering the pitch with rain, drain and spring water,  installing solar panels on the stadium’s roof, and making its snack bar menu all-vegan – much to visiting fans’ chagrin.

The club’s green renaissance is largely down to its owner, Dale Vince, owner of green energy company Ecotricity.

Sitting alongside representatives of the World Sailing Federation and French Open tennis championship at the side event at the UN climate talks, Vince outlined how Forest Green Rovers tried to implement its philosophy of “making the environment as important as playing the sport”.

Vince said he hoped the club would bring awareness of environmental and climate issue “to a different audience. An audience that is mostly interested in football.”

We want to make them fans of the environment”, he said.

But while all the sport industry’s representatives were keen to emphasise the visibility their involvement brings to the issue of climate change, clubs and competitions still rely on sponsorship income from some of the world’s largest polluters to survive.

For all that World Sailing Association chief Andy Hunt wished to convince the conference that “climate change is really important to us”, some awkward facts remain.

For instance, Great Britain’s entrant in the nest America’s Cup is sponsored by INEOS, a plastics manufacturer and the country’s largest fracking license holder. The leader of the team, olympic sailing legend Ben Ainslie, appears in a video promoting the ‘Sports Climate Action Framework’ launched at the UN talks.

Forest Green Rovers may “rather not have the money” of major polluters. But would the World Sailing Association now be doing anything about a big polluters being a major sponsor of its most visible competition? Stopping it wasn’t within the governing body’s power, Hunt said.

And this is fundamentally why many observers at the UN climate talks remain suspicious of these industries’ pledges. Words are great, but what about real action that may affect business models, but also stand a chance of genuinely addressing climate change?

These industries are worried about a narrative emerging that they’re not doing their share to address climate change”, Jesse Bragg, media director of NGO Corporate Accountability, told DeSmog UK. “This sounds like preemptive damage control”.

The tobacco industry wrote a playbook decades ago that every industry since has copied, with companies trotting our half measures and slick PR to make them appear green”, he said.

Even if these steps have a net benefit, fads come and go. So it’s up to governments to ensure these industries are permanently held to their promises. The big question is, what’s the plan to ramp this up?”

Image credit: M J Roscoe/ CC BYSA 2.0

Mat was DeSmog's Special Projects and Investigations Editor, and Operations Director of DeSmog UK Ltd. He was DeSmog UK’s Editor from October 2017 to March 2021, having previously been an editor at Nature Climate Change and analyst at Carbon Brief.

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