Sport England has launched its inaugural sustainability strategy, called “Every Move – Sustainability Strategy and Action Plan”. It is aimed at addressing the impact the sport and physical activity sector has on climate change and the impact climate change has on levels of participation in sport.  

The Strategy made headlines with the announcement that Sport England has committed to investing £45 million of new National Lottery funding to help the sector respond to climate change, by helping more people get active in nature, restore flooded sports pitches, help make sports clubs become more sustainable and to put in place action plans and promote sustainability locally.

Impact of climate change on the least active and the most deprived

It is often reported that global climate change will cause the most harm to those living in countries and regions which are the poorest and the most vulnerable. The Strategy notes that the same impact applies domestically. Chris Boardman, the Chair of Sport England notes that “nothing has the potential to suppress physical activity, along with the health and happiness benefits it brings, more than climate change…and it will be those least active and most deprived who will suffer the most.” 

The Strategy is informed by sobering research that suggests that the UK’s changing climate is impacting people’s opportunities, motives and ability to be active. That might be down to extreme weather affecting people’s appetite for exercise – according to Sport England 60% of adults did less activity during periods of extreme weather in 2023. It could be because opportunities are simply lost due to bad weather – an estimated 62,500 football matches are cancelled each season due to unplayable pitches. The Strategy also acknowledges the myriad ways that sport and physical activity can itself have a negative impact on the environment through, for example, the emissions caused by participants travelling to and from activities, the making, buying and use of sports equipment and artificial grass pitches.

The vision

The Strategy sets a bold vision – for the sector to champion environmental sustainability with every move – and Sport England puts itself front and centre when it comes to leading the change that’s needed to show the way and drive sustainability across England. For example, Sport England has committed to reducing its own carbon emissions by 50% by 2030 and to achieve net zero by 2040; embedding environmental sustainability into its own governance so that sustainability is considered in every relevant decision about its own operations and investment decisions; and investing in Sport England’s buildings (including National Sports Centres) to drive energy efficiency.

The figures

The Strategy is currently short on the details of precisely what funding will be made available for organisations directly, which organisations may be entitled to it and how funding will be allocated – this is likely to be ironed out in the weeks and months ahead.

Partner sustainability strategies

One of the most significant aspects of the Strategy is the requirement for all of Sport England’s 130 or so system partners, including the national governing bodies of all major recognised sports in England, to have robust environmental sustainability action plans by March 2027 as a condition of and in order to get access to funding.

To unlock this funding, if you’re a Sport England partner you will have to start (sooner rather than later) developing your own sustainability strategies. This will no doubt present logistical and resourcing challenges to some organisations which may need to implement significant changes to ensure that they meet the necessary standards. But Sport England’s approach of driving sustainability by making sustainability a condition of funding is bold and admirable. It seeks to be the change it wants to see.

Marginal gains and the bigger picture

If Sport England’s approach were mirrored across other sectors (and applying the principle even more broadly, by regulators), Mr Boardman’s optimism about the potential for marginal gains to make a real difference would certainly be well-founded. He quotes Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday: “The inches we need are everywhere around us. On this team, we fight for that inch. Because when we add up all those inches, that’s gonna make the difference.”

When businesses anticipate that sustainability will be a concept firmly embedded within (and required by) sport, they too are likely to be incentivised to innovate, producing, for example, greener alternatives to rubber infill artificial grass pitches or recycled football kit.

The Strategy stands out against a backdrop of recent Government row-backs on climate policies and commitments. The outcome of the general election on 4 July may have a significant impact on the bigger picture for sustainability – we are eagerly watching this space. 

If you’d like some guidance on embedding environmental sustainability into your sports club’s governance, our team are on hand to help. Get in touch with us here.