The intersection between business, pop culture, sustainability and sport for the curious minds
Formula One is not living up to our standards, but don't give up on it yet!
By Sara Neves · June 30, 2022 · 6 min read
This week Formula 1, the company owned by Liberty Media and responsible for promoting the FIA Formula One World Championship, released an update on their sustainability target of becoming a net-carbon sport by 2030. This news gave rise to a recurring inquiry by friends about my love for Formula One. As someone who has always been interested in sustainability and even has a degree in sustainability management loving Formula One seems absolutely out of place.
After some careful reflection I understand their point. Because, is there is a sport that radiates more unsustainability?! We are talking about a sport that dedicates hundreds of millions of dollars to building 20 cars, each using 110kg of fuel a race, each team getting 13 sets of dry tires per weekend, racing on 23 tracks around the world. Shipping by air, ship and truck thousands of containers of equipment (race freight), transporting thousands of people (teams, media, officials, etc.) from one place to the other and hosting hundreds of thousands of fans every race weekend from all over the world. The impact of this is absolutely massive and it is just the tip of the iceberg.
It doesn’t sound good at all. I know! But to be honest that doesn’t shock me. For the last century society has been living as if there is no tomorrow and this has led us on a path of self-destructive behaviors we are finally facing. In every aspect of our lives we can find horrible practices in terms of environmental responsibility, social equity and responsible economic development. Unfortunately, we won’t find an industry or a company that is squeaky clean. Not now at least and to be honest I don’t think it will ever happen.
The rise of sustainability
In 2015 at the UN Sustainable Development Summit in New York the world finally reached a point where most of us agreed that the status quo wasn’t acceptable anymore and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable development with its 17 sustainable development goals (SDG) was adopted. In short it is plan that sets out to eliminate poverty, reduce inequality and protect the planet. It has 17 goals in 3 dimensions (economic, social and environmental) and 169 targets. They are not legally binding, but each country committed to translating these goals into national policy having in mind the specific challenges each of them face. This also includes promoting and creating incentives for private companies to adopt these principles and contribute to the UN SDG’s.
Since then the subject of sustainability gained enormous popularity amongst consumers and investors have also been paying closer attention to these concerns. This is why publicly traded companies in most countries must disclose ESG metrics and why companies in general have incorporated sustainability issues into their corporate strategies and communication. Sustainability has become not only essential for maintaining the “social contract” of businesses with society but it also has become a real competitive advantage. As such, it is no wonder that Formula 1 has hopped on to this bandwagon as well.
Using tech to minimize environmental impact
How Formula One maintains the essence of the sport while facing these challenges is, in my opinion, the fascinating part. And contrary to other sports, and even some industries, Formula One is uniquely equipped to do so. It has a huge talent pool of people who are highly qualified, driven towards innovation and who have experience solving complex problems. How each team and the sport collectively leverage these resources and approach the problems in the three dimensions is maybe as interesting as the sport itself!
FIA and Formula 1 already made some interesting moves. We have several motorsport championships with electric cars such as Formula E (very popular amongst younger audiences), Extreme E, E Rally and even E-Karting all using electric powertrains. Additionally, non-electric powered championships have slowly but steadily been moving towards alternative ways to fuel race cars using hybrid power units that use a 10% bio-component ratio fuel until a 100% sustainable fuel (e-fuel) is introduced in the near future. Additionally, the FIA created an environmental accreditation program giving ratings to for example the different circuits. There have also been talks about clustering races in the same region to maximize logistics and travel efficiency. As well as moving to less CO2 intensive transport and transitioning to 100% renewable electricity at all Formula 1 and team facilities. And several Grand Prixs circuits have implemented programs such as zero single-use plastic policy and incentivized fans to travel by public transport to the racetrack.
Each team also has its own sustainability strategy with most of them relying heavily on their R&D capabilities to develop new technologies and processes to improve efficiency and transferring this to critical industries such as transportation, energy and healthcare. It is actually quite interesting how each team has a unique way of looking at the problems, the differences in what they propose to do and even how they communicate their commitments, targets and policies. If you have some time and are interested, I recommend reading the reports and landing pages on the subject of each team.
Simple but interesting video about how Formula One plans to tackle its environmental impact.
Social issues are not their strong suit
But let’s not forget that the environment is actually the dimension, I think, Formula One is comfortable tackling. The numerous social concerns within Formula One and adjacent to it are far more uncomfortable to deal with and that is obvious in all teams, FIA and Formula 1. Issues such as the lack of gender equality in all areas of the sport or the lack of diversity in teams, being most of them dominated by white heterosexual males. Without even mentioning the numerous “under de surface” social problems existing within the sport such as discrimination, toxic masculinity or stigma associated with for example mental health. And then we have the not so comfortable reality that several Grand Prixs are held in countries that don’t have good standings in terms of human rights and freedom of speech, and also aren’t aligned with FIA and Formula 1’s values of equality and diversity.
Unfortunately for Formula 1, the younger fanbase is on the fore front of social justice and expect companies to meet their standards on these issues. They consume with values and they support brands that are aligned with their world views of a better and equitable future. Which can be a big problem for Formula 1. And despite recognizing there are issues, it seems there is no unified vision within FIA and Formula 1 of what to do about it. Words like diversity and inclusion have been thrown around, but the lack of concrete measures and visible change have frustrated fans, and rightly so.
The sport has a long way to go regarding sustainability, especially in the social dimension. But that doesn’t mean we should discard it just because it is not living up to our standards. Formula One has shown it can be a great catalyst of change in a lot of industries, with their amazing R&D capabilities and continuous investment in sustainable technology. And this should count for something.
As stakeholders in the sport I believe we have the opportunity and an obligation to be active participants in finding solutions and moving the sport towards the changes that are needed. Be it through behavior changes we, fans, can make or by actively supporting initiatives, organizations, teams and individuals who contribute to creating awareness and driving positive change. But I think it also means being open to learn, to speak up when things aren’t right, to help find answers when needed and accepting corrections and apologies when they are made.
So yes, Formula One is not sustainable but if I am honest neither am I. We are all work in progress and as long as F1 is transparent, takes accountability for their impact and has concrete action plans on how they aim to move towards more sustainable practices, I don’t feel it is a paradox being a fan and striving for a more sustainable world.
👉🏻 More readings on the topic:
Countdown to zero (F1)
We Race as One (F1)
We Can’t fight Climate Change without fighting for gender equity (Harvard Business Review)
Lewis Hamilton inspires F1 to accelerate diversity initiatives (Financial Times)