The World Surf League has chosen to focus on the specific threats to its “playing field.” This risk-turned-opportunity approach to building a sustainability strategy is the best way for other leagues and teams to ‘find their wave,’ addressing the specific reasons to inspire action.
Due to a lack of regulation and market pressure, sports organizations’
sustainability agendas have been permitted to lag behind industries with
innovative ESG approaches. Thanks to city decarbonization plans, corporate
sponsorships, an increase in sports industry leaders, and the unfortunate
effects of a growing climate crisis, the ‘green sports’ movement is at a pivotal
The World Surf League (WSL), a governing
body that is dedicated to showcasing the talent of the world’s best surfers, has
embraced its vision for impact more holistically. In 2021, it launched
PURE — a program with internal commitments to
enhance League sustainability practices — and PURE’s call to action, “We Are
One Ocean,” a petition to conserve
30 percent of the ocean by 2030. While the League is early in its journey, it is
setting the precedent so that other sports leagues and teams can get comfortable
with adopting a similar approach.
Finding your wave
We have seen a recent increase in ways that climate change directly impacts the
business of sport. There are delays from extreme weather
there are impacts to athletes’
and there is a financial burden to adapt to the changing
While we need to deploy solutions to address all of these challenges, one sports
organization cannot do it on its own. Pressuring organizations to try to solve
everything will only inspire fear and inaction. Instead, sports teams should
hone in to address the solution or solutions that align with their most material
impact areas. The WSL has found its wave within the intimidating ocean of
climate solutions, identifying several specific facts that have guided its
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The ocean has absorbed more than 90 percent of the excess heat in the
atmosphere, leading to intense storms and sea level rise;
30 percent of atmospheric carbon is absorbed by the ocean, causing
acidification that harms coral reefs and marine life;
Plastics break down into small microparticles that are ingested by marine
life and ultimately by humans.
WSL has chosen to focus on the specific threats to its “playing field.” This
risk-turned-opportunity approach to building a sustainability strategy is the
best way for other leagues and teams to ‘find their wave,’ addressing the
specific reasons to inspire action.
“No sport relies on the ocean as much as surfing does and, at World Surf League,
we take our responsibility to protect our oceans and beaches seriously,” says
Emily Hofer, Chief People Officer and Executive Director at WSL PURE. “We
are excited to continue our sustainability program — We Are One Ocean — into
2022, where we are focused on community-based, grassroots activations investing
in the incredible communities around the world that our Championship Tour visits
and activating our fans around the world in exciting ways.”
Every wave has a rider
After identifying the specific environmental or social risk(s) to a sport, the
front office team and its supportive subject matter
experts can build an aligned agenda to guide
incremental action. This action plan, with specific time-bound commitments,
should be inspired from opportunities that come from the risks themselves.
In 2019, WSL announced a series of sustainability
focused on carbon and plastic — to inspire, educate and empower ocean lovers,
while also addressing these critical environmental issues. Its commitments apply
to all WSL Championship Tour and Big Wave Tour events and include:
becoming carbon neutral globally by the end of 2019;
eliminating single-serve plastics by the end of 2019;
and investing in local communities.
WSL also works to reduce its carbon footprint by regionalizing its operation,
limiting non-essential travel and implementing policies to reduce carbon
emissions at its offices. In 2020, WSL committed to completely offset carbon
emissions from the WSL Surf Ranch in 2020 and beyond, including Kelly
Slater Wave Company headquarters.
In some ways, WSL’s commitments are uniquely challenging because its ‘playing
field’ is global and, as its We are One Ocean campaign notes, it’s so
interconnected that everyone who loves the ocean has a role to play. Most
professional sports teams or leagues have a much narrower playing field —
limited to one geography, one type of building, or a few specific environmental
conditions. Literally and figuratively, World Surf League is riding many waves
at once — this multi-pronged, global approach should inspire other leagues and
teams to pop up and ride one wave of focused action for impact.
Riding in tandem
While impressive, WSL’s efforts should not be over-simplified; this work is
challenging and requires internal organizational support and buy-in from
partners. To implement its commitments, WSL has an agile internal team that
leverages the power of corporate and nonprofit partners to drive the We are One
Ocean campaign, and delivers its carbon-offset program with
STOKE and its independent evaluators.
Other leaders in the sustainable sport
have taken a similar approach: FIFA’s ‘greenest football club,’ the Forest
have an extensive list of sustainability
partners; the Philadelphia Eagles leverage
‘Go Green Partners’;
and more and more athletes are tapping into sustainable brand sponsorship
Surfing — even riding one wave — is a journey, just like building a
sustainability strategy. It takes focus, balance and a bit of trust to fully
commit. Luckily, organizations have the right equipment and access to coaches to
guide the process; they just need to step into the water.