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Where do ethical standards meet in the sports industry? What are the top sporting companies doing about the environment? And how are sporting personalities raising awareness of Fairtrade? John Bensalhia has the answers

When we think of ethical trading in sports, the first things that spring to mind are environmentally friendly and Fairtrade products. Both of these have made an impact on the way in which the sports world now markets its products. However, as this article will prove, there are greater implications, not only for the sports product market, but for the sports industry as a whole.

Helping the environment and producing environmentally friendly products is par for the course these days, and some of the top players in the sportswear industry have taken this on board. Nike, for example, has its own range of products that go under the banner of ‘Considered’. These products combine sustainability principles and the latest in sports innovation, and relate to six key categories in Nike’s catalogue: basketball; running; football; women and men’s training and sportswear; tennis; and ACG (All Condition Gear).

Nike’s chief goal is to introduce products that minimise environmental risk by reducing waste. This is achieved through Nike’s design and development process. Environmentally preferred materials are used and any toxic material is eliminated. The Considered range is by no means Nike’s first foray into environmentally friendly products – indeed, as far back as 1993 the Reuse-A-Shoe initiative was introduced. But Considered has been a huge success and has enjoyed a high profile. Its products were worn for the Beijing Olympic Games, in which athletes wore clothes that were made from 100 per cent recycled polyester.

The company’s president and CEO, Mark Parker, explained the motivations behind this range: “We are designing for the sustainable economy of tomorrow and for us that means using fewer resources, more sustainable materials and renewable energy to produce new products.”

Nike’s environmentally friendly products include the Trash Talk shoe, a footwear item that is made from manufacturing waste. “Creating a performance product using waste materials felt like a very innovative solution,” says Nike footwear designer, Kasey Jarvis. “Using Nike’s Considered design ethos, we were able to create a shoe that stands up to the stringent on-court performance requirements, but is also more environmentally friendly.”

Nike has set out a number of targets to reach with regard to its Considered range of products. It aims to have 100 per cent of Nike footwear meeting baseline considered standards by 2011, apparel by 2015 and equipment by 2020. These proposed targets mean that, if successful, waste in Nike’s supply chain will be reduced by 17 per cent while use of environmentally preferred materials will increase by 20 per cent.

Nike is not the only company to get in on the act. Adidas also has a choice of eco-friendly products, including Grün eco-friendly shoes. These are 100 per cent biodegradable and are made from environmentally friendly products such as hemp, jute and cotton. They also include materials like used tyres and PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate Plastic). Kook Wear is another example. It is an environmentally friendly brand of clothing that is aimed towards the action sports enthusiast. The eco-conscious brand boasts products that are made from cotton, hemp and bamboo with water-based inks that do not contain any harsh chemicals or resins.

However, the sports industry as a whole is doing its bit to help conserve the environment. Consider the average football game – innocent sounding in itself maybe, but then there are the many cars that fans use to get there, the big, flashy cars, limousines and coaches that the well-paid footballers use to get there, and also the litter dropped by fans at games. All of these factors are strong cases for the argument that football leaves a big carbon footprint.

Looking more closely at this aspect, a UK magazine called ‘Ethical Consumer’ rated football teams on the basis of how green they were, how large their carbon footprint was, and what steps had been taken to minimise the impact of that footprint. The survey found the top league stadium for environmentally friendly initiatives was Manchester City’s Eastlands. This location has recycling initiatives, on-site electric vehicles and has experimented with rainwater toilets and solar energy. Of course, a counterpoint to that argument would be to say that Manchester City was acquired by the Abu Dhabi United Group, which is owned by the Emirate’s oil-rich family, meaning that the club’s stadium achievement is arguably a contradiction in terms. Out of the non-league clubs, Dartford was found to be the highest scorer with an eco-stadium that collects 20,000 litres of rainwater a day to water its pitch.

Mind you, some footballers at least have acknowledged that there is a great deal to do when it comes to improving the impact of football’s carbon footprint. Portsmouth goalkeeper David James has argued that part of the problem with football is its tradition. It is considered to be a ‘blokey’ game, so with that in mind it’s inevitable that there will be beer bottles and chewing gum left on the floor.

James then took Germany as a template of better environmental standards, where every public bin is divided into four different sections: paper, cans, plastic and general waste. He then cited two examples of how clubs he has represented have played their part in being environmentally friendly. Manchester City, as mentioned, certainly has its eye on the ball, and James cited the club’s turbine that is used to supply enough energy to power the stadium. Portsmouth, meanwhile, has improved the recycling process of drinks bottles from its training ground.

Football organisers have also attempted to address the balance. The last World Cup attempted to reduce carbon emissions in a number of ways. The match tickets had day travel passes for public transport networks, and reusable drink containers were also provided. In addition, the Berlin Stadium has the largest rainwater collection system in Europe.

However, it isn’t just football that is taking in the implications of the carbon footprint. Motor sports events, for example, are carbon unfriendly with their large amounts of energy and carbon monoxide. So many sporting events organisers are declaring their sporting shows are to be carbon-neutral. The implications of this mean that the carbon equivalent released by these sporting activities are offset by other actions such as tree planting, proactive reductions in waste and investments in renewable energy sources. For instance, the Super Bowl is now a carbon neutral event. The event’s organisers have committed to offsetting emissions from transport (3,000 vehicles) by planting more than 30,000 acres of trees in Arizona.

Ski resorts are also trying to compensate for the environmental damage that has been done. Trees are cut down to make way for ski runs, snowboarding machines turn water into piste, and on top of this, there are the cars and buses of tourists. One ski resort has offered users a free day-pass in exchange for signing up for a renewable energy source.

Other European ski resorts have banned heli-ski drops because of the noise pollution created by the helicopters. An American ski company called Vail Ski Resorts now makes 100 per cent renewable energy, and is the second largest user of wind power in the country. The company has claimed that the amount of cutbacks on the level of carbon dioxide produced by the resort will equate to taking 18,000 cars off the road.

The issue of ethical trading also raises another important issue with regards to Fairtrade. The Fairtrade Foundation is a development organisation that is committed to dealing with poverty and injustice in trade. This means that it is about creating better prices, decent working conditions and local sustainability for farmers and workers in developing countries. It addresses the injustices of conventional trade by allowing the poorest, weakest producers to improve their situation and have more control over their working lives.

So how does this relate to sports products? Well, in 2006 Oxfam International produced a report entitled ‘Offside! Labour Rights and Sportswear Production in Asia’. The report examined in detail how sports brands are tackling the issues of sweatshops. It also focused on workers’ freedom to form and join trade unions, and assessed how much effort sports brands have made to improve labour rights for all workers who make their products.

The report found that Reebok was the company that made the biggest effort to uphold sportswear workers’ rights. Staff worked to ensure that trade union rights were respected throughout its Asian supply factories. The company also cooperated with labour rights groups to look at the possibility of democratic representation in countries that legally restrict trade union rights.

Elsewhere in the report, other top-brand names such as Nike, Adidas and Puma were shown to have made improvements to labour practices. Examples noted were the stoppage of anti-union discrimination in some factories and the permission of some workers to receive training regarding their rights. The report showed that FILA was the company with the poorest record for looking after people producing its products. It was identified as the company that displayed the least interest in improving labour conditions in its Asian supplier factories.

In the middle of this decade, Nike made a pledge to improve conditions for those who received low wages for making top-selling products. As a result, details of Nike’s factories were published so as to create a greater degree of transparency for customers. The company also made a pledge to establish a task force that would monitor its codes of conduct in relation to pay, working hours, working conditions and to make sure that these all complied with industry standards.

There are companies that are dedicated to producing Fairtrade goods only. Originating in 2006, Fairtrade Sports is the first sports equipment company in America to launch a line of eco-certified Fairtrade sports balls and ‘sweatshop-free’ apparel. As a result, workers get fair wages and healthier working conditions.

Some of the industry’s most famous names have helped to raise awareness of this issue. In 2006 former Welsh rugby player JPR Williams spoke of his desire to promote fair trade practices in developing countries. Speaking of this wish, he said: “We don’t have any idea in this country how poor people in Third World countries are, and anything we can do to support them and give them a fair wage has to be a good thing.”

Additionally, in 2005 sports stars posed for posters for the Make Poverty History campaign. These included names like Steve Redgrave, Kelly Holmes, Sol Campbell, Jonny Wilkinson and Nick Faldo. The images portrayed in the campaign sent home the message of how unfair trade rules got in the way of the performance of developing countries. This was depicted in stars using natural fruits and flowers instead of sporting goods – for example, Redgrave was seen holding bananas instead of oars, Wilkinson was shown to attempt a try with a pineapple, while Faldo was shown to putt with a sunflower.

So those are just some of the issues surrounding ethical trading in the sports and sports goods industry. The latter example shows how sporting personalities are prepared to promote these serious issues and raise greater awareness. The sporting giants have managed to make a great contribution to these issues, but as with both of these problems, there is still a great deal that can be done. Whether or not these actions will continue to be carried out, and whether they will be undertaken to a higher degree remains to be seen, but with both greater promotion and resources, ethical trading will continue to be a powerful force in sports.

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