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British Cycling’s partnership with Shell is the tip of the sportswashing iceberg


By Jake Dubbins | Managing director

October 13, 2022 | 9 min read

British Cycling came under fire this week after it inked a sponsorship deal with oil firm Shell. Conscious Ad Network co-founder Jake Dubbins says the move is yet another example of blatant sportswashing.


‘Shell sponsoring Britain’s governing cycling body is the deepest shade of greenwash there is’ / Image via Unsplash

Sportswashing is by no means a new phenomenon. Much like greenwashing, it refers to unethical firms and regimes turning to the glitz, glamour and charisma of the sporting world to legitimize their practices. This genius strategy was kicked off by Hitler and Mussolini, who held the Olympics and World Cups in their respective countries to show that their fascist regimes really weren’t that bad.

This practice is still alive and well, as British Cycling made clear this week by announcing its new official partner: Shell. Their shared goal? A commitment to ‘accelerating our path to net zero.’

An admirable goal indeed. But as anyone familiar with what Shell does will know, it is not in the business of net zero – and has no intention of being. Last month, in a US congressional investigation, a series of slides dated from January 2020 were leaked from Shell’s head office, explicitly stating that Shell will not sacrifice profits for the climate. The slides also request that employees do not “imply, suggest or leave it open for possible misinterpretation that [net zero emissions] is a Shell goal or target.” Three months later, the oil firm changed its tune and committed to becoming net zero by 2050.

The critical point here is that 2050 is 28 years away. The IPCC Report released in February 2022 said that there is a “rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.” The next eight years are absolutely critical. Indeed the EU has committed to reducing emissions by at least 55% from 1990 levels by 2030. Compare this to Shell’s target: “To help step up the pace of change, in October 2021 we set a target to reduce absolute emissions by 50% by 2030, compared to 2016 levels on a net basis. This covers all emissions in Scope 1, which come directly from our operations, and in Scope 2, from the energy we buy to run our operations, under our operational control.”

This only covers its own operations and the energy it buys externally to power its operations. There is no mention of the biggie, Scope 3, which obviously includes all that petrol we burn and plastic we chuck in the sea. Plastic that was revealed last week has now made its way into breast milk.

Cycling has real potential to drastically cut down the UK’s carbon emissions and create a hopeful, liveable future. Studies show that people who cycle daily have 84% lower carbon emissions from all their daily travel than those who didn’t. That’s not to mention the improvements in air quality, reductions in noise pollution and increased safety of our streets. Shell sponsoring Britain’s governing cycling body is the deepest shade of greenwash there is.

Greenpeace UK policy director Dr Doug Parr put the irony succinctly: “The idea of Shell helping British Cycling reach net zero is as absurd as beef farmers advising lettuce farmers on how to go vegan.” I can’t help but agree.

But this isn’t an isolated incident. It’s a trend that spans an entire industry and has gone unchecked for far too long.

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Perhaps the highest profile incident of sportwashing is the upcoming Qatar World Cup. This event has been largely hailed as a human rights and environmental catastrophe. Well over 6,500 migrant workers have died during construction for the tournament, while many more migrants, women and LGBTQ+ persons have suffered human rights violations at the hands of a dictatorship. Hosting the world’s largest sporting spectacle here does nothing but legitimatize this regime. See also Russia 2018.

Saudi Arabia recently won the bid to host the 2029 Winter Olympics in its $500bn concept mega-city Neom. The environmental absurdity of hosting snowsports in a country where the average temperature rarely falls below 8C is baffling. But beyond that, it again legitimizes the inconceivable human rights violations that many citizens of this country face.

In last season’s UK Premier League, nine out of 20 teams wore shirts emblazoned with betting advertising. Gambling is directly responsible for 550 suicides per year in the UK, and people with gambling problems are 15 times more likely to take their own lives. There is no conceivable reason your favorite player should be encouraging you to stake your savings on the next game.

Enough is enough, I say. Sports should no longer be levied to spoon-feed the masses an abhorrent cocktail of human rights violations, climate crimes and insidious corporate agendas.

So, while British Cycling partnering with Shell isn’t a unique incident, it has brought the practice of sportswashing firmly into the spotlight. There is no denying that fossil fuels should have no place in the world of cycling.

It comes at a time when many industries, agencies, consumers and governments are evaluating their relationship with ethically condemnable companies. Museums have begun to reject funding and sponsorship from fossil fuel corporations. In France and Holland, governments are stepping in to ban fossil fuel advertising, alongside other unethical products and practices. In the UK, we’re seeing calls from the advertising industry, Media Bounty included, to keep fossil fuels off its books.

Whether or not cycle sports athletes will speak out against this sponsorship remains to be seen. However, I can’t imagine too many will be thrilled with the Shell logo emblazoned on their jerseys. In other sports, we’re seeing players themselves push back against these practices. In protest of Qatar, Denmark has changed their team uniforms to ‘the color of mourning’ to honor the migrant workers who have lost their lives during the tournament’s construction. French footballer Kylian Mbappé has openly refused to appear in adverts for gambling and fast food, a direct breach of contract. Titanium Lion winner ‘Long Live the Prince’ was a masterclass in the power of sports for good.

We can hope that British Cycling and Shell’s brazen act of sportswashing will continue to raise awareness of this growing movement and empower more players, fans and agencies to turn the tide. The advertising world has a role to play in this.

This is not ideological demonization. If Shell was indeed to match the EU target of reducing emissions by 55% by 2030 across its entire supply chain then that should be applauded. The partnership with British Cycling would indeed be authentic. This is in no way to exclude past actions by the oil major, but it is a fact that we are out of time and need radical action right now to avert the worst of the climate crisis and secure a liveable future.

Doug Parr talked about lettuce farmers. This partnership may be another British debacle that may have the shelf life of a lettuce and see an imminent U-turn. Hopefully, British Cycling will not be thrown over the handlebars and live to ride another day.

Jake Dubbins is the chief executive officer of Media Bounty and the co-founder of the Conscious Ad Network.

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