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Greenpeace: Rugby World Cup tried to legally block new 'sportswashing' campaign video

Greenpeace's new campaign is targeting fossil fuel companies bankrolling sports tournaments (Image: Greenpeace)
Greenpeace's new campaign is targeting fossil fuel companies bankrolling sports tournaments (Image: Greenpeace)

The Rugby World Cup tried to legally block a new Greenpeace campaign video against "sportswashing", which was critical of the tournament's sponsorship by French fossil fuel giant TotalEnergies, for using its logos.

In a newly unveiled short film on Wednesday (30 August) called Total Pollution: A Dirty Game, the climate action group called for a complete ban on fossil fuel advertising and sponsorship of major sporting events. The video shows torrents of oil spilling out of TotalEnergies logos dotted around the Stade de France, where France's Les Bleus are set to play New Zealand's All Blacks on 8 September, in the first match of the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Rugby players and fans in their seats, represented by mannequins, are bowled over and drowned in rivers of oil as they gradually flood the stadium. According to Greenpeace's calculations, the global fossil fuel industry extracts enough oil to fill a stadium like the Stade De France every 3 hours and 37 minutes.

PARIS, FRANCE - OCTOBER 19: A view inside the Stade de France stadium which will host the Athletics and Rugby 7's ahead of the Paris 2024 Olympics World Press Briefing on October 19, 2022 in Paris, France. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - OCTOBER 19: A view inside the Stade de France stadium which will host the Athletics and Rugby 7's ahead of the Paris 2024 Olympics World Press Briefing on October 19, 2022 in Paris, France. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

A cease and desist letter sent to Greenpeace by Rugby World Cup Limited's (RWCL) legal team the day before the campaign went live - which NationalWorld has confirmed was sent by RWCL - accused the climate campaign group of "unauthorised activities", namely use of its intellectual property.

"Staging the Tournament is a major undertaking which requires significant financial investment," the letter read. "The goodwill and prestige associated with the Tournament is directly attributable to the very substantial financial and other efforts and resources which RWCL has invested and is continuing to invest in the management, development and commercialisation of the Tournament.

"To ensure the success and viability of the Tournament, and the future growth and development of the sport of Rugby Union as a whole, RWCL is obliged to ensure that commercial rights associated with the Tournament are only used by commercial partners that have entered into an agreement entitling them to use such rights. RWCL is therefore concerned to protect its and its commercial partners’ goodwill and rights."

The letter went on to say they had been alerted to the video, which featured RWCL trademarks including "the Rugby World Cup and Rugby World Cup France 2023 logos, as well as the trademarks and logos of our member unions and a commercial partner of the Tournament".

It went on to say to avoid the need for legal proceedings against Greenpeace International, it required them to "immediately cease and desist" from using the logos, and to immediately remove the video from Youtube and any other platforms.

Greenpeace published the video anyway, with Greenpeace France spokesperson Edina Ifticene saying: "The Rugby World Cup has sent Greenpeace International a legal letter to try to force it not to publish our video, but we won’t be silenced.

"Fossil fuel companies like TotalEnergies sponsor events like the Rugby World Cup to distract everyone from their climate destruction," she continued. "The fossil-fuelled climate crisis has already started to negatively impact rugby itself - a typhoon disrupted the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, and major Pacific Island rugby nations are threatened by rising sea levels.

"Everyone is waking up to the fact that there is no place for fossil fuels, not in rugby, or anywhere else. We will not be stopped from calling out the truth and will release the video," Ms Ifticene said.

When asked to comment, a World Rugby spokesperson told NationalWorld: “Rugby World Cup 2023 is committed to a responsible tournament with society and the environment at its heart.

“Tournament delivery supports World Rugby’s Environmental Sustainability Plan 2030, centring on low-carbon mobility, such as trains, and the use of existing infrastructure for competition and training venues to reduce the event’s carbon footprint," they added.

“We recognise the important debate around event sponsorship and openly engage with the rugby family, public and private sector stakeholders to further determine sustainable hosting models for our showcase rugby events, especially Rugby World Cup.”

There was no update on whether any legal action would be taken.

A TotalEnergies spokesperson told NationalWorld it was "wrong to claim that TotalEnergies is greenwashing by sponsoring the Rugby World Cup 2023".

"With the Rugby World Cup, TotalEnergies is sponsoring an international sporting event taking place in France, the company's home country, where we have nearly 35,000 employees, hundreds of sites, millions of customers and a strong local presence," they said.

"In particular, this event is an opportunity for the company to raise awareness of the multi-energy dimension of our activities and our ambition to be a major player in the energy transition, committed to carbon neutrality by 2050, together with society."

TotalEnergies said it has taken steps to reduce the carbon footprint of travel to the tournament, through initiatives like providing car-sharing solutions for fans, and offering free electric car recharging on match days.

"As a reminder, TotalEnergies will invest nearly 5 billion euros in renewable and low-carbon energies by 2023, and will therefore, for the first time, devote more investments to low-carbon energies than to new hydrocarbon projects," they added.