Polluting Event Sponsors No Longer Welcome

Smoking power plants

Skift Take

When it comes to event sponsors, the company you keep says a lot about your brand values. Are your sponsors sending the wrong message about sustainability?

The heat is on to reduce carbon emissions. Events can contribute by promoting sustainable transportation, serving plant-based foods, and reducing waste. But what role does event sponsorship play? Do customers pay attention to values alignment with sponsors? And how can organizers mitigate the risk of greenwashing as climate impacts escalate?

The criticism of events that accept sponsorships from polluting companies is not new. Since 2004, grassroots groups in the UK have been pushing cultural institutions to cut ties with oil and gas sponsors. They include high-profile events, including the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Science Festival.

As climate change worsens, pressure to ditch advertisers and sponsors that contribute to environmental damage is mounting. For instance, COP27 has been criticized for accepting sponsorship from Coca-Cola. Critics say the company’s contribution to global plastic pollution creates a conflict of interest for the climate summit.

Art festivals in Australia, including the Perth and Darwin Festivals, have bowed to stakeholder pressure and ended partnerships with Chevron and Santos. Sports leagues and events have come under fire for sponsorship ties, most notably in football, cycling, cricket, netball, and ice hockey

The Australian Conservation Foundation has recommended that 14 high-profile Australian sports organizations replace the millions they receive from coal, gas, and oil companies with more sustainable sources of funding.

Civil society organizations in Europe have called on Politico Europe, the Financial Times, and Euractiv to end event sponsorship by Shell and urged policymakers not to attend events hosted by these media companies.

Three cities and districts in the UK, six in Denmark, and five in Australia have passed motions to restrict fossil fuel advertising since December 2020. Bans in Amsterdam and Sydney specifically target advertising at public and children’s festivals. Proposals for bans are also underway in Sweden, Finland, Norway, Canada, and the U.S.

Where Is the Pressure Coming From?

Local interest groups and environmental non-profits are turning up the heat on brands and organizers. Research suggests the public is supportive. According to polling research by The Australia Institute, three in five Australians agree that fossil fuel sponsorship is the new cigarette sponsorship. The agreement is highest among 18 to 29-year-olds at 78 percent. 

Meegan Jones, senior sustainability advisor of The Ocean Race and sustainable events director of GreenShoot Pacific, is not surprised the general public is upset to learn fossil fuel companies are aligned with much-loved events. “I predict it will be a very short time before we see these companies banned from advertising, just as smoking and gambling are. Having a fossil fuel company sponsor your event is plainly stating you do not have a care for the impacts of climate change.” 

Pressure is also coming from within the event community. Natalie Lowe, founder of the Sustainable Events Forum, said, “We are seeing attendees and staff at events noticing sponsors and activations that don’t align with sustainability objectives. This creates a crack in the foundation of trust between these groups, and sponsors aren’t being blamed; the hosts are.” 

What’s The Big Deal?

Event sponsorship helps polluters greenwash their image. Partners may also influence event messaging, helping to sanitize their brand and potentially mislead the public. 

“We know that businesses, such as fossil fuel firms, seek out corporate partnerships in order to improve their standing and further their social license to operate,” said Freddie Daley, who studies sustainable behavior change and energy transitions at the University of Sussex. “And the research suggests that it works — especially in the world of international sport.”

Duncan Meisel, executive director at CleanCreatives, a movement of creative agencies and their clients cutting ties with fossil fuels, also sees retention risks. “Building a successful events company requires bringing together talented people and growing a team together. When considering working with major polluters, you should ask how it might affect your talent recruitment and retention, particularly among young people who see fossil fuel companies as deeply opposed to their interests.”

And it’s not just about employee retention. Nancy Zavada, principal of MeetGreen, flags the potential for polluting sponsors to alienate other partners. “Large corporate sponsors are carefully selecting the events they want to be associated with. Several of our clients have developed their own policies on how environmentally responsible the event must be for them to consider sponsorship.” This can include looking at the track record of fellow sponsors to avoid being tainted by association.

How Are Event Organizers Responding?

If media coverage is any indication, high-profile events and activations are either unaware of the risks or may be aware but are choosing to react to criticism as it happens. Those focusing on event sustainability recommend taking a more proactive approach.

Shore Up Event Sustainability Credentials

The best defense is a good offense, and a strong event sustainability position can attract the right sponsors. “The best sponsorship model I could recommend for monetizing your event is to build a reputation for sustainability that brands care about. Brands want a social license to operate, and being aligned with a trusted, responsible, sustainable event that exhibits strong values and allows the brand to connect with customers in an authentic way, is gold dust,” said Meegan Jones, senior sustainability advisor of The Ocean Race and sustainable events director GreenShoot Pacific

Over-Communicate Sustainability Goals

A well-thought-out sustainability policy, complete with guidelines that extend into sponsor negotiations and agreements, helps to ensure values alignment, reducing reputational risks. “Encourage teams to have discussions early and often about brand alignment and sustainability and provide guidance on how those strategies play out for sponsorship, purpose, and deliverables such as onsite activations and swag,” said Amanda Simons, principal and sustainability consultant of Honeycomb Strategies.

Change It Up

Finding new sponsors takes time and effort, but it is a step in the right direction to shore up more future-proof funding sources. “Smaller organizers might be tempted to take sponsorship money from fossil fuels to cover any budget shortcomings, but there are better ways. Going to your existing sponsors and asking for additional funding or introductions to other sponsors so that everyone can maintain a positive brand experience is a smart alternative. Smaller organizers may feel the squeeze initially but will win in the end by attracting high-quality sponsors,” said Sarah Shewey, founder and CEO at Happily.

Provide Good Counsel

Sometimes sponsorship choices are out of our hands. But it’s never a bad idea to raise a red flag about value misalignment. “As event managers, we don’t always have the final say on the partners and activities at our events, but we need to be sound counsel to our clients on this alignment or risk being blamed when the integrity of the host is questioned,” said Candice Tulsieram, founder of The Sustainable Events Forum.

Meisel sums the situation up well. “Ultimately, the events industry is about the magic of bringing people together for a common cause. Event leaders should carefully consider whether they want to be lending their very special magic to the cause of companies that have declared to investors and regulators that they intend to destroy the one planet we share.”

Twenty years ago, tobacco advertising regulations led to restrictions on event sponsorship. Now that climate change and its impacts on health are coming home to roost, companies that pollute face similar limitations in legal and social license to operate. As a result, event professionals must carefully weigh the financial benefits of partnering with such companies or risk their own brand being caught in the crossfire.

Photo credit: catazul / pixaby