Last month Sport England Chairman Chris Boardman stipulated to national governing bodies that they must do more to tackle climate change as a condition of receiving funding. 

Earlier this year campaigners hailed a “seismic shift” in arts funding after the Royal Opera House confirmed it had severed its sponsorship relationship with BP after more than three decades.

The Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Portrait Gallery have also cut their ties with BP in recent years. Explaining the RSC’s decision in 2019, the company’s directors said: 

“Amidst the climate emergency, which we recognise, young people are now saying clearly to us that the BP sponsorship is putting a barrier between them and their wish to engage with the RSC. We cannot ignore that message.”

Below we have penned some thoughts and our views on how best to circumnavigate the muddy waters of unethical sponsorship:

On the eve of the Rugby World Cup, environmental group Greenpeace released an animated video showing a massive amount of oil flooding the field for the upcoming opening game of the Rugby World Cup in a campaign against fossil fuel sponsorship of big sporting events. The video took aim at energy giant TotalEnergies, a sponsor of the event in France, with oil spilling out of TotalEnergies advertising boards hanging in the stadium.

The sector is a constant subject of discussion in our team – should we consider taking sponsorship money from so-called ‘non-ethical’ or ‘unsustainable’ brands such as those linked to fossil fuels like TotalEnergies or is the sector just too toxic in a world where reputation underpins the value of all our clients.

The outrage that greeted the news that British Cycling had “sold out” the next generation, by signing an eight-year sponsorship deal with Shell, Europe’s largest oil corporation, was instantaneous. British Cycling’s Twitter feed was flooded with furious members shredding their membership cards and cyclists strongly condemning the move. More than 700 organisations and individuals also signed an open letter to British Cycling asking difficult questions of the Governing Body. However, the partnership is still in place and it’s helping British Cycling to deliver its mission. 

Ahead of this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival more than 50 authors, including Zadie Smith, Ali Smith and Katherine Rundell called on organisers to cut ties with its sponsors Baille Gifford over concerns about £5bn they have invested in corporations that profit from fossil fuels.

BP are also active sponsors within the UK arts & culture scene with the Royal Opera House and the Science Museum on their books. The oil giant is currently investing in wind farms and have been in the spotlight for green washing but those in the wind industry welcome their bigger budgets rather than relying on reduced Government handouts to pave the way on the long and painful journey to net zero.

Coca-Cola is a major sponsor of several global sporting events including the Olympic Games and FIFA World Cup but has had a long history of workers’ rights violations at its bottling plants. It has also had a poor record on the environment being accused of taking water supplies from rural communities and falsifying environmental data.

So, what is our duty as a sponsorship and partnership agency in this current climate? Rights holders are rightly nervous about taking money from businesses that might tarnish their reputation. At the same time, they have targets to hit and shareholders asking for more income from partners.

As an agency in the business of generating sponsorship income our first duty is to our clients – we’re good at generating new income, we help to make an event or activation a success with incremental marketing support, and we bring partners together to multiply the impact of sponsorship for all parties.  

So, given that brief and the challenges that there are from many industry sectors, what’s our conclusion? Are we still taking the money?!

We’re not sure that stopping fossil fuel companies (and other organisations that bring potential reputational harm) from sponsoring will directly change the way they behave. However, what we are sure of is that the very nature of sponsorship could provide the answer!

Great sponsorship should always be about doing not just saying – the days of just buying perimeter advertising are gone and brands must now show how they are adding value. Big oil, for example, have an obligation to genuinely show they are committed to the energy transition through active engagement and action. Not just words but tangible actions. No rights holder should take money from challenging sponsors that just want to badge their sport, event or cultural institution. They must use the sponsorship as a platform to drive positive change and genuinely move things forward.

Rights holders that take money from challenging sectors like fossil fuel must hold that company’s feet to the fire around active behaviour change. British Cycling is a great example. The National Governing Body can hold Shell to account based on the way they genuinely help them to “help take important steps to net zero’ and they should be able to report on progress made, or not. Sustainable business is a priority for all NGB’s as seen in Sport England’s recent announcement about funding being dependent on that organisation fighting the climate crisis. The oil companies have a massive role to play in the energy transition – as an industry should we not try to be a positive catalyst for change?

So, does sponsorship provide a good platform for rights holders to do business with the energy companies and banks that are currently facing scrutiny? We think it can, but the industry must hold them accountable to clear actions under our watch, encourage collaboration with fellow sponsors and ensure that they act sustainably and ethically whilst making an event or activation a successful one for the rights holder.

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