“To inspire, activate and accelerate collective action to respect human rights and the environment”
«Strength through Unity» is the name of UEFA’s new sustainability strategy. Through 11 action areas and policies, the European football association intends to be part of the change and to bring the stakeholders of European football with it. Michele Uva, Football and Social responsibility Director, presents this ambitious roadmap.
Why did UEFA choose to adopt a sustainability strategy oriented toward 2030?
MU: There is no doubt that awareness and calls to action on sustainability are increasing across society, including in football – within member associations, fan groups, clubs, and leagues. As UEFA and European football form an intrinsic part of society, we are being called upon to contribute to the solution. And we can, because football has the unique ability to activate an enormous reach within one of the largest communities in Europe.
During the season 2020-21, sustainability became a priority for UEFA. Under the guidance of UEFA’s Executive Committee and its “Fair Play and Social Responsibility” Committee, we established “Responsibility as the fifth pillar of our organisation’s five-year strategy for European football development – to stand alongside Football, Trust, Competitiveness, and Prosperity. Building on that first signal, we developed in the second half of 2021 a long-term sustainability strategy toward 2030, titled “Strength through Unity”. The mission of our strategy is clear: to inspire, activate and accelerate collective action to respect human rights and the environment within European football. And to go beyond strategic intent, we have set a clear direction by pinpointing a set of ambitious objectives and clear targets, in an open and transparent manner.
Naturally, “Strength through Unity” concurs with internationally recognised frameworks and standards, including, among others, the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework, the European Green Deal, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
What is your vision of sustainable development and how can football play a role in reaching SDGs?
MU:We are guided by the belief that that sustainability supports the success of European football. But football must not simply intercept and follow sustainability and societal trends – it must anticipate and originate them. We’re at the beginning of a long-term journey, and the journey will present challenges on the way. To overcome these, the European football ecosystem must acknowledge the urgency for action and collaborate around a common agenda.
On that journey, we need to focus on football and its impact on society – prioritising issues that are relevant for European football, investing with partners and institutions based on mutual convictions and trust, using our voices to raise awareness about the issues that matter, and building on the foundation of solidarity that has characterised our European football community for so many years.
Our 11 Policies cover human rights and the environment, recognising that sustainability requires a right balance between socially responsible and environmentally friendly actions and practices to preserve the long-term viability of football. Each of the policies is supported by a 2030 ambition, targets and KPIs, and will be implemented in five areas of action: UEFA as an internal organisation, UEFA events, UEFA members, the football ecosystem, and partners and society, which includes groups such as sponsors, fans and global institutions.
“A Sustainable Event Management System implemented during EURO 2024”
Among your 11 Policies, 4 focus specifically on environmental aspects. How can UEFA act to reduce the environmental impact of its competitions?
MU: Our ambition is to embed sustainability principles, standards and practices across the lifecycle of all football-related events.
For instance, in the area of greenhouse gas emissions, we are working on reduction, so that we can reach our target of cutting emissions by 50% by 2030 – in view of achieving net zero carbon by 2040 within UEFA, across UEFA events and collaboratively across European football. But we know that emissions cannot be totally eradicated, as the clubs and the fans need to travel. There are several dimensions within our strategy: environmental, economic, social – and sporting components, as competitions evolve over the years, at the request of clubs, for business purposes. We acknowledge that difficult trade-offs might have to be discussed and made, but it’s important to keep in mind the various dimensions that guide decision-making. Concretely, as part of our efforts, we are developing a Sustainable Event Management System (SEMS), with the ambition to set a new benchmark for zero-impact sporting events. SEMS constitutes a new monitoring and evaluation system for sustainable sporting events for UEFA. It zooms in on a wide range of performance indicators aligned with sustainability imperatives, offering the opportunity to kick off processes of continuous improvement most notably around the following areas in the context of UEFA events: mobility, catering, health and wellbeing, access, carbon footprint measurement, sustainable procurement, and waste management.
SEMS will also lead to further cooperation and innovation with host cities, partners and other football stakeholders to shape a sustainable legacy for events. We will roll out SEMS as of 2023, with the first full implementation taking place at EURO 2024 in Germany. Regarding the latter, the Event Social Responsibility strategy was presented in April 2021, setting out some priority areas, particularly around the environmental agenda. Just like with the UEFA sustainability strategy, it is not a final destination but a starting point to being catalysts and accelerators of change.
UEFA is engaged in the « Life Tackle » project alongside the European Union. What are the project’s objectives? What complementarities do you see in this partnership with the European institutions?
MU: LIFE Tackle’s aim is to improve the environmental management of football matches and the overall level of awareness and attention towards environmental issues in the football sector. The project’s concrete objectives are to increase awareness of environmental management in football stadiums in order to reduce waste during football events, and to tackle other environmental issues linked to such events, including energy consumption and transportation.
Three national football associations were involved as full partners in the project: the Italian Football Association, the Romanian Football Federation and the Swedish Football Association. LIFE Tackle has been one of the most significant projects at European level for UEFA in terms of impact and budget (overall budget: EUR 1.94 million). We are pleased that the project’s guidelines to improve environmental management in stadia and the developed awareness-raising tools have been implemented in 12 European stadia.
More generally, UEFA has developed close ties with the European Union and the Council of Europe. We see them as natural partners and engage with them in permanent dialogue, participating in working groups and events to advance the human rights and environmental agenda. In this context, we are for instance partnering with the European Commission in a joint climate campaign, advocating that “every trick counts”, that each fan can do something small to reduce their impact on the environment. Small concrete actions that multiplied by millions are effective. This is what we can catalyse through this campaign.
Your sustainability strategy also focuses on 7 human rights policies, including the fight against racism, child and youth protection, health and well-being, equality, inclusion, and solidarity. What are some ongoing activities in these areas, and what objectives have you set out for 2030?
MU: Football is all about bringing people together – people of different ages, backgrounds, nationalities and abilities who share a common passion. Our human rights policies strive for an inclusive culture that reaches all of football – from the game itself to every activity connected with it. No one should be discriminated against or excluded because of their personal characteristics – whether they are playing, coaching, refereeing or organising. We also aspire for football to be a vehicle for furthering human rights beyond the pitch, engaging society and governments on key topics, educating and raising awareness.
Our main goal is always to protect our game. Take the concrete example of online abuse, a recent phenomenon, where we want to give players, coaches, referees and officials the possibility to be protected by UEFA. For that purpose, at the beginning of this year’s UEFA Women’s EURO final tournament, UEFA launched a dedicated online abuse platform with the aim to monitor, report, and remedy cases of online abuse, working through a combination of automated scanning and human review. This is a three-year investment by UEFA, in which we are liaising closely with major social media platforms such as Twitter, Meta [Instagram and Facebook] and TikTok. In addition, we engage proactively with participating teams, briefing them ahead of the tournament and following each match.
Complementing the platform, we have two additional pillars as part of this new Respect programme: a ‘Real Scars’ campaign that highlights the devastating effects of online abuse directed at football players, coaches and officials across social media platforms and educates them on how to best defend themselves against such abuse. Lastly, a new ‘Outraged’ documentary series, which discusses discrimination and abuse, is available on UEFA.tv, with one of the five parts of the series’ topics being online abuse. Football stars including Wendie Renard, Jorginho, Alisha Lehmann, Karen Carney, Kai Havertz, and Patrick Vieira share their experiences and opinions on the topic.
In the above example and in the many additional activities we are undertaking throughout our action plan, we want to rally all stakeholders in our ecosystem to achieve tangible outcomes. Because we know that we cannot act alone. It’s a long-term investment in which, if we work together and lead by example, we can reach the ambitious targets, and play our part in making European football even more attractive and successful.
In early July, the United Nations announced the launch of its “Football for the Goals” initiative to provide a platform for the global football community to engage with and advocate for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). How is UEFA engaged in Football for the Goals?
MU: UEFA is delighted to be the inaugural member of this inspiring initiative, which was launched on the first day of the UEFA Women’s EURO 2022. On the occasion of the launch, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed and UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin highlighted the power of football and the sport’s global footprint in advancing sustainability, equality, human rights and climate action. UEFA’s sustainability policies and targets are firmly anchored as contribution to Football for the Goals. We are inviting football stakeholders – from confederations, national associations, leagues and clubs, to players, players’ associations, supporters, as well as media and commercial partners – to join the initiative and become active agents of change. Through their commitments, and through our collective actions, we will raise awareness of the SDGs and demonstrate how sustainable practices can be mainstreamed through any business model, including sport.
Interview by Sylvain Landa
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