Fossil fuel companies spend millions on sport to ‘greenwash’ image, report claims

A new report from the Australian Conservation Foundation claims the fossil fuel industry is spending $14 to $18 million a year sponsoring top-level sport in Australia to “greenwash” its image.

However, the report also reveals fossil fuel funding makes up only a tiny slice of major sports sponsorship in Australia, which runs to more than $450 million.

Netball is picking up the pieces after the cancellation of a $15 million partnership with Gina Rinehart’s mining company Hancock Prospecting.Credit:Fairfax Media

The report comes at a fraught moment for Australian sport. Gina Rinehart’s mining company Hancock Prospecting pulled a $15 million Netball Australia sponsorship deal on the weekend after players refused to wear the company’s logo.

And The Age and Sydney Morning Herald have reported test cricket captain Pat Cummins raised ethical objections about Alinta Energy’s sponsorship before the company ended its $40 million deal with Cricket Australia.

Alinta and Hancock’s deals are just two of 51 partnerships between fossil fuel companies and top-level Australian sport identified by the new report.

Australia’s three largest mining companies, BHP, Rio Tinto and Fortescue all have sports sponsorships, as do two of the country’s largest energy retailers in Origin and AGL.

Oil and gas producer Santos is the most prolific, sponsoring AFL, rugby league and union, and cycling, the report claims.

The report, authored by Swinburne University’s Professor Emma Sherry, argues the companies are using sponsorships to “utilise the soft power of sport to greenwash their operations and climate action credentials”.

The report notes AGL’s sponsorship of Port Adelaide was promoted as “reducing the club’s carbon emissions through a certified carbon-neutral electricity product”. AGL remains Australia’s largest carbon polluter.

The report only looked at 14 sports: eight major professional sports including football, rugby, cricket, basketball and netball, and six “major” Olympic sports including cycling, swimming and rowing.

Pat Cummins celebrates a wicket against Sri Lanka.Credit:Getty Images

Just 3.5 per cent of sports sponsorships identified by the report are linked with energy and mining companies, the smallest industry category identified; 30 per cent comes from consumer goods.

The report estimated the total sponsorship cost at between $14 and $18 million for top-level sport.

“By connecting with the emotion of sport and publicly showing their support for sport, these brands can create positive brand associations and improve their reputation within the community,” said Dr Ashlee Morgan, a lecturer in sport business and marketing at Edith Cowan University.

“There is plenty of scrutiny of fossil fuel companies now, so it makes sense for these brands to seek out marketing opportunities to distract from criticism and improve their public image.”

She said cutting fossil fuel advertising may hit some sports hard in the short term. “However, other sponsors will enter the game and there is greater long-term value in sports being true to their ethical, social and environmental values.”

Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association chief executive Samantha McCulloch said the industry was “proud to have invested hundreds of millions over the years in communities and organisations across Australia, many in remote regional areas where local corporate support can be limited”.

“Members offer this support through sponsorships of sports organisations and teams, community groups and their important programs as well as donations to charities to support the communities we operate in so we can all benefit from the development of Australia’s natural resources.”

Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott told Sky News last week that common sense was needed on the issue.

“Because at the end of the day, this is a sporting team that’s not going to get money, there’s a kid that’s not going to get advanced because that sponsorship wasn’t there,” she said. “We’ve got to make sure that we don’t discourage that.”

The Australian Conservation Foundation’s campaigns director Paul Sinclair said sport should be “using its power to help solve the climate crisis, not accept money from big climate polluting corporations”.

“When we see the Santos Wallabies or Woodside Fremantle Dockers on TV it has the effect of sanitising their role and image as big climate polluters.”

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