Olympic organisers LOCOG critiscised over sustainability choices

| 25th July 2012
London 2012
Despite being London 2012 sustainability partners, both BP and EDF have been criticised for 'greenwashing' their sustainability commitments.

Picture courtesy of Elliot Brown.

How did BP and EDF ever become the London 2012 Olympics sustainability partners? Mark Gee says he is at a loss to understand

Unlike other commercial partners, LOCOG was solely responsible for selecting the likes of BP and EDF.  Chosen between July 2007 and November 2009 as part of the finalising of the sustainability plan, each of these companies had prior (and present); see BP and the Texas City refinery disaster and EDF appropriating Ecotricity's green Union flag and so might seem unlikely sustainability bedfellows.

The 2012 Olympics’ sustainability plan is based around five key themes; climate change, waste, biodiversity, inclusion and healthy living. Add in The Olympic and Paralympic Values of respect, excellence, friendship, courage, determination, inspiration and equality and, I would venture, this choice of sustainability partners might seem even more unexpected. So I contacted LOCOG for an interview. After lengthy deliberation, they declined this request, rejected a further invitation to respond to written questions and instead sent me the following statement:

 “Without the private investment by our sponsors, the staging of the Games simply wouldn’t be possible. Our sustainability strategy and policies were clearly set out before our sponsors signed up and we work with companies to comply with those standards. Some companies have chosen to connect themselves with that element of our programme as a Sustainability Partner.

“By working in partnership with all our stakeholders, from NGO’s such as WWF and BioRegional to our commercial sponsors, we are setting new standards and continuously improving our sustainability performance.”

Zzzzzzz...oh, thanks LOCOG.

The Commission for a Sustainable London 2012 (CSL) oversees the provision of sustainability for London 2012, yet was not involved in selecting the sustainability partners. In an interview, CSL’s chair Shaun McCarthy explained, “assurance bodies, by their nature, cannot be involved in management decisions. It would be a fundamental conflict of interests”. He added, “our concern is about setting the standards and requirements for delivery of the sustainability standards of the programme, and then the process by which those standards are delivered, and we would comment on those”.

But how can an organisation overseeing sustainability – in this instance CSL - set standards without being involved in the process? And what happens when sustainability partners fail to deliver sustainability? What sanctions might they face?

Shaun McCarthy told me there aren’t really any sanctions, other than CSL being able to “embarrass them publicly” because of the nature of CSL’s work. He admits that since LOCOG is by its nature a temporary organisation there cannot be any kind of sanction around repeat business with companies losing out in future bids. He continued, “the other thing that is difficult is a sponsor that's putting in cash and value in kind, or a sponsor that's just contributing value in kind in terms of brand recognition, well, what do you do, because actually the cash is flowing the other way”.

Yet CSL is not completely toothless. When EDF failed to deliver their low carbon torch, CSL made a point of embarrassing them. Their latest report, 'In sight of the finishing line,' notes “The promise of a low-carbon torch was made in 2007 so the excuse of “we ran out of time” is not acceptable”.

Is it even a genuine excuse? EDF are not shy of duplicity (see above). An independent organisation with clout might have considered EDF's history during the selection process for sustainability partners.

This same report goes on to say “The Commission is disappointed that LOCOG and EDF Energy have failed in this objective as whilst the carbon contribution of this initiative may have been relatively small, the power of the message across the globe would have been highly significant”.

I would ask why should the power of the message be more significant than the carbon reduction, no matter how small?

Elsewhere, CSL has written: “The Commission is disappointed that there will not be the widespread use of real-time energy monitoring and display as this could have supplemented their (EDF's) Games-time sustainability messaging through providing public confidence in the sustainability of the Games”.

Taken together, these statements appear to me to indicate that real sustainability is less important than the public perception of sustainability.

This matters. BP is responsible for providing the fuel for the fleet of official London 2012 vehicles. The company has been advertising its alleged use of sustainable fuel under the banner “Providing advanced biofuels for London 2012”. But as the UK Tar Sands Network point out, “A closer look at BP's claims here reveals over 99% of the fleet will in fact be using convention fossil fuel. Furthermore, of BP's three advanced biofuel projects, two should really be considered 'first generation' rather than advanced”.

Given the reality of the fuel used, and that first generation biofuels have a bad reputation for driving climate change, BP seem to be greenwashing their sustainability commitment. And CSL and LOCOG appear to be letting them get away with it - no mention is made of BP's predominant use of fossil fuel or first generation fuels in 'In sight of the finishing line'. It will be interesting to see what CSL has to say about this in their next annual report due next month.

To be fair, CSL's position is difficult. They receive 30% of their funding through LOCOG, and so are part-funded by the companies they are supposed to be keeping an eye on. The scope for providing independent sustainability assurance is therefore somewhat compromised. Shaun McCarthy says: “I think the IOC does have responsibility to pick up some of these issues that can't be dealt with by a temporary organisation”. This sounds like a reasonable idea, but could also be susceptible to the same financial (corporate) ambitions.

We accept that there is a need for corporate finance in funding the Games, but this should not detract from delivering sustainability. Just how BP and EDF were chosen as sustainability partners remains a mystery. The choice of future sustainability partners should not be considered from a financial angle alone. A company's sustainability history should be paramount when selecting future partners.

A global organisation, endorsed by but independent of the IOC, with a remit to oversee sustainability from start to finish, might be the best solution for future sustainable Games.

Mark Gee is a criminological analyst & writer. He can be contacted at
blinkeredjustice@gmail.com, and his blog can be viewed at: http://blinkeredjustice.blogspot.co.uk.


Both BP and EDF are featured on Ethical Consumer's current list of active boycotts, which is available here.


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