2020 is an Olympic year in which sustainability is at the top of the global agenda – Spark Foundry’s Hannah Gillett takes a look ahead at what this will mean for the media and communications that surround the event.

Every year, Spark Foundry looks ahead to see what trends the media industry should be focusing on for the next twelve months. For 2020, we felt one to watch would be the sustainability of world sporting events, such as the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo.

In this year’s Tokyo Olympic Games, the winning medals will be made from recycled metal from old phones. The Japanese public were invited to donate their old phones so that metal could be extracted from them and used to make the gold, silver and bronze medals. This is just one of the sustainability initiatives from the games organisers. Others include podiums made entirely from recycled plastic, using 100% renewable energy, rainwater usage to reduce water wastage, recycled clothes for Japanese athletes and even the use of algae bio-fuel.

So, why is it important?

“Sport has the power to change the world” – Nelson Mandela

Sports in general, but global sporting events in particular, have huge implications on sustainability. Building venues and infrastructure, gathering hundreds of thousands of people from all corners of the globe, accommodating and feeding them and disposing of all their waste has an inherent environmental impact.

The sheer size of these events makes it difficult to measure the true impact, however official figures indicate that World Cups in South Africa (2010) and Brazil (2014) generated close to 2.8 million tonnes of C02 each, and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio generated 4.2 million tonnes – that is more than the total annual emissions of Iceland.

A research study by Cardiff University looked at the FA Cup Final and estimated that the average attendee generates a footprint seven times greater than someone going about their normal day. Despite the International Olympic Committee (IOC) having a clear road map on sustainability, historic games do not have a good track record on sustainability. London, for example, vowed to be zero waste and zero carbon, but fell short of their goal by a considerable margin.

Tokyo organisers have set ambitious but realistic targets which they are likely to hit, but the most important change has been the positioning of sustainable practices and messages right at the centre of the games. Games organisers have encouraged engagement and participation with Japanese nationals through the Tokyo 2020 Medal Project, and with regional politicians via Operation BATON (Building Athletes’ village with Timber Of the Nation) which engaged nearly all of the local governments in Japan to help source timber to build accommodation. Ultimately, the biggest impact will be with a global audience via the medals, podiums and the overall message of sustainability.

Sustainability and zero waste movements are moving from being a personal and national responsibility to becoming a global initiative supported by huge cultural organisations like the IOC. Official agreements such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals and The Paris 2020 Agreement have forged some collaboration, but now this movement is finding support from global cultural organisations too. In addition, the symbolism of hundreds of nations coming together around a powerful environmental message will not be lost on many.

What is the implication for media and communications?

For many years, sustainability has been a secondary message for many brands but Tokyo 2020 will show how global organisations, governments and investors are starting to put this message front and centre by taking a more overt and disruptive approach to sustainability.

Nielsen predicts that by 2021 the sustainability industry will be worth $150 billion. Many big hedge funds are now committing to only investing in businesses that can demonstrate sustainable practices, and the UK has now committed to reaching net carbon neutral by 2050. All of these will contribute to business leaders being forced to place greater importance on sustainable practices.

The Unilever Sustainable Living Program is a great example of how a brand can show business growth as well as more sustainable behaviours, with their 26 sustainable brands delivering four consecutive quarters of growth. Unilever has been in a leader in this space for a long time, but brands like IKEA, Patagonia and Co-op are starting to make sustainability a core pillar of their marketing activity too.

It will only be a matter of time before CMOs are tasked with making their marketing activity as sustainable as possible. Increasing pressure from groups like Extinction Rebellion is also starting to highlight how much responsibility the advertising industry holds for driving unsustainable consumerism over the last 50 years. Brands will need to rethink the marketing message that they put out in terms of how to use their products, but also the impact of putting that message out into the world. The ALBERT consortium exists within the film production industry as a set of sustainable practices embraced by all who sign up to it. It shines a light on how collaborative approaches to building sustainable ways of working can have great success.

As well as messaging and production, many brands are now starting to investigate the opportunities available to minimise the impact of their media. Offsetting the carbon emissions produced is one way of doing this, but we need to find ways to reduce the impact in the first place. Some media platforms are starting to make steps towards this already – The Guardian now certified B Corp and committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2030, Clear Channel has partnered with Trees For Cities to plant trees in city centres, and The Times has switched to fully compostable wraps for their delivery service.

2020 will see pressure from business leaders, groups like XR (Extinction Rebellion) and consumer pressure force marketing teams to think more carefully about how we make advertising as sustainable as it can possibly be. Activations that are shown to deliver profit for clients as well as having a lower environmental impact will be heralded as the new standard for media and communications.