• Andy Marston

Lose the excuses: Creating a winning sustainability formula ♻️

Perhaps the single most important consumer trend of the last decade is a stated desire to 'be more sustainable'.

Organisations are increasingly making firm sustainability commitments to appease these consumers. 59 of the FTSE 100 are committing to net zero emissions by 2050 and two-thirds of the S&P 500 have set emission reduction targets of some kind.

Sports organisations, too. Paris 2024 organisers, for instance, say they will learn from Birmingham's approach to hosting the Commonwealth Games as they attempt to accomplish an Olympic Games with emissions 50% lower than the 2012 and 2016 Games. In another example, Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team recently announced that they will be investing in Sustainable Aviation Fuel as part of their commitment to reach net zero by 2030.

It's all for good reason. Recent surveys report high support for the adoption of renewable electricity and even a willingness to pay a premium for it. And in 2022, for the first time, the proportion of new car buyers expressing an interest in electric vehicles (EVs) was over 50%.

Image: Solar Impulse/ Champs Elysees Paris 2024 Luxigon

There is a problem though: What people say is not necessarily what they do. Although many consumers claim to be willing to pay for sustainability, they often don’t follow through. Part of the problem, as explained by Erez Yoeli, a research scientist at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, is the phenomenon of plausible deniability. He explains this as, "If we can find a plausible excuse for not doing the right thing when it is inconvenient, we are likely to take it." This means if there are two exit doors at the supermarket and a charity volunteer is standing outside one of them collecting donations, we are likely to walk out the other - and if confronted we can say we 'didn't see them'. If there is a volunteer outside both doors we become more likely to donate, but also more likely to sneak out an unofficial side door, too. That was essentially the findings of a classic behavioural economics study by Justin Rao, Jim Andreoni, and Hanna Trachtmann. So, what does this mean for sustainability? Well, if we are presented with a sustainable option, we (be it as consumers or sports executives) are likely to make an excuse if there's one to be made. We will say ‘it’s too complex’ or ‘it’s too expensive’ – because even if that isn’t the case, there is plausible deniability. And if we can't find an excuse? We'll look for the side door. This mindset is costly – and that goes for consumers and for the sports executives making decisions. Forfeiting the additional spend in the short term may actually lead to an increased cost in the long run. For example, LED bulbs are more expensive initially, but they are cheaper to run than fluorescent lighting and can last for up to 50 times longer. Additionally, by not authentically practising sustainability, a sports organisation may be reducing the value of their commercial sponsorship revenue. Forest Green Rovers FC, recognized by the UN for its work on sustainability, managed to double their sponsorship revenue due to brands wanting to align with their ethos.

Image: Formula E/ Gen3 Series

So, how do we address plausible deniability?

There are just so many plausible excuses. Whether it’s deemed to be ‘too expensive’, ‘too complex’, or ‘we don’t know where to start’. It’s not easy for a single team or organisation to counter this behaviour on their own. It requires coordination amongst teams, leagues, federations, and regulators.

Yoeli suggests the best thing we can do to start chipping away at the excuses is by introducing specific expectations - for executives at organisations and for the fans supporting them.

This means prompting them to consider supply chain elements such as the lifecycle of playing kit, where the water feeding the pitch is coming from, and the carbon footprint of things such as their travel commitments and the food they are serving. Suddenly it can't just be something that was overlooked (This is like putting a volunteer on both exit doors).

We then also need to lock the side doors. This means implementing strict regulations which eliminate the ‘easy’ option. For instance, Formula E enforcing that all teams meet new Gen3 specifications in order to race. These regulatory changes for Season 9 will bring greater speed and power but at less of a cost to the environment. Over 40% of the car’s energy will be regenerated by itself during the race.

Until these things happen, many will remain slow to adopt - and ironically pay the cost for doing so.