Sustaining Olympic sustainability

13 July 2011
When the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) launched the official mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville in May 2010, I was at the launch event at BAFTA in London. LOCOG director Sue Hunt sat next to me during the video to get my first reaction to the sustainability messages – I was quite impressed. The children’s story goes that the mascots were crafted from surplus steel from the Olympic Park and the craftsman went home on his bike to present them to his grandchildren in old shoe boxes, rather than elaborate packaging. All very nice so far, but will the orgy of consumerism that follows be good for the planet? Will future generations of archaeologists discover landfill strata of unsold or discarded Wenlocks and Mandevilles? This is a tricky area because unlike contemporaries the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), LOCOG receives no public funding. It is required to find the £2 billion needed to stage the games from sponsorship, ticket sales and revenue from merchandise. How can the drive to sell more stuff square with the most sustainable games? My experience in Beijing did not bode well as I recorded in my blog at the timeThe huge stores were piled from floor to ceiling with cheap trinkets and the seemingly insatiable appetite of the Chinese people for this stuff filled me with horror. Surely London can do better? LOCOG has done well to set out its procurement intentions well in advance. Its sustainable sourcing code was first published in 2008 and revised in 2009. It sets out clear requirements for a wide range of sustainability impacts from embodied carbon to packaging, and it addresses harmful materials, waste and much more. All suppliers, partners and licensees are required to comply with the code and the LOCOG procurement team has been rigorous in enforcing this requirement. LOCOG has decided on a strategy to improve the mainstream merchandise industry rather than create a niche range of overtly sustainable products, such as you might find in the shop at the Eden Project. Early signs are good. The clothing products on offer are backed by the excellent CSR strategy of Adidas and higher proportions of organic cotton are on offer, as well as sustainable manufacturing techniques. Hornby has completely revamped its packaging strategy for all its products as a result of its engagement with London 2012 and, elsewhere, formerly PVC umbrellas are now made from a more environmentally sustainable material. The London 2012 Shop currently has around 1,000 items for sale, a fraction of the 10,000 items that will be available in the run-up to the games. I look forward to more merchandise based on recycled materials, particularly from some of the major sponsors. I do, however, have a few concerns. London 2012 shops are starting to spring up across the capital. There are shops at St Pancras and Paddington and one recently opened at Heathrow Terminal 5. There will be a megastore on the Olympic Park during the games and outlets at most venues. If you visit one of these shops or view the merchandise online, there is little or nothing to tell you products are sourced sustainably. The products are not like the tourist tat you see in Oxford Street, but they look like any other shop selling high quality souvenirs. Although I understand LOCOG not wanting to create a “compost corner” of sustainable-looking items, I think shoppers want to know that the packaging for the toys they are buying for their children are recycled and recyclable, that the umbrella is not made from PVC and why PVC is bad. To do anything less would be a disservice to the many people who have worked hard to achieve this and an opportunity missed to help educate the public. I also worry about what people take their stuff home in. I am constantly bombarded by various groups wanting to ban single use plastic bags and want London 2012 to set an example in this area. This issue is not as simple as it seems and the supermarkets are grappling with it too. Single use bags are clearly a problem with respect to litter, as illustrated by many stories of the plastic bag island in the Pacific Ocean and other similar horror stories about the impact on wildlife. However, according to a report by the Environment Agency the carbon footprint of these products is very low and alternative bags sometimes need to be re-used hundreds of times to mitigate the carbon impact of manufacture. Hygiene is an issue too. There is growing evidence that people do not tend to wash re-useable bags very often, leading to growth of a different kind that could result in health problems. There is also a problem with storage. In order to maximise the financial return from a short-term retail offer and to comply with LOCOG’s aggressive energy conservation policy, the stores are quite small. Space taken up to store bags to give away or to sell at low cost is not profitable compared to space taken for the actual merchandise people want to buy. As a temporary solution, LOCOG is using paper bags and is working hard to solve the dilemma. Its procurement process has raised a number of potential solutions, but any solution is likely to be a trade off between the various environmental, commercial and operational pressures that LOCOG face. In an ideal world, I would prefer to have no merchandise at all. The notion of buying things for no particular purpose does not sit well with environmental principles. However, if we take into consideration the commercial realities, LOCOG has made a good start in demanding high standards of sustainability. But his standard needs to be maintained and better information about the sustainability of products needs to be available online and in the shops.
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