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Olympic Sponsorship: CSR Opportunity or Greenwashing?

Sustainability initiatives at the London Olympics by major corporations can do some good, but they shouldn’t take attention away from a company’s actual record on CSR.

Submitted by: Sarah Coles

Posted: Aug 01, 2012 – 02:27 PM EST

Tags: olympics, csr, sustainability, cause marketing, greenwashing, coca-cola, bp, bt, dow chemical, mcdonalds


By Sarah Coles

It’s hard to imagine a time when the Olympics were absent of corporate logos and television deals.

But in fact, the games were sponsorship-free until Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) retired in 1972. Brundage had believed that involving corporations in the games would impact the IOC’s ability to make independent decisions and would cloud the games with politics and pressure.

Sustainability Initiatives At The Olympics 2012

Flash forward to today.

The Olympics have become a truly commercial event. And now, corporate citizenship is playing a strong role in shaping the context of the games and their sponsors. In fact, the London Organizing Sustainability at the 2012 OlympicsCommittee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) have set ambitious targets to ensure London 2012 is a truly sustainable event. As the host city, London is aiming for the games to be the “world’s first truly sustainable Olympic and Paralympic Games,” and organizers have developed guiding principles around it, called Towards a One Planet Olympics. This is truly a first for the Olympics and an exciting ambition.

But for companies, just sponsoring the Olympics is not CSR, and like any corporate citizenship initiative, it should be well thought out and a strategic and ongoing part of any corporate sponsor’s business. 

McDonald's Recycles...

A look at the line-up of socially responsible initiatives coming from this year’s Olympics includes an array of creative initiatives. Last year, McDonald's announced it was launching eco-friendly uniforms (i.e., recycled old uniforms) at the Olympics as part of its long-term sustainability strategy. McDonald's also recently announced it would source all of its chicken served at the Olympics locally from within the U.K. (after much controversy that they had planned source from Brazil).

...while Coca-Cola Reduces Carbon Footprint and BT Reuses

Coca-Cola is working with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to address environmental factors, such as reducing the company’s carbon footprint, in addition to offering healthier beverage choices and promoting street games to encourage physical activity. BT (British Telecom) is also getting into the game by working to reuse or resell equipment used at the games and also piloting the use of electric vans. 

BP Jumps in

And BP is rolling out its Target Neutral campaign, which is working to offset carbon emissions from vehicles, spectators and athletes who travel to the Olympics. BP is rolling out biofuels made from BP Sponsors the 2012 Olympicssugar cane and grasses to fuel to more than 5,000 vehicles, resulting in about a 10 percent improvement in carbon dioxide emissions.

While this sounds positive, biofuels are only a sliver of its business.  Still, one could argue that it’s positive for BP – which signed on as an Olympic sponsor before the Gulf disaster – to be getting back in the limelight in a positive way, and focusing on renewable resources.

Promoting Positive Behavior Change

While I don’t believe that writing checks is a strategic way to tick off the “socially responsible” box, there are some good things that could come out of this year’s socially responsible Olympics. Because the Olympics are such a high-profile event, this is an opportunity to showcase and expand on socially valuable projects and draw attention to what companies can and should be doing to behave more responsibly. It’s using the power of a brand to inspire behavior changes among consumers, corporations and communities.

If the Olympics can be used as a forum to do that around sustainability, then it can work in a positive way.

BP, Dow Chemical, Rio Tinto Accused of Greenwashing

But there’s also a fine line between calling sponsors socially responsible because they’re announcing programs that offset carbon emissions at the Olympics and distinguishing sponsors’ real commitment to social responsibility at the company-wide level.

In fact, protests are expected against sponsors such as Dow Chemical, BP and Rio Tinto, accusing them of being allowed to use the Olympics as a platform for “greenwashing.”

Though all these companies must be reviewed by LOCOG, the exact criteria they use are unclear. Just a few weeks ago, Amnesty International reported that the London Assembly approved a motion stating the "association with Dow has caused damage to the reputation of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games."

If fact, all the sponsors have been subject to additional scrutiny over whether they are “worthy” of Olympic sponsorship. Coca-Cola faced global boycotts last year over accusations of union-busting activities to prevent their workforce from collectively organizing, as well as over the overexploitation and pollution of groundwater supplies in India. McDonalds fell out of favor with U.K. activism groups saying that the company should do more to adhere to the country’s Red Tractor standards, the British guidelines that promote food safety, environmental stewardship and animal welfare.

Balancing the Scales Between Criticism and Praise

But at the same time, these are also companies that have some of the largest corporate social responsibility programs that are showing real results.

Coca-Cola has done innovative things for clean water in Africa, and McDonalds has done similar work Coca Colafor responsible food sources, including improving conditions for farm workers and developing a sustainable fisheries program.

The bottom line: the Olympics are arguably the most high-profile international event, and any global sponsor would be subject to negative backlash. While I do think it’s an interesting way draw attention to – and support for – various citizenship campaigns in a really high profile way, we should tread lightly around calling the Olympics a sustainable event and using it as a platform to showcase sustainability. 

Equally importantly, companies who sponsor the event will have critics watching their every move, so it’s important to think critically about what programs they publicize around the Olympics, and which are a part of their core values. CSR should be part of a company’s ongoing business practices, not just part of a sponsorship promotion.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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