Should sustainable partnerships be part of your sponsorship portfolio?

By Lucy Cadel, 29 June 2021 | 10 mins read

Something’s changed in the world of sponsorship: sustainability has gone from being an afterthought to the main event. Consumers are demanding that brands do good and make a difference through meaningful, tangible action – and those that ignore the public do so at their peril. With a financial and moral obligation to step up and be counted, sustainable partnerships are now a priority in a brand’s sponsorship stable. We take a look at who’s doing what with whom, and how your brand can add to the sustainability revolution.


  • 75% of sports fans have an increased interest in brands that are shown to be socially responsible, versus before Covid-19. (Nielsen)
  • 68% of consumers say they’re more likely to trust companies that they consider to be environmentally friendly. (Ask Your Target Market)
  • 59% said that they’ll actually pay more for products or services that they consider to be environmentally friendly. (Ask Your Target Market)

Nelson Mandela famously said that “Sport has the power to change the world” – and now his words are truer than ever. As the first stat above shows, sport can be a force for good, supporting social responsibility as well as bringing people together. The England international and Manchester United forward, Marcus Rashford, is a case in point, with his work to end child food poverty praised far beyond the footballing sphere. It shows how sport is increasingly becoming a platform for change, with athletes inspired to spearhead progress.

The argument that politics has no place in sport feels increasingly academic, with social issues such as racism and misogyny directly affecting sportsmen and women on a daily basis. Not content to put up with abuse, sport stars are leading the fight against it – and challenging the industry to join them.

In other sectors, too, there’s a growing trend for visible, explicit commitments to sustainability and social responsibility. In the Entertainment world, global market leaders including Ticketmaster, Live Nation Concerts, Festival Republic, Academy Music Group, C3 Presents, LN Media and Sponsorship, and Artist Nation Management, have come together to ‘empower the earth’ through a new alliance called Live Nation Entertainment. The partnership aims to ‘demonstrate leadership on climate action’ by setting targets to reduce greenhouse gas emission (GHG) in line with the commitments made in the UNFCCC’s Paris Agreement. The message is clear: silence is not an option.

Beware the bandwagon

As the shift towards greater corporate social responsibility grows, the focus is not just on brands that act, but also on those that don’t. Organisations that disregard public pressure may find they’re hit where it hurts: on the balance sheet. They risk appearing out of touch, callous or apathetic, and consumers will vote with their feet. However, those that rush to adopt causes purely for PR reasons should beware. The public can smell inauthenticity a mile off. And accusations of greenwashing aren’t a good look.

For brands that are serious about sustainability, there’s a great deal of thought and self-analysis ahead. What does the company stand for? What causes does it touch at a fundamental level? Is it really prepared to commit? What about supply chain – is that the best place to start? Increasingly, organisations are realising that CSR is not a separate concept they can tack on to the business, but integral to its success and goals. For that reason, some have looked to collaborations to achieve the impact they seek – and have even teamed up with rivals.

Collaboration not competition

Take the sustainable partnership between Adidas and environmentally friendly sportwear company, Allbirds. They’re collaborating to create the first shoe with a carbon footprint of less than 3kg. It’s a great example of a corporate brand uniting with a direct-to-consumer business from the same industry to achieve mutual sustainability aims. After all, changing the world is a big task – no one can do it alone.

Sustainability – who else is doing it well?

Encouragingly, there are many other awesome role models out there, making sustainability an integral part of their business. There are also some great opportunities for brands to do their bit – read on for examples of both:

  • The UN’s Sports for Climate Action Framework sets out exactly what sports organisations can do to achieve global climate change Signees include the International Olympic Committee; World Rugby, La Liga; and a host of Premier League teams.
  • Meanwhile, Formula E is (silently) blazing a trail by promoting electric mobility and renewable energy solutions to help reduce air pollution and fight against climate change. Not to be outdone, Extreme E uses electric SUVs, chooses racing locations to raise awareness for aspects of climate change, and promotes gender equality by stipulating that teams must enter a male and female driver.
  • In 2014, Juventus FC began publishing its own yearly sustainability report, with a comprehensive breakdown of its efforts across areas such as social inclusion, gender equality, energy consumption and waste management. Then, in 2017, the club surprised the footballing world by creating a dedicated sustainability department.
  • Sports isn’t the only industry getting its responsible groove on. Back in 2004, an environmentalist and her musician husband formed Reverb, which helps bands and artists to tour with a minimal environmental footprint.
  • World Sailing has created an innovative sustainability programme, Racing with Purpose, developed with The Ocean Race. It includes expert summits, workshops and an immersive, curriculum-based learning programme for schoolchildren in more than 40 countries. The Ocean Race itself also contributes to scientific understanding of ocean health and the effects of climate change. Its race boats double as research vessels, collecting data on sea surface temperature, microplastic concentrations and ocean acidification as they travel through some of the remotest parts of the planet. For the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race, Dee Caffari led the ‘Turn the Tide on Plastic’ team, championing the United Nations Environment’s ‘Clean Seas: Turn the Tide on Plastic’ campaign, along with the Mirpuri Foundation and Ocean Family Foundation.

Case study: partnering for sustainability – Maverick-style

While we’re on the subject of sailing, let’s take a closer look at a recent Maverick project that paired global logistics company, DHL, with eco-conscious yachtswoman, Susie Goodall. The aim was to connect DHL with the idea of ‘pioneering spirit’ – and backing an amazing entrant in the world’s toughest sailing endurance race seemed like the right way to go. The Golden Globe Race is a solo, non-stop, round-the-world yacht race which spurns modern technology. And Susie Goodall is a sustainability-minded sailor who avoided taking single-use plastics with her on the race. Susie also collected water samples every 1,000 miles, which were going to be analysed and studied to assess the extent of microplastics in the ocean (as with The Ocean Race above).

We love it when a sustainable partnership comes together and does the planet some good. And, if the campaign earns recognition – well, that’s an added bonus. Our sustainability partnership activation strategy involved a three-year integrated campaign across digital, social, PR, events, broadcast and print. We’re proud to say that it bagged several gongs, winning The Drum Sponsorship Campaign of the Year 2019, a silver award at the Brand Film Festival, and a place on the UK Sponsorship Awards shortlist.

We ❤ unexpected connections

Sometimes, the best partnerships are the ones that you don’t see coming. The drive for sustainability can bring all kinds of names together, including some you wouldn’t normally expect to see in the same sentence, let alone in partnership.

As a starter for ten, how about Nike and Heinz? ….Plus Coca-Cola, Ford, oh, and Procter & Gamble, too? In 2012, these corporate titans came together to create the Plant PET Technology Collaborative (PTC), a strategic working group focused on accelerating the development and use of 100% plant-based PET materials and fibre in their products. PET, also known as polyethylene terephthalate, is a durable, lightweight plastic that is used by all member companies in a variety of products and materials including plastic bottles, clothing, footwear and automotive fabric and carpet.

Next up, Disney and… the Bahamas Ministry of Education. These unlikely bedfellows got together to develop an environmental activity book that promotes marine conservation in the curriculum in Bahamas’ schools. Since its development in 2010, the book has been distributed to over 1,500 children in public and private schools. It’s all part of the efforts of Disney’s Cruise Line to support education and community outreach.

Finally, we have Comfort, the Unilever laundry brand, and… Cosmopolitan, Elle and Oxfam. This unusual collective organised a pop-up store in London’s Soho to explain the benefits of making clothes last longer to the millennial crowd. Visitors were also invited to swap their unwanted clothes – a brilliant way to engage fashion-conscious young consumers with sustainability and the Comfort brand.

So, what about you?

Decided a sustainability partnership is the right move for your sponsorship portfolio? If you want to it be successful, you need to think carefully about your sustainable development goals and who you choose to team up with.

1. What matters to the brand?

The first step is to go back to basics and look at your brand’s purpose, culture and direction. Identify the issues that matter most to the company and its stakeholders. If there’s one that’s not been addressed or requires outside help, this may be the point to consider potential partners – ones who can bring the know-how and credentials to achieve your sustainability goals.

2. What’s in it for your sustainability partner?

Remember that this partnership must benefit your collaborator, too. How can it support their strategic objectives? Do they share your end goals?

3. Build in flexibility

Sometimes, projects can stall or run into insurmountable problems. So, it’s good for your partnership to have more than one goal, so there’s always an opportunity for progress.

4. Don’t leave it all to them

Your partner is not there to sort out the issue for you – you’re supposed to work together. Make sure you invest time in the collaboration and treat it as an opportunity to learn and develop.

5. But don’t insist on taking the lead either

Your partner isn’t a subordinate, an employee or an outside contractor. There needs to be mutual trust and equal respect, with both sides pulling their weight and sharing decisions from the beginning. Being on the same wavelength is absolutely crucial. Make sure you have the same understanding – and revisit it regularly.

6. The more the merrier?

There’s no law that says you have to restrict yourself to a single partner. If you can achieve more through a collective, go forth and make it happen.

7. Communicate

Opaque or badly promoted initiatives risk attracting the dreaded greenwash label. Make sure yours is clearly explained from the start, with well-defined goals, commitments and regular updates on progress.

8. Don’t be afraid of commitment

Achieving sustainability in any meaningful way is unlikely to happen overnight. You have to be in it for the long haul – are you ready to dedicate time and resources for some time to come? You owe it to your partner to give the collaboration your all.

Establishing a sustainable partnership can have its pitfalls, but also its rewards. Get it right, and you can make an impact that goes far beyond your brand and creates a better world. There’s nothing better than being able to go to sleep at night, knowing you’ve done some good. And if your brand can polish its halo too, well that’s a win-win.

If you’d like a hand with the all the above, just ask the experts. Maverick Sports + Entertainment has built a reputation for forging meaningful, holistic and unexpected connections between brands, partners and consumers. If we may give our trumpet the tiniest toot, we’ve worked with some of the best and biggest brands and rights holders in town. DHL, Manchester United, The Rolling Stones… We’ve delivered solutions for all of three (and many more clients), with the help of our Maverick thinking. To find out what we can do for you, drop us a line or give us a bell. Our specialists are always happy to help.