Sustainability and Sport: An Interview with Claudia MacDonald

Coreen Grant talks to Claudia MacDonald about how the worlds of sport and sustainability intersect, and what we can do to educate ourselves on how to make the world a greener place.

The sustainability of sport isn’t a subject you hear talked about much. For many of us, playing or watching sport is a release: a safe space where we can escape the worries of the outside world. But in an era defined by a climate emergency, it is also our responsibility to be asking questions: Is sport sustainable? What changes can we make in the sports industry to help the environment? What can athletes and sports fans do to help? To answer some of these, I talked to Claudia MacDonald, England rugby player and sustainability advocate. You can read our conversation about all things sports and sustainability below.

Image Credit: The Perception Agency

Let’s start with a brief summary of your rugby journey: when you first played, where you fell in love with the sport, and how you got to where you are now. 

I started playing rugby when I was 19, picking it up at Durham University. I gave it a go, really loved my first session, and quite quickly went along to the University club sessions.

It all sort of tumbled on from there. I was injured for a bit at the beginning, but in my third season I went across to DMP Durham Sharks, which is premiership side in the north-east. I played there for a season, then finished my university course and moved back to London. At the same time, I moved clubs to Wasps and also changed positions. I was previously playing at winger and fullback but I moved to scrumhalf, which is where I am at now, three seasons later: still at Wasps, still playing scrumhalf, with a little bit on the wing as well, fortunately! I started getting involved with England at the same time I moved down to Wasps, and that has continued alongside as well.

[To fill in the gaps of Claudia’s modesty: her career has charted a meteoric rise through the ranks since first picking up a rugby ball at university. Aged 25, she now has 12 caps for England, including tries against the USA and Scotland. She was awarded a full-time England contract for the 19/20 season.]

Claudia in an England shirt against the USA.

You studied Economics at Durham University. Is that where you first became interested in sustainability?

I think I had always been interested in sustainability, but I definitely started to learn more about it at university. It was as much to do with the people I met as the course. You get to meet such a vast array of individuals, not just on your course but at college, the people you live with, and sports you’re involved in. People are interested in so many different things that inevitably you haven’t even heard of.

In my final year I wrote my dissertation on Fair Trade, because I was really interested in the motivation behind buying Fair Trade products, and trying to understand whether it was a societal norm – whether it was a genuine concern, or if people felt pressure to buy it, almost a trend or fashion, or something people felt made them cool. Looking at those motivations probably kick-started my interest, or perhaps pushed it on a bit further.

Image Credit: The Perception Agency

At the same time, I was studying my final-year module on Global Economics and economic development. It was all about why economies have developed in different areas of the world, and what the influencing factors have been. It was less about sustainability in an environmental sense and more about sustainability from a people perspective.

We looked at the impact of colonisation in South American countries: I found that fascinating, and still am incredibly fascinated by it, in terms of the long-term effects of something five-hundred years ago on the world today. For example, the knowledge of how the Amazon rainforest was looked after, irrigated and farmed by the tribespeople in Peru. All that knowledge was lost because of the horrendous things that happened in South America. It’s only in the last 5-10 years that we’re beginning to realise how much more they knew than we ever have done since. It was a combination of all of that, but studying economics definitely had an impact.

Continuing with your interest in the ‘people’ side of sustainability, I wondered if that was behind your website, ‘Let’s Talk 1%’. It’s about the small changes people can make in their everyday life to be more sustainable. Could you tell us a bit about that? What was the inspiration?

I think people mimic the behaviour they see, and Let’s Talk 1% is me trying to create that awareness. In my mind, if you don’t know about the changes you can make, or it seems like a really foreign concept, then you’re not going to make those little changes. It’s trying to relieve the pressure of doing absolutely everything: you don’t have to suddenly flip your lifestyle 360 degrees into something unknown. Inevitably, if people are unsure and feel like they don’t even know where to start, then they’ll turn their back and carry on doing what they’re doing.

Claudia’s Website – ‘Let’s Talk 1%’. Image Credit: The Perception Agency.

It can be overwhelming. I found that myself at times when I’ve just gone “I don’t know, so I’ll continue doing what I’m used to.” Whereas, with the website, I was hoping to try out a few new things for myself, so it gave me that pressure to make sure was keeping up with it, and at the same time suggesting a few bits and pieces people can change, and that the influence of changing a small thing does matter. It’s easy to say, “my choices don’t make a difference”; I’m only one person, there’s 7 billion+ people, so it doesn’t matter.

But it’s not necessarily the one difference you make; it’s that someone else sees you do that and decides that they’ll do it too. If you’re always bringing your reusable coffee cup, other people start to do it, and then their friends start because they’ve seen that behaviour. It has a communal, domino effect, and that can be really impactful.   

As both an athlete and sustainability advocate, I’m curious how you see the two intersecting – if you do. Do you find much common ground between sport and your passion for sustainability?

Definitely. Again, it’s the people you talk to. There are lots of individuals I know within rugby circles that are very interested in sustainability. The more you talk about it the more you gravitate towards people who are interested. Even the way things are run: the more attention you pay, the more you start to see little things that are having an impact.

I’ve been to Twickenham in the past, and I probably didn’t notice all the reusable pint cups that people have – you give them back and get your pound back. But I went slightly more recently and was like, ah, really clever! [Laughs] When we get our big kit drops, loads of it comes wrapped in plastic packaging, which is really frustrating. But you start to make an effort to collect it all together and make sure it gets recycled, rather than chucked into the same bins.

Going back to the people thing, I think sport can have a huge influence on people’s opinions. It gives you a medium through which you can talk about sustainability. You know there’s a common interest anyway, so it can really open up an opportunity for important conversations. That same idea of individuals mimicking behaviour, and changing the societal norm within a team, can be replicated outside as well: so sport gives a great starting point for making changes. 

Claudia coaching during Ready4Rugby at Twickenham Stadium.

I’m really interested in the idea of sport as a platform for advocacy. There’s been a bit of media attention recently on the topic of sport and sustainability. Most notably, Arsenal were the first Premier League club to sign up to the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework in November last year (other signatories include FIFA, the FA and the IOC). What impact would it have if big brands, clubs and names in the sporting industry got behind sustainability in sport?

You’ve only got to look at the impact of Messi wearing a particular pair of football boots, and suddenly they’re the most bought football boots on the market. If any big sports star buys a certain product or invests their time in a certain initiative, the interest in it is automatically increased. That’s the whole way sponsorship works. It’s proven to be successful.

Young people in particular tend to mimic, subconsciously or otherwise, the behaviours and standards set by their role models. If they’re supporting a certain cause, you’re more likely to be interested in it, or to think it’s cool. The second something becomes ‘cool’ more people invest in it, and it opens conversations because it’s not an awkward thing to talk about. Rather than asking people to recycle, it’s “yeah, I’ve got my coffee cup with me too”.

Image Credit: The Perception Agency

I think the potential is enormous, and some brands are leading the way. Nike in particular, with the amount of work they do creating sports kit made of fully recycled goods, or supporting initiatives around climate change and environmental issues. I think people align their own beliefs with companies they buy products from, so sustainability becomes another way to differentiate between goods on the market.  

BBC Sport recently ran a short article on Basis, the British Association for Sustainable Sport. Arsenal, Chelsea and Southampton FC are all members, as well as Wimbledon Tennis and the England & Wales Cricket Board. The article said: “Professional athletes should be given sustainability training to learn about the issues facing our planet … [Basis] want sportspeople to be able to talk with confidence about the subjects and help spread awareness.”

What are your thoughts on ‘sustainability training’ for athletes? My gut reaction is that it needs to come from an organic desire to support the issue itself, but it’s definitely an interesting concept.

It’s funny because I read something similar earlier today, about new sports reporters receiving sustainability training. I think I agree with you that it has to be internalised. We can go back to the education system and say that sustainability should be taught more in schools, which I 100% think it should. We learn about it in geography, but actually you can learn about it across the whole curriculum, and I think it is important to instil that education from a younger age. But if someone has a particular interest in it, then it’s important for them to take the lead, because there are so many different things that need supporting. You only have to look at the recent campaigns around BLM and the investment in that.

Do you sit and say that everyone has to learn about sustainability? Potentially. But then it becomes a limitless list of what should be taught. Inevitably some people want to prioritise different subjects. In an ideal world everyone knows about everything! But that’s not going to be the case, and you’ll never get a situation of perfect knowledge. So it’s a really tricky one, whether to enforce education about environmental issues and prioritise it above other important things. If there’s someone willing to take the lead and be suggestive of potential changes, then that would be a good start.

Claudia (second from the right) on a Women in Sport Leadership panel.

Maybe we could have panels focussed on the sustainability and environmental impact of sport – the same as you might have one for inclusion and equality. Each athlete, in the creation of their own brand, is going to associate themselves with different things. People are going to want to be recognised for their particular passion, so I think we probably will see more individual athletes that want to create a strong relationship with environmental change, or want to be seen in that light. Serena Williams is one of those individuals that does quite a lot for environmental causes. But at the end of the day, I do think it comes down to the individual athlete to choose what they want to be associated with.   

You previously brought up grassroots sport as a really interesting point in the sustainability debate. If you’ll permit me to summarise the argument: the more local competition that we can generate to drive up quality, the less need there is for international competitions and travel, excepting the very top tiers – your World Cups and Olympics. And already from Tokyo we’ve seen a huge amount of progress on the sustainability front for mega sporting events. So how do think we go about generating increased grassroots support? Should that kind of funding come from above, or do you think it’s the case that it needs to come from public support to be sustainable (in economic terms, that is)?

It’s always going to be tricky, because wherever there is funding there will be a battle over who gets it. There’s always the question of top-down or bottom-up. Do individuals need to see a successful international team, and aspire to a sustainable career within that sport, to encourage them to remain in the sport? Or is it the case that you need to increase your base and foundation of players, and inevitably a portion of those will stay? I would say that there certainly needs to be more grassroots funding in it.

I’ll talk about the sport I know best, which is rugby: you look at the increased competition created by the Allianz Premier 15s, and while it wasn’t solely caused by the funding that has come into it, the funding did play a large role. You’ve now got a much more competitive premiership in England which is attracting players from all over the place, which again increases the competitiveness of the league. It is already considered a semi-professional league with players being paid by clubs. At the same time, you’ve got to increase opportunities for young people to have access to sport. It will always have to be a mixture: there will always be some government funding and some self-funding, through sponsorship or business partnerships and the like.

Claudia plays at scrum-half for Wasps Ladies in the Allianz Premier 15s.

Everyone is already aware of the huge benefit of sport, in terms of the characteristics it builds, the attitudes and cultures it promotes. The funding is more obviously a factor in less mainstream sport. For example, how often do English male footballers travel to play teams in other parts of the world? Well, very rarely. They play domestic leagues because the competition is good enough that they don’t have to travel.

If you compare that with England women’s netball, they are travelling to New Zealand and Australia to play games outside of Olympics and World Cups because that’s the best place they will get decent levels of competition. With more local competition, you’d only travel further afield on special occasions. And that’s inevitably what you want anyway, because England travelling to play New Zealand every year discredits what a World Cup is – you’ve already seen the final four times. If you reduce the need for international travel, those funds that currently go into expensive travel and accommodation can be redistributed to community clubs and grassroots sport.

Do you think there’s an opportunity at the moment, with crowds still unable to attend games and the country mostly in lockdown, for the sports industry to make lasting changes and contribute to a ‘green recovery’?

Yes, 100%. When individuals share ideas or resources, you’re always going to be better off, because it’s more minds working on the same thing. We have almost been given a reset-button, where everything has been put on hold. And while there is enormous pressure for companies just to survive the pandemic, it has also changed our perspective.

Even individuals working from home: the number of companies that have proven you don’t need your entire employee base travelling into the office every day, and you don’t need these huge offices that obviously cost a lot to run, in terms of heating, electricity, and transport. All of that is almost a luxury now. Even considering alternatives to an office. People are more likely to meet up in a coffee shop and have a chat, because it’s a lot closer and it doesn’t take you an hour and a half to get into the office to do it.

So I think in terms of that, we have definitely changed the way we see things, or again, what our societal norm has become. Potentially, if the pandemic had gone on for a month, two months, three months – what we originally thought – then it would’ve had less hold on how we behaved afterward. Now that it has gone on for such a long time, it really has become a norm, and it would be stranger to go back to how things were than move on and progress.

Claudia deep in thought during a Wasps match against Bristol Bears.

No one is saying we need to limit social interactions altogether – don’t just sit in your houses and only ever Zoom people! That would be bizarre. But several months ago, I tuned into a green energy event that was hosted in Germany. Normally, attendees fly over and tickets are really expensive, so I wouldn’t have had a hope of attending. But this year they offered virtual tickets for free. You wouldn’t necessarily have to offer tickets for free, but they chose to, and actually that made the information they were providing so much more accessible. They also completely eliminated the transport costs. So perhaps we can consider that for events to come, that some people might travel, but actually there’s a feasible and perfectly plausible alternative.

The only concern I have is individuals who don’t have ready access to a computer, or WiFi, because there are obviously so many people who don’t have access and I wonder whether, by relying so much on technology, we are separating part of our population from that information, and limiting their opportunities – which is never a circumstance we want to create.

It’s tricky, but it sparks so many ideas just thinking and talking about these things. Like, could you have a local version of events? Could there be a place where you go that events are live-streamed on a big screen? So you’re attending a conference in Germany, but you’re only travelling to London, or Newcastle, or Manchester, or wherever your local hub is. That way you can still attend the event with like-minded people, but you’re minimising travel. That potentially could be an option. And it already exists on some level in sport – World Cup finals and the like being broadcast in home nations.

Definitely. Maybe we can wrap up with an open-ended question. What do you think the everyday athlete and sports fan can do to support sustainability? Is there one thing you’d advocate in particular, or is it more a case of general awareness? 

I think it’s all about education. If you superficially commit to doing an action, it can wear off. But if you understand the reasoning behind the action, then it’s so much weightier. It encourages you to do that same action again and again. To refer to the BLM protests again, it’s the same with that: it’s one thing jumping on the bandwagon as such and putting out a post saying ‘Black Out Tuesday’, and it’s quite another to educate yourself around the workings of systemic racism, how you perceive things, and what actually matters. Unlearning things to re-learn them.

Without applying too many parallels, because they are totally different topics, I think it is all about educating yourself. It’s much more difficult to ignore problems you know a lot about, whereas it’s easy to ignore when you know nothing about them. It’s the difference between an artificial attachment and a genuine interest.

You can look at how fickle we’ve become in the areas of fashion, the amount we change our wardrobe. I read that our consumption now is about 50% higher than even a few years ago. We buy so much more now because we don’t necessarily attach as much value. I think we continue doing something, or do it over and over again, because we value it, or because we attach meaning to it.

It’s the same with exercise. If you realise that actually you really enjoy exercise, or it affects your mood when you don’t exercise (which is what I found!), or even something as simple as justifying the chocolate biscuit which you really love (again, something I do as well), that becomes more than just a New Year’s resolution, ‘new year new me’. That’s following a trend, which inevitably you become disinterested in.

You need an alternative motivation, and that’s equally applicable to sustainability. So yes, education would be my main point for pushing sustainability further and normalising it in society. 

Profile photo of Coreen Grant

Coreen is a Freelance Writer, Research Assistant at Inkcap Journal and recent Graduate from the University of Cambridge. Coreen is also a sports enthusiast keen Rugby player.