Published on: Sep 25, 2012
Two Tomorrows consultant Louise Ayling assesses the social, environmental and wider economic impacts of London 2012 and calls for more to be done to enhance the 'sustainability legacy'
For the host countries, the Olympics are about far more than the hard-earned sporting feats; they are a matter of national pride and an opportunity to showcase the country at its best. Cultures, heritage and traditions are for a month under global scrutiny and many of the Olympics’ previous hosts have commemorated the occasion with extraordinary architectural mementos. London 2012 aimed to go a step further and leverage the high profile and global reach of the event to inspire far-reaching recognition of contemporary sustainability challenges. It was destined to be the ‘greenest Olympics ever’, but to what extent has this been achieved?
First, it’s worth asking whether the London Olympics has actually broken any new ground with respect to sustainability.
The planning and effort behind The Olympics’ sustainability agenda are undeniable; the materiality process, backed up with stakeholder engagement, mapped out the most important issues upon which to focus, paving the way to the implementation of a full-blown sustainability strategy.
A series of three sustainability reports have publically documented the event’s progress and ambitions, the last of which is due to be published in a few months’ time, and the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games has been monitored and assured by The Commission for a Sustainable London.
Many of the Games’ sustainability efforts have been widely communicated to the public and there are some very interesting facts: 60% of the park’s construction materials were brought to the site by rail or river and the Velodrome was constructed using sustainably sourced timber, natural light and natural ventilation. The stadium used one tenth of the steel used in Beijing in 2008, and two thirds of the steel used on the stadium’s roof was recycled. Waste was also a hot topic; 97% of all the construction waste was diverted from landfill and a zero waste to landfill policy was in place during the Games.
But what goes on behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny? Rather a lot, it would seem. Other issues deemed to be of high priority included carbon management. The London 2012 Olympics is the first summer Olympic and Paralympic Games to measure its carbon footprint over the entire project term. In addition, LOCOG has successfully contributed to the development of the sustainable events standard ISO 20121, a progression of the BS 8901, and has been assured by SGS against it. This is a significant development, and one which LOCOG hopes will drive change and widespread recognition of sustainability within the events industry for years to come.
And what of the social implications of the Games? Sustainability is so much more than the responsible sourcing of materials, effective transport, and waste reduction initiatives. The Games have the potential to inspire a generation from across the world, to drive healthier lifestyles and aid the development of life-changing skills.
Looking at the Games’ April 2012 Sustainability Report, the second in a series of three, the issues deemed most material by the stakeholders in question include carbon, employment in business, promoting sustainable living, travel and transport, waste and the Olympic Park. At first glance, it seems social factors haven’t been prioritised, yet progressing through the report, there’s a strong focus on the rejuvenation of neglected communities in London: "inspiring healthier, happier lifestyles across the UK and beyond, changing the way people perceive disability, and inspiring an entire generation to participate in sport".
Sponsorship of the Olympics has been a hot topic in the media with much furore over the ethics behind certain corporate sponsors and some of the Games’ six official Sustainability Partners. Oil companies, fast food chains, ‘junk food’ companies and corporate giants with controversial histories are all included in the sponsorship line-up, raising the question, was it right for ‘the greenest Olympics ever’ to be aligned with what some would say are inherently unsustainable business practices? LOCOG has defended its position with the argument that without large corporate sponsors, the Games would not go ahead.
I personally feel as though the six Sustainability Partners for the Olympic Games should be required to report on their sustainability progress and performance as a direct result of their involvement with the Games. LOCOG itself has no remit to force these companies to report on their efforts, yet it is a challenge that many companies, including some of our own clients, face.
Overall performance - and challenges ahead
London 2012 has clearly made substantial progress with respect to sustainability both before, and during the Games, and has set the bar high, having met the vast majority of the targets set. Some of the challenges which have been faced have been acknowledged by LOCOG in their reporting such as supply chain issues and missing the renewable energy target.
Only time will uncover the true extent of London 2012’s sustainability legacy, which is now in the hands of the Legacy Development Corporation. I hope to see ongoing monitoring and reporting of performance against the Games’ 10-point legacy plan, the principles of which have been paramount to the vision and planning of the Games right from the outset. The plan includes £1.5 million funding to the English Federation of Disability Sport to increase participation in sports by disabled people, as well as £300 million investment to transform the Olympic site into the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which will be open to the community.
It is vital to maintain momentum after the hype and excitement of the Olympics and Paralympics gradually dissipates, especially since the Games’ legacy is the greatest long term measure of sustainability. Tied with this, I believe the challenge for LOCOG is to assess the true sustainability of the Olympics overall, to accurately report on it, and to independently assure it.