On Monday 10th October 2022 British Cycling announced an eight-year partnership agreement with Shell which has attracted much attention and negative criticism from environmental organisations and grass-root cyclists alike.
As a Member, British Cycling contacted BASIS just before the official announcement and our Chief Executive spoke with them on the day the deal was announced. While respecting the financial and technical performance benefits of the relationship, he was able to highlight the likely negative response and impact on the reputation of British Cycling and how the sports sustainability community and wider environmental movement would likely perceive the association. In particular, the apparent paradox of a low-carbon, healthy form of active transport linking with a major greenhouse gas emitter was discussed along with the resulting potential loss of credibility of British Cycling when promoting cycling as a low-carbon, sustainable form of activity or transport.
BASIS understands that there are additional elements to the agreement with Shell that go beyond the use of fossil fuels, including support for more accessible cycling opportunities, additional research and development, and innovative lubricant technology that may enhance elite performance through marginal gains to help deliver medal targets. However, we also believe that British Cycling may have exposed themselves and their events to unnecessary criticisms and, perhaps, targeted disruption from environmental campaigners moving forwards throughout the term of the agreed association, when people should be celebrating cycling. British Cycling has locked itself in to a long-term agreement at a time when the political and public perception of organisations seen to be polluting the environment is changing rapidly and it is difficult to predict the strength of that feeling towards the end of this decade when this association will still be active.
Most people now agree with the scientific consensus that we are in a climate and ecological emergency that is already causing chaos, misery and death for millions of people around the world, the destruction of habitats and the loss of animal and plant populations and species, and that these impacts will worsen in coming years. It is documented that, historically, fossil fuel companies, Shell included, have been responsible, directly or indirectly, for causing a large part of these problems. At the same time, they have, for decades, actively delayed societal and political responses in pursuit of their own interests. Companies like Shell now argue that they are able to help the transition to a net zero economy and have the financial resources to do so; indeed, the partnership agreement suggests that Shell’s investment will provide services that will help British Cycling to decarbonize their organisation and the sport. However, they still rely on their destructive products to maintain their perceived value – without new oil reserves and supply their fiscal value slumps. Fossil fuels have generated many social and economic benefits, but these benefits are now threatened by the environmental damage being caused by the use of fossil fuels. We need to break our reliance on fossil fuels and transition to less damaging, renewable solutions; active transport solutions like cycling will be part of that solution.
As a trade body we support our members and work equally with progressive and more conservative members on optimising the sustainability performance of sport. As such, BASIS does not comment on specific decisions made by Members, but we do guide and offer perspectives and advice as a critical friend. There are numerous companies in a variety of sectors that obtain a great deal of social exposure, and so a ‘license to operate’, by their association with sport. It was not very long ago that tobacco’s main advertising route to market was directly through sponsoring sports leagues and teams. At the time it was accepted, but that association, rightly, came to an end.
Many clubs, leagues, governing bodies and international federations could be criticised for some of their chosen partners and each organisation must weigh the promised benefits of the partnership against the potential criticism and reputational risk. As a result of these partnerships, currently, there are numerous products and organisations that are socially or environmentally damaging that are displayed at sports venues or on sports kits. For this reason, sport, across the board, needs to look to itself and decide whether it supports a clean, healthy future, in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, or a continued descent into a less healthy, more divided, more volatile world.
We are the first generation to know we face multiple existential problems on a global scale and the last that can do anything about it. There should be nothing more important than addressing the climate and ecological emergency. The time to act on all sustainability issues is now and our decisions should not be made out of that context.