Campaigners call for sports to drop sponsorship deals with polluting car brands

The sports industry should drop deals with major polluters, such as car makers Toyota and BMW, over concerns that sustainability claims are at odds with emissions, campaigners have said.

Team GB Olympic gold medallist Etienne Stott joined experts and researchers to condemn sponsorship deals with global car brands that pollute the environment, and compared them with earlier tobacco advertising campaigns.

Researchers said major car makers like Toyota and BMW are spending £3.6 billion on sport sponsorship deals as a way to improve their image on sustainability despite them lobbying governments to delay climate policy.

Etienne Stott
Etienne Stott (Jordan Pettitt/PA)

The report by the New Weather Institute and the Badvertising campaign, published on Wednesday, cites sponsorship deals like BMW becoming the sustainability partner of Real Madrid Football Club and Toyota providing “sustainable mobility solutions” for the Giro d’Italia cycling race.

The researchers said the two companies sold more than 12.5 million internal combustion engine cars in 2021, which will emit an estimated 855 million tonnes of C02 – the equivalent of 230 coal-fired power plants running for a year.

Toyota is continuing to invest in internal combustion engine vehicles with plans to sell 110 million that will emit an estimated 7.4 billion tones of CO2 over their lifetimes.

The report found that Toyota and BMW have also pushed against climate policy and tighter environmental regulations despite claims of leadership in sustainability.

It said both companies are vocal critics of national efforts to introduce mandatory phase-out dates for internal combustion engine vehicles, including refusing to sign a pledge at Cop26 to phase out the vehicles by 2040 as well as BMW lobbying the Government to allow hybrid vehicle sales to continue up to 2035 and opposing the phase-out of internal combustion engine motorcycles.

Ms Stott said: “The future for health and quality of life in our towns and cities is a big shift to active travel, walking and cycling, and cleaner, more efficient public transport.

“So it’s bizarre to see private car makers parked all over sport.

“We know why polluting companies sponsor sports people, clubs and competitions: like the cigarette companies before them, they want to benefit by association with images of active, young, healthy athletes and the emotional commitment of fans. For the sake of everyone involved, it’s time for sport to use its power to say ‘no’.”

Andrew Simms, co-director of the New Weather Institute and co-author of the report, added: “Sport was the pitch where the public health struggle to end tobacco advertising was most fiercely fought, but today sport has a bigger smoking problem carrying sponsorship and ads from major climate polluters.

“Air pollution alone from burning fossils kills around the same number of people as tobacco products, before you even begin to count the impact of global heating.

“Through their sponsorship, Toyota and BMW continue to pollute our atmosphere, public debate and the world of sport – all while claiming that they are part of the solution.

“If sport continues to allow itself to be used as a billboard for major polluters it will not only be digging its own grave, but those of its athletes and fans. Partnering with companies that are disproportionately responsible for global heating is a bad look.”

Concerns around high-carbon companies sponsoring sport has been growing in recent years with a number of international tournaments ending ties with high-carbon sponsors on climate grounds, including Tennis Australia scrapping its partnership with oil and gas giant Santos after a grassroots campaign last year.

A spokesperson for BMW said: “Sustainability is a fundamental part of the BMW Group’s corporate strategy.

“The company is committed to the goal of climate neutrality by 2050 at the latest and is following a scientifically validated and transparent path along the entire value chain.

“The BMW Group was the first German car manufacturer to join the “Business Ambition for 1.5°C” and is a member of the UN Race to Zero programme. By 2030, at least 50 per cent of the BMW Group’s global sales volume is to be achieved with fully electric vehicles.

“Currently, the company is taking concrete measures to reduce the lifecycle carbon footprint of its products by 40 per cent by 2030 compared to 2019 levels.”

The PA news agency has contacted Toyota for comment.