scottish rugby

‘Pure Greenwash’: Scottish Rugby criticised over fossil fuel sponsor

The multinational owner of Scottish rugby’s new “green” sponsor drills for oil and gas and has backed fracking, prompting accusations of greenwashing. 

Scottish Rugby and Scottish Gas — which is the trading name of British Gas north of the border–-  announced a five year partnership in July which saw the national rugby stadium rebranded as “Scottish Gas Murrayfield”. Scotland’s women’s team will also wear strips bearing the company’s logo. 

According to Scottish Rugby, the partnership will create a “greener Scotland” by helping the “rugby community… reduce their energy bills and carbon footprint”. The two parties pledged to invest £2m to help clubs reach net zero emissions while Murrayfield itself will switch to being powered by renewable energy. 

But Scottish Gas’ parent company, Centrica, actually doubled its own emissions in 2022. Centrica is heavily involved in the production and distribution of fossil fuels in the UK, the burning of which is the main cause of the climate crisis.

The company faced criticism last month as it announced its highest ever half-year profits of nearly £1bn. The profits are a result of the ongoing energy crisis which has left customers facing soaring bills. 

Campaigners have branded the deal with Scottish Gas “pure greenwash” and argued fossil fuel sponsorship in sport needs “kicking into touch”. One young climate activist told The Ferret he was considering cancelling his Murrayfield season ticket as a result of the sponsorship. 

Scottish Rugby, responding on behalf of itself and Scottish Gas, called the partnership a “landmark deal” which could help clubs with bills and reduce their energy consumption by 50 per cent. It pointed out the sponsorship was supported by the Scottish Government and welcomed by Holyrood’s net-zero secretary, Màiri McAllan.

The Murrayfield Stadium located in Edinburgh, Scotland. Image: Thomas Feige/iStockScottish Rugby
The Murrayfield Stadium is located in Edinburgh, Scotland. Image: Thomas Feige/iStock

Centrica and fossil fuels

As well as British Gas, Centrica owns Spirit Energy and Centrica Storage in the UK, and Bord Gais in Ireland. 

Spirit drills for gas – and some oil – off the coast of the UK and the Netherlands. The company produces the equivalent of nearly 17 million barrels of oil each year.

Spirit also holds 54 licences to explore for fossil fuels offshore, and stakes in two fracking projects in the north of England. Spirit claims it does not explore for oil and gas anymore and has no plans to use these licences. 

However Centrica’s chief executive has publicly supported fracking – the controversial technique used to recover gas from underground shale rock – in recent years. 

Chris O’Shea said in April 2022 that the process was “worth exploring” and backed Liz Truss’ decision to lift a moratorium on fracking during her brief period as prime minister. 

Fossil fuel advertising and sponsorship of sport is like the new tobacco.

Andrew Simms

The effective ban on fracking was reintroduced in October last year after Rishi Sunak replaced Truss in Downing Street. 

Centrica said that its emissions doubled in 2022 because the Whitegate gas power station in County Cork was brought back online by Bord Gais after an outage due to a fault in 2021.

In January 2023, Bord Gais started work on two new gas power stations in Ireland which are due to be completed in 2024. It says these will be flexible and only turned on when energy generation from renewable sources like wind turbines and solar farms is low.

Centrica Storage owns the Rough gas storage facility off the east coast of Yorkshire, which reopened in 2022, and provides around half of the UK’s gas storage capacity. It also processes gas produced by other companies at a terminal in the north east of England.

Centrica says it now has a ‘green investment strategy’ and is building a portfolio of low carbon assets. The company opened its first solar farm in England in June. It is also keen on carbon capture and storage and was granted a carbon storage licence by the UK’s North Sea regulator earlier this year. 

‘Green spin’

The debate about so-called ‘greenwashing’ in sport has grown in recent months. This is when companies use marketing to make themselves appear environmentally friendly while still profiting from activities which worsen the climate crisis. 

Scottish activists halted men’s cycling’s world championship road race in August by blocking the road in protest at some of the team’s sponsors. British cycling is sponsored by oil giant, Shell, while the petrochemical company, Ineos, sponsors a UK team that competes in the annual Tour De France. 

In June, celebrities including the actor Emma Thompson, called on the Wimbledon tennis tournament to end its partnership with Barclays over the bank’s investments in fossil fuel projects. 

In 2021, a study by various climate groups found there were more than 250 advertising and sponsorship deals between big corporate polluters and leading sports teams and organisations. 

According to research cited in the report, fossil fuel companies use sports sponsorship to “create a positive public image for themselves or increase their TV coverage”. 

“Furthermore, research into the impact of sports sponsorship also shows that it influences consumer behaviour by creating a positive association between the brand and the spectator’s sports team,” the report claims. 

The gas industry is trying to use green spin to continue raking in profits while still using fossil fuels.

Richard Dixon, environmental campaigner

Scottish rugby has a big TV audience. Scotland’s Six Nations win over England in 2021 was reportedly watched by 8.4 million people across the UK and 1.2m people in Scotland alone. 

Matches at the newly minted Scottish Gas Murrayfield also regularly attract crowds of nearly 70,000 people. The stadium has hosted concerts by major pop stars including Harry Styles, the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen. Taylor Swift is performing three shows at Murrayfield in 2024.

Andrew Simms, a co-author of the 2021 report on polluting industries sponsorship of sport, told The Ferret sports sponsorships “give polluters the biggest possible audience” and lets them “benefit from the strong emotional bond fans have with sport”.

“If heavily polluting companies want to make themselves appear acceptable and part of normal, everyday life, rather than the real threat to a liveable planet which they are, sponsoring sport provides them with the biggest billboard to do so,” Simms claimed.

“Fossil fuel advertising and sponsorship of sport is like the new tobacco, and it needs kicking into touch just as much for the sake of our health and future.”

This was also the view of veteran environmental campaigner, and former head of Friends of the Earth Scotland, Richard Dixon. “Fossil fuel companies continue to look for good PR by sponsoring sport and the arts,” Dixon said. 

“The gas industry is trying to use green spin to continue raking in profits while still using fossil fuels, claiming we should use fossil gas as a ’transition’ fuel and backing energy-wasting hydrogen from gas for heating. 

“Tobacco firms used sports sponsorship to make themselves popular until they were banned and fossil fuels are as morally unacceptable today as tobacco was then.”

I’ve been a season ticket holder at Murrayfield for many years, and I’m now considering cancelling it due to the Scottish Gas sponsorship.

Dylan Hamilton, Fridays for Future

Dylan Hamilton – a climate justice activist with Fridays for Future – criticised Scottish Rugby for accepting sponsorship money from Scottish Gas in “exchange for improving their image”. 

Hamilton added: “The cost of living crisis has caused families to choose between eating or heating their homes, and British Gas is among the top companies making record profits from people’s extortionate energy bills.

“It’s not possible to prevent climate degradation and continue to burn fossil fuels. I’ve been a season ticket holder at Murrayfield for many years, and I’m now considering cancelling it due to the Scottish Gas sponsorship”.

Scottish Rugby said it was “currently developing its environmental, social and governance strategy and identified the need for support to community clubs through financial assistance to meet rising costs and help to improve their facilities to be more energy efficient.”

It added: “We identified Scottish Gas as a partner which could help deliver these objectives and are already over-subscribed by community clubs wanting to draw on their support in year one.

“The partnership is a landmark deal giving over 130 clubs a lift with energy bills and could reduce energy consumption by over 50 per cent through a joint £2m club and community net zero fund.”

Scottish Rugby pointed out that net zero minister, Màiri McAllan, had backed the sponsorship. In a statement in July she said sport had “a significant role to play” in the transition to net zero and welcomed the “leadership” shown by Scottish Rugby and Scottish Gas. McAllan added: “It’s not only great to hear plans for the home of Scottish Rugby to be decarbonised. Rugby clubs are an important part of our communities right across Scotland and this partnership therefore offers very exciting opportunities for thousands of people to play their part in increasing energy efficiency and reducing costs.”

Main image: Jacob Lund

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