Published 2022-09-15

This post is also available in Swedish

How to make sports and outdoor recreation events more sustainable

Events are a major part of sports and outdoor recreation and encompass everything from the Vasaloppet cross-country skiing races and marathons to orienteering competitions and group hikes. In the Hållbara Evenemang webinar about sustainable events, researchers and actors in Mistra Sport & Outdoors highlighted goal conflicts, environmental consideration in permit processes and how the organisers present sustainability communication.

Events in sports and outdoor recreation are a growing trend. They are also an increasingly common reason for both participants and spectators to travel, according to the Mistra Sport & Outdoors research programme. However, the events put strain on natural and cultural environments and require knowledge and commitment from all actors. That’s why sustainable events is one of the research themes of Mistra Sport & Outdoors. The goal is to create longer-term sustainable event development by studying and conducting dialogue with visitors, participants and organisers.

The Hållbara Evenemang webinar, held by Mistra Sport & Outdoors in mid-September, highlighted various studies and actors’ views on possibilities and challenges.

Staffan Movin, chair of the four-race challenge En Svensk Klassiker, believes that as a major organiser, they can be a catalyst for sustainability change, not least in cooperation with sponsors and partners. But there are conflicts of interests and goal conflicts to consider. Since 2014, En Svensk Klassiker has conducted sustainability surveys with the aim of finding areas for improvement. In conjunction with this, the Vasaloppet cross-country skiing races organiser decided to make the entire event vegetarian, inspired by the Way Out West music festival. However, Movin notes that Vasaloppet is highly dependent on landowners, several of whom are meat farmers – a topical and acute goal conflict.

“We had to backtrack there. When we are to take these steps – because we are an incredibly important catalyst for creating change – we must understand the contexts in which we operate and understand what steps we should take together with consideration for participants, destinations and sponsors.”

He points out that you cannot disregard the fact that transport to and from the events that they organise involves substantial environmental impact. It is therefore important that the organisers cause as little environmental impact as possible in their own operations. Movin also highlights the significance of the preparations for a race or competition and that these can create new behaviours.

Movin takes the long-distance cycling event Vätternrundan as an example. This race requires participants to have cycled 500–700 km in training to be well prepared, which means that many people change their behaviour to get more exercise in their everyday lives and travel by bicycle instead of by car.

“If we include this in a sustainability calculation, I am convinced that the Vätternrundan event has a net positive result. We will actually look into this in the near future, so I hope to be able to subsequently present research.”

Few environmental analyses in permit processes

To organise any sports or outdoor recreation event, regardless of whether it is Vasaloppet or a mountain hike with a class of schoolchildren, you need a permit. Axel Eriksson, doctoral student at the European Tourism Research Institute (ETOUR), Mid Sweden University, has studied permit processes in Jämtland County between 2010 and 2020, based on type of event and what impacts on natural and cultural environments are described.

One of the findings that he highlights is that 95 per cent of the events during this period have been approved, but that the organisers in about half of the applications have not stated reasons for protecting nature or described environmental impact. A third of the applications were not prepared with any environmental analysis. Eriksson notes that 75 per cent of the applications are described as having no or minimal impact. For example, he points out the number of motorsport events (99) compared to the number of times that impact “chemicals/petrol” has been stated (25). Emissions have only been presented as impact on the environment twice in the ten-year period. In this respect, there is significant potential for improvement concerning permit processes.

“I highly recommend that both the county administrative board and the organisers should have some form of guide or template for the types of environmental impact that affect this region, period and so on, to facilitate the application processes.”

Don’t touch the medals

John Ambrecht, senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg, has studied habits, driving forces and consumption among participants in this year’s Göteborgsvarvet half marathon. For instance, the participants were asked about the souvenirs they receive in conjunction with the race. The responses show that the medal after completion of the race is important, but no one will miss items such as a T-shirt or water bottle if they are not given as souvenirs in future.

Destination Jönköping organised the UEC Mountain Bike European Championships in 2016. The issue of natural capital was high on the agenda, and the organisers tried to minimise the impact on nature, for example by limiting the area for spectators and conducting checks and measurements after the event to assess how nature had been affected.

Lisa Engman, events consultant at the Swedish Sports Confederation, highlights “legacy” as a term that is being used increasingly in discourse about long-term effects of events. This can be natural capital, such as how mountain bike trails and skiing tracks continue to be used after the event.

Environmental issues excluded from communication

To see how organisers use sustainability in their communication, researchers within Mistra Sport & Outdoors have looked into how sustainability is showcased on the events’ websites. Erik Lundberg, from CFT (the Centre for Tourism) at the University of Gothenburg, has analysed more than 30 websites of Sweden’s largest events to see what type of sustainability is communicated and how the communication is prioritised. The study shows that few events display sustainability information on their home page. Two further clicks on the home page take you to the information on half of the websites studied. Lundberg says that there is a void to be filled in this respect.

The researchers have also studied the most common sustainability words and have thematised them linked to the global sustainable development goals. Environmental issues are not particularly prioritised in the communication. Instead, social sustainability is highlighted, including themes such as good health and wellbeing as well as community and democracy.

“Major events generally write more about sustainability than small ones,” Lundberg says. “This may be because they are subject to more external pressure, from sponsors, participants and the media. It may also be because they are more professional organisations.”

Åsa Sund, sustainability consultant at Greengoat, recommends that the organisers move away from sweeping sustainability communication, as that can be perceived as greenwashing, to specifying what they actually do and what challenges exist. Data and facts are required to do this. She takes the Ettan football division as an example.

“They have been very diligent in compiling data and facts from their associations for a few years and can use that information to demonstrate the changes that they have made and the improvements that this has produced,” Sund says.

She also points out the importance of associations and organisers benefitting from their partners, who often have the expertise that the associations lack themselves.

Read more about Mistra Sport & Outdoors’ work on sustainable events at

You can view the broadcast here (in Swedish).