3 The Ecological Footprint of Sport

Gracie Jacklin and Rachel Rudman

Action to regress and revert environmental degradation should have started years ago rather than within the past few decades. As the most influential species on the planet, we must bring positive change to our society by integrating environmentally friendly practices. The “ecological footprint” is a measure of the amount of land and water area required by an individual, group, or region to fulfil their life needs (FAQ, n.d.). When a population’s footprint exceeds its biocapacity, it is deemed to be in ecological deficit (FAQ, n.d.). This is when the demand for land resources exceeds the capabilities of the ecosystem, which is most often seen in relation to large corporations (FAQ, n.d.; Ecological Footprint, n.d.). Due to their capitalist goals, large corporations cause damage to the environment. Sport is one of the largest industries on the planet; it links billions of people. Consequently, sport is also a leading corporation in terms of environmental damage. From travelling, to the making of arenas, equipment and jerseys, sport produces high carbon emissions and uses an abundance of resources. Corporations use the inside-out method to learn how their actions affect the environment (Pfahl et al., 2013). With the use of this method, we are able to observe how sport is contributing to the environmental crisis we see today, and the detrimental effects they can and continue to cause.



What is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about pollution? For many of us, it is travelling and transportation. One of the largest culprits in terms of harmful environmental impact in travel is the air industry, which can be seen in international events such as the Olympics (Wakefield, 2016). Additionally, the NBA contributed to air pollution by flying more than 1.3 million miles during the 2018-2019 season (Varriano, 2019). Air travel is a highly energy-intensive form of travel that is dependent on fossil fuels. Unfortunately, many consumers are blind to the environmental damages of air travel as flight costs do not reflect environmental impact (Air Travel, 2016). Flight emissions may remain in the atmosphere for centuries, contributing to global warming through its chemical reactions and atmospheric effects (Air Travel, 2016).

Figure 1. “Airplane World” by SARAH RA RA is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The type of travel most often selected by athletes travelling closer to home is the motor vehicle. Most amateur athletes travel by car to and from practice and games, with some teams travelling up to 7 days a week. Travel at this level contributes to pollution, with car emissions alone making up approximately 21% of Nitrogen Oxide emissions (Government of Canada, 2017). Additionally, the average person spends about 42 hours a year in motor vehicle traffic (Crow, 2018). Travel pollutants emit a range of gases and solid matter that contribute to global warming, causing immediate and long-term damage to the environment (Green, 2018). To reverse these damages, activists have focused on promoting greener choices such as carpooling and limiting unnecessary travel. These changes can be applied in personal, commercial and large-scale sporting conditions. Transportation is essential, but it is one of the greatest contributors to environmental pollution.


Resources Used by Facilities

Sports facilities are a major contributor to environmental degradation that people do not consider immediately. There are two different ways sporting facilities use resources: in the physical space itself or in the maintenance of that space. Whether it be a stadium or outdoor field, the creation of these spaces consumes a large number of resources. Land is required to build or create something, and the amount of land used by the sporting industry is enormous. In 2015, golf courses accounted for about 9.1 million km2 of Canadian land (Golf Canada, 2015). This land could be used for greater purposes, which could include housing, wind farms, parks, green space, or farming (DecodingScience, 2019).

In addition to land use, maintaining facilities themselves requires large amounts of resources. Sporting facilities like arenas or stadiums are frequently renovated or rebuilt to maintain up-to-date measures and provide top amenities (Pfahl et al., 2013). This results in more extraction of the Earth’s resources as raw materials are used as opposed to recycled ones (Grant, 2014). Furthermore, the maintenance of outdoor facilities promotes environmental destruction. Massive amounts of water are required for the upkeep of grass-based spaces, such as soccer pitches, baseball fields, and golf courses. Water is needed to maintain sporting fields due to the physical and environmental stress they endure (Sports Field Management, n.d.). It is recommended to water the grass with approximately 1-2 inches of water once or twice a week (Sports Field Management, n.d.). This may not seem like much, but when you account for how large the spaces are and how many there are, it equals an immense amount of water. Additionally, in some jurisdictions, pesticides and herbicides are used to support perfect grass conditions. Golf courses are known for this impact, as they tend to overuse these harmful chemicals (DecodingScience, 2019). These issues are not only seen in sport, but in our daily lives and activities. The impacts of urbanization and industrialization add to the destruction of our planet as they require land and natural resources to support the expansion of the human population.

Despite the ever-growing issue of resource consumption in sports, there are corporations attempting to reduce what they consume. The Wells Fargo arena at Arizona State University is topped with about 2100 solar panels (Craft, 2012). The NHL has implemented a program where the league restores 1000 gallons of water for every goal scored throughout the regular season, called Gallons for Goals (Johnson & Ali, 2017). Nascar has switched to a E15 brand fuel; a biofuel containing 15% less ethanol capable of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20%, while simultaneously increasing horsepower (Johnson & Ali, 2017). But, despite the fact that these changes sound positive, when they are examined more closely, some are acts of greenwashing. This is when a company misleads the public into believing they are more environmentally friendly than they truly are (Kenton, 2020). This is seen in the NHL’s Gallons for Goals initiative where just over 2% of water used all season is restored (Johnson & Ali, 2017).


Equipment and Apparel Production

The fashion industry is the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply as cotton is a highly water-intensive plant (McFall-Johnsen, 2020). About 700 gallons of water are needed to fabricate one cotton t-shirt, which is the equivalent of having eight cups of water per day for three and a half years (McFall-Johnsen, 2020). To produce affordable clothing, the fashion industry focuses on creating clothes in large quantities for the cheapest cost, in the process creating 10% of all humanity’s carbon emissions through international shipping and distribution (McFall-Johnsen, 2020). The issues surrounding the fabrication of clothing are also present in the fabrication of sporting apparel. Creating sport specific clothing, such as jerseys, not only requires materials for their production but contributes to fossil fuel emissions through their manufacturing and distribution. If you consider how many teams there are in professional sports leagues, and how many different jerseys each team has, you could imagine the impact their fabrication creates. You could also consider collegiate and amateur sports, which would double if not triple this impact.

Figure 2. “Energy Factory II” by Marcel Oosterwijk is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

To combat these issues, the sporting industry has started using recycled or sustainable components, including recycled plastics, plant-based materials and water-based ink. These changes reduce the consumption of resources to produce apparel while minimizing their landfill contribution (Agnew, 2017). For the 2019 NHL All-Star game, jerseys were made to be eco-friendly as they were made with repurposed and upcycled materials (NHL Public Relations, 2019). Despite this step representing the NHL’s commitment to protecting water resources, it ignores the fact that they are overproducing the number of uniforms needed for each team. Is it necessary for all 31 teams to have three versions of their jerseys for only an hour of play?


Change in Sport

As sporting industries realize how large the negative impact is that they have on the environment, their efforts are becoming greener. One major influence in making sport more eco-friendly is the Green Sport Alliance Foundation. They promote sustainable behaviours and practices by emphasizing social and environmental responsibility through their seven initiatives: energy, transportation, procurement, food, venues, water, and waste (Green Sports Alliance, 2020). The foundation has inspired professional, amateur, and recreational leagues to reduce their environmental impacts. For instance, a team in the United Kingdom called the Forest Green Rovers, is a football club that has been deemed one of the most environmentally friendly teams on the planet (Farrell, 2020). From vegan diets, solar powered lawn mowers, and the use of recycled rainwater, they act as a blueprint for other teams to easily adopt a sustainable approach to environmentally friendly action (Farrell, 2020).

COVID-19 has had a major impact on sports of all levels. It caused sports leagues to stop their seasons resulting in less travel, decreased carbon emission, and reduced equipment production (Triantafyllidis, 2020). With this, we were able to observe positive changes in our environment, demonstrating how sport is a large contributor to pollution. It has provided an opportunity to rebuild sport in a sustainable way that embraces these positives exhibited by the Forest Green Rovers.



It is unfortunate to see that humans have such a large ecological footprint. As environmental crises are often concerned with the economic and capitalist effects, it is important to understand the environmental impact society has. For decades, capitalism has been exploiting resources to produce man made commodities that ultimately interrupt the natural cycle of the earth (Trotskyist Fraction, 2019). Alongside this, sports encompass capitalism as their operations require great amounts of energy and materials, with no regard for the environment (Orts & Spigonardo, 2013). Through mass amounts of waste generation, greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution, these corporations continue to damage our ecosystems (Orts & Spigonardo, 2013). Activism towards saving our planet is ever growing as awareness around the topic continues to expand. However, if sport corporations greenwash, they continue their damage and negative effects on the environment. Nascar is an example as they promote their eco-friendly fuel to distract from the fact that dozens of cars continue to drive hundreds of miles for entertainment purposes (Johnson & Ali, 2017). However, as greenwashing becomes more exposed, activists are pushing corporations to put an end to this technique forcing them to take responsibility for their actions. Personally, we believe that implementing change is necessary now more than ever. As there are several avenues that can be taken to act against environmental harm, the sporting realm is one where we can begin.



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The Ball is in Y(Our) Court: Social Change Through and Beyond Sport Copyright © by The students of KNPE 473 at Queen's University, Fall 2020, edited by Mary Louise Adams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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