In February 2022, F1 posted their ESG briefing note detailing its sustainability progress and plans. For those who don’t know, ESG stands for “environmental, social and governance” and it refers to an approach that evaluates the extent to which a corporation works on behalf of social goals that go beyond the role of a corporation to maximise profits. You might have hard of it after Elon Musk was not happy about it and publicly criticized it, because his Tesla fell out of the S & P 500 index. Touché.
In that report, they outline that from 2026 F1 will switch to sustainable fuels, increase electrification of engines, and will provide sustainability guidance to race promoters, just to name a few things. And while the adoption of “sustainable” fuels might happen, the overall “sustainability” pledge looks increasingly suspicious to me.
Okay. Maybe saying that i full-on don't BELIEVE in that pledge is a bit far fetched. At a certain point everybody will have to comply to sustainability goals in order to run a business that doesn’t only generate revenue to pay out all of the fines imposed on them. But i am quite SKEPTICAL about it, and allow me to explain exactly why.
The reason why I’m skeptical about is because F1 virtually doesn't do anything to convince me otherwise. All these net-zero, carbon neutral, carbon negative badges sound great, but you need to take real climate action in order to receive them. Formula 1, as a business, sends out a completely contradictory message to what it’s pledging.
You cannot be sustainable, green or whatever you want to call it, if your calendar and subsequent logistics generate tons of emissions. You also cannot fulfill the pledges if the sponsors you proudly advertise during your events engage in some of the most polluting activities we’ve ever seen (just to give examples: oil industry or crypto, with the second one probably not even thought off widely when it comes to pollution and rampant energy usage).
Despite setting up these „initiatives”, F1 is not really all that vocal about sustainability and related issues either. Well, they do it in a way to promote themselves, but other than that there is no real substance behind it. And from a business stand point i can kinda understand it - you're not really gonna pledge to sustainability if a big chunk of your audience couldn't care less and regularly takes the piss out of (incredibly competitive) categories such as Formula E. And that's not the first time F1 is saying one thing but doing another either („ we race as one” anyone?). But to put it simply: if nothing gets done in these regards, soon you wont have a sport to enjoy, once the climate crisis really worsens.
Formula 1 has an incredible opportunity with the sheer size of their platform, that could be utilized to set a leading example not only business-wise, but to their audience too. Even though we have drivers like Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel speaking on a regular basis about these matters, even a big percentage of the media doesn't take these things seriously.
You just can’t say one thing one day, and still engage with things that are the complete contradiction. You loose all of the sense of credibility that you might have had. Additionally, you can’t rip off the benefits of the actions of others (mentioned before), if you yourself are not doing anything that actually supports these actions.
The thing is that globally, more and more consumers demand environmental action. Just to put a number to things, according to a study conducted in 2017, 87% of consumers say they’d buy a product with a social and environmental benefit. 76% of consumers will refuse to purchase a company’s products or services upon learning it supported an issue contrary to their beliefs.
And that is slowly bleeding into more areas of our lives than just our approach to consumerism. These things, especially within the next few years, will have an exponential impact on how we live, how we work, and what we do for leisure. Because of that, the global sports environment will have to adapt. And if it doesn’t, it will be left behind.
Formula 1 has been resisting change in many areas for decades, many times sadly with the support of some percentage of its fanbase. But with the increasingly younger audience, that is more climate aware in comparison to all the previous generations, if F1 wont address its (many) issues, it will be quickly swapped for a series that on one hand cares about sustainability and environmental goals, but on the other hand also shows its fanbase that their voices actually do matter.
In the end, nothing can be achieved without cooperation, so instead of gambling with the divide, quite contrary should be aimed for.
And listen, I can already hear you saying and aggressively typing in the comments that “you’re just too critical, give them a chance!”. I wouldn’t be so critical, if i could see a change happening soon. Even with the smallest of things. Yet, as you can hopefully see above, there is not much room to mitigate. The only spark of hope left for me are the fans and SOME drivers and teams, like the before-mentioned Vettel and Hamilton, and McLaren Racing, who’s taking a conscious approach to sustainability in combustion engine driven motorsports. But there is only so much they can do by themselves, without the support of the sporting organization that binds them all with work, contracts and obligations.
Because, on that note, things are really not going too great, right? Vettel, who is very climate aware, uses bikes to commute to the track, organizes trash cleanups at F1 events and regularly is outspoken on climate-related issues, spoke out recently on the accusations of being a hypocrite. In some type of internet, nonsense-fueled storm he was accused by someone that he’s a hypocrite for speaking loudly on these topics, when his team is sponsored by a big oil company and he himself dares to drive a racing car! But you see, whoever that was, missed the actual point by like a milky way. One star for effort though.
Drivers are bound by contracts to the teams. Sponsors are bound by contracts to the teams. Teams are bound by contracts to the overarching organization. If nothing gets done at the roots, not much can be done on the top of the chain.
The title of the Queen of Motorsports comes with responsibility, and you can’t stay on the pedestal if you're not actively working to deserve it. All in all, big words but not enough action, sadly. I’m trying to remain hopeful. But right now, there’s really not a lot of evidence that supports the wishful thinking. Maybe F1 will prove me wrong one day. Rather sooner than later though.