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The sustainability legacy of Tokyo 2020

Words by Lara Sharrock
Date 2021-09-16

Tokyo 2020 was set to shine a light on the host nation's efforts to foster a kinder, greener Games - a "sustainable society showcase". But first delayed, and now delivered amid rising Covid-19 cases to near-empty stadiums, has all hope of a sustainable Games fallen by the wayside?

It started well. Guided by the mantra "Be better, together - For the planet and the people," the organisers orchestrated several firsts: from signing a Letter of Intent to support the SDGs; to powering cauldrons with hydrogen fuel; to achieving carbon neutrality. The circular economy has also been a central home, with athletes sleeping on cardboard beds, receiving upcycled medals and standing on recycled plastic podiums. Talk about hitting every touchpoint.

However, last year The Rainforest Action Network published a letter condemning the Games as promoting "Fake Sustainability". More recently, a study suggested that Tokyo 2020 may be the third-least sustainable Games since 1992. And for all the merits of Tokyo's decarbonisation strategy, it is difficult to ignore its reliance on 4.38 million tonnes of carbon credits.

But the proof will be in the pudding. Forget upcycled medals: to truly judge the success of Tokyo's sustainability strategy, we must ask "what is its long-term impact - for people and planet?" As the most watched event on Earth, the Games offer a unique platform for inspiring lasting change. Legacy is everything.

Of course, fostering a positive legacy isn't easy. The legacies of the last two Games tell juxtaposing stories. Rio 2016 was clouded by corruption allegations and financial mismanagement; the promise of treating 80% of sewage flowing into Guanabara Bay remains unkept. By contrast, London 2012's legacy (although it too has faced criticism) stimulated the regeneration of East London and shift nation-wide perceptions around disability. In the UK, one in three have reportedly changed their attitudes towards disability since the Games. One million more people with disabilities were in employment in 2018 compared to 2012.

"How will Tokyo fare in comparison? Promisingly, Tokyo 2020 is the first ever event with a reporting framework to measure legacy. Plans are in place to help future hosts benefit from Tokyo's sustainability endeavours. And the active use of hydrogen will be maintained in the city after the Games end."

— Lara Sharrock, Sustainability Director, London

But there remains an elephant in the room. Tokyo 2020's ambitious sustainability strategy is a world away from current Japanese environmental and social policy. Take waste disposal, for example. The Games' organisers are aiming to reuse or recycle 99% of goods procured, and 65% of waste generated. But this stands in stark contrast to Japan's throwaway culture and the government's underwhelming pledge to cut plastic waste by just 25% by 2030. Japan remains the world's second-biggest producer of plastic waste per capita. Japanese consumers use 30 billion plastic bags per year. Whilst there has been mention of continuing Tokyo 2020's recycling processes, details remain vague. Why host a Games showcasing environmental sustainability but not embed this more deeply in society - say, through banning single-use plastic? Likewise, Japan must do more to foster a social legacy. Yes, the government have promised not to reverse amendments to make hotel rooms disability accessible. But where are the necessary regulation changes to ensure all future hotels are built to these standards? Asia has the largest population of people with disabilities and yet, aside from China, a track record of underrepresentation at the Paralympics.

But the burden of responsibility should not fall to the host nation alone. We all need to step up to co-create Tokyo 2020's legacy.

Athletes have already been playing their part. Simone Biles' rejection of a long tradition of stoicism, amplified by the Olympic spotlight, has added to a growing precedent of athletes speaking out about mental health. Such moments create a powerful opportunity for discussions to move from awareness to positive action. The more our sporting heroes acknowledge their vulnerability, the greater the permission for the rest of us to follow suit.

Brands similarly need to play theirs. Some have already stepped up. Channel 4 took centre stage in London 2012 with its 'Meet the Superhumans' campaign, and this year is setting ground-breaking standards with its Paralympics coverage: live signing, subtitles and audio description are being incorporated, while over 70% of the presenting team have a disability. Such representation will no doubt be instrumental in changing cultural norms.

Finally, as consumers we have a role to play. Be receptive and open to change. Watch. Learn. Talk.

If we each play our part, Tokyo 2020 may yet take home a gold medal for its sustainability strategy and the legacy it creates.

First published in Transform Magazine.