Sport for Sustainable Development? Sport, Corporate Social Responsibility, and “Greenwashing” in the Extractives Industry

Rob Millington, Audrey Giles, and Lyndsay Hayhurst

First published in The Society Pages

In 1970, American economist Milton Friedman wrote that “there is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.” If Friedman were alive today, he would scarcely recognize the contemporary corporate social responsibility (CSR) landscape. Indeed, in the 21st century, CSR initiatives—that is, the integration of social and environmental concerns within business operations—have become so common place that their absence from a corporate portfolio would seem strange.

An often-cited example of contemporary CSR practices is that of TOMS shoes: For every pair of shoes purchased, TOMS would donate a pair to a humanitarian organization in the global South. The calculus here is not difficult to figure: At a small investment cost, CSR allows a corporation to showcase a desire to be a “good neighbour,” affords it a social license to operate, and enables it to reap the benefits of favourable media coverage.

While CSR is now near-ubiquitous in mainstream business practices, the need for a positive public persona is arguably more pronounced within “controversial industries,” such as the tobacco, gambling, weapons, and extractives (oil, gas, and mining) sectors. For the latter, such initiatives are especially needed as extractives companies have come under fire in recent years for the social and environmental harms wrought by extractive practices, particularly on and near the Indigenous communities and traditional territories in which the companies operate.

Companies hoping to “offset” the harms of extractivism have increasingly looked to sport as part of their CSR portfolio. Indeed, sport has long been seen as a tool to promote a myriad of positive social outcomes, from promoting health and wellness, to gender equity, to economic development. In recent decades, such efforts have become more formalized and institutionalized through what has come to be known as Sport for Development (SFD). A range of stakeholders including non-governmental organizations like Right to Play, corporations like Nike, and the Government of Canada support SFD programming in both domestic and international development contexts. Further, SFD has found support in development policy. The United Nations (UN), for example, has directly connected sport to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that mark their primary development mandate through 2030. For the UN, sport is seen as “an important enabler of sustainable development” for its ability to “promote awareness towards climate protection” and to teach “children and youth about environmental sustainability and climate change.

For examples of extractives-funded SFD programming, one need look no further than thelargest mining and metals company in Canada, Rio Tinto, and its support of programs such as the Northwest Territories (NWT) Track and Field Championship, “Diavik Super Soccer,” SportNorth’s KidSport program in the NWT, and “Shorty Brown Arena” in Yellowknife. Like many other extractive companies, Rio Tinto has touted its commitment to social, economic, and environmental development, thus mobilizing a “triple bottom line” approach to sustainability. In Rio Tinto’s published sustainability reports, the company describes how community outreach is a key component of its sustainable development platform. Sport and recreation are central to these outreach efforts, as Rio Tinto promotes its “track record of supporting healthy lifestyles,” by “encouraging our youth to get active” and seek “healthy, active living through sport.” Furthermore, Rio Tinto has also publicized how its support of sport and recreation programs can act as a “platform for social change,” by “promoting health and inclusion, boosting leadership and teamwork, and engaging young people in education and employment” in Indigenous communities.

Outside of these more “conventional” uses of sport for social development outcomes, RioTinto’s sustainable development initiatives also recognize the importance of land and landbased activities for Indigenous peoples, asserting its “understanding of people’s connection to land, and how land can be used for both economic and social benefits.” Here, too, Rio Tinto’s approach to land use and land rehabilitation shares a connection to sport and recreation. For example, between 2012 and 2014, Rio Tinto “rehabilitated” 3.3 square kilometers of land into recreational spaces with the aim of “restoring a functioning ecosystem and striving to return the natural biodiversity of the area” for the “benefit of the local community and the natural environment.”

That an extractives company like Rio Tinto would seek to position itself as a contributor to sustainable development is perhaps unsurprising, and it bespeaks the trends noted above. Yet, it is also worth questioning the net impact of such CSR programming, and what role sport plays in obfuscating the social and environmental harms of extractivism. Indeed, while extractives sponsored sport and CSR programming may hold a range of intra-personal benefits, they may also contribute to greater forms of un-sustainability. The harmful impacts of extractivism are borne out not only in the environmental realm, but also for many Indigenous communities as extractive practices often encroach upon Indigenous land rights and can disrupt traditional land-based activities. In this respect, it is important to question the extent to which sport allows extractives companies to “greenwash” their sustainable development credentials and their relationship to Indigenous communities as they advance approaches to sustainability, which ultimately fail to address the root causes of underdevelopment and environmental degradation. As Indigenous writer and activist Clayton Thomas-Mueller reminds us, it is well time to callout CSR practices—including those that use sport—that mask the colonial logics of resource extraction and the privatization of social programming which allow for patterns of exploitation to reproduce, and push us further away from more sustainable futures.


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