The Qatar 2022 world cup has come and gone but the event left in its trail lessons for soccer fans, coaches and the world at large. While the soccer aspect has dominated discussions in various spheres, it is noteworthy to highlight sustainability aspects of the learning. This has become germane even as FIFA itself has already enshrined sustainability in the heart of her preparations for such global soccer fiesta. FIFA is joining the world-order in advocating and promoting sustainability at the highest global level in keeping with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Amidst the global awareness and campaigns, there are concerns about the spread, spectrum truism and efficacy of these efforts in delivering the SDGs. These concerns center around the most visible aspect of sustainability – Environmental Sustainability. Climate change remains the everyday reminder of the widening gap between global actions on environmental sustainability and actual results achieved; a gap that only true environmental stewardship can fill.  The Japanese soccer fans at the just concluded World Cup, yet again, demonstrated to the world the missing links (the true principles) that are required to guarantee success in the global campaign towards environmental sustainability in particular and the sustainable development goals in general. This sustainability gesture of the Japanese was first noticed at the 2018 World Cup in Russia when they were seen picking up refuse in the stadium after each game. At the 2019 female World cup in France, this home-grown gesture resurfaced. However, Qatar 2022 World Cup gave voice to this gesture when Bahrain influencer, Omar Al-Farooq, engaged some of the fans after capturing their kind gesture on camera. Their responses elicited these lessons put forward in this discussion; these lessons have been dissected and structured into 7 themes to put this discussion into proper perspective.

Lesson 1: Never leave rubbish behind, respect the environment.

At the Qatar 2022 World Cup, when asked about their motivation for this salubrious gesture, one of the Japanese soccer fans responded, “Japanese never leave rubbish behind. We respect the place”. Environmental sustainability is a key component of the sustainable development goals: it provides the physical support for both the economic and social components. The absence of this major component explains why world leaders gather annually under ‘COP’. Year 2022 was the 27th time of this gathering since its inception in March 1995; The agitations from COP27 suggest that the journey to environmental sustainability is still far away and may remain elusive until global corporate citizens and governments, like the Japanese soccer fans, resolve never to leave ‘rubbish’ behind and also begin to show genuine respect for the environment. The fossil fuel consumed in Africa and other developing nations may not equate the industrial wastes (solid, gaseous, liquid, etc.) released into the Ocean and the atmosphere as a direct consequence of economic activities of the developed economies – even though some of the earth-unfriendly activities have, unfortunately, been relocated to the underdeveloped parts of the world. Starting from product design to distribution channels, respect for the environment must take center stage; when the balance sheets swell with profits and the ocean is stuffed with plastic wastes, the net impact would be global loss to biodiversity; when industrial giants flourish and greenhouse gases abound, ozone layer depletion is inevitable. True environmental stewardship is underscored by a genuine respect for the environment.

Lesson 2: Not for the Cameras

Yet another Japanese Fan responded, “We are not doing it for cameras”.  True to the claim of this fan, the sanitary gesture of the Japanese soccer is not for showmanship; even FIFA observed that away from the prying cameras, the Japanese footballers themselves ensured they tidied up their dressing room after every match. The sustainability efforts and commitment of corporate citizens across the globe will yield global SDG gains if less of the camera is involved. Much of the greenwashing and make-believe reports and sometimes awards have placed premium on showmanship than efficacy. If all what have been published in sustainability reports by large corporates across the globe are true as claimed, the world would have made more progress in environmental sustainability and invariably, towards the SDGs; even subsequent COP meetings would have more results that problems to grapple with. Rather than the Cameras, it would be more beneficial to use the Mirror instead; using the mirror ensures that the reporting entity self-examines their impact rather than run to the gallery with half-truth. On the other hand, using the mirror ensures that outcome, rather than intention, speaks. Emphasizing less of the camera would give voice to the ‘Garbage-Man Model’ – the efficiency of the Garbage Man is measured by what is left after cleaning, not by the volume of dirt carted away. Bragging rights therefore would come from efficiency rather than effort.

Lesson 3: Sustainability is everybody’s business

A look at the hygienic Japanese fans at the just concluded World Cup shows that not a few, but a large number of Japanese spectators volunteered in cleaning the seating area of the stadium. The cleaning gesture did not even end with the soccer fans, even the players also cleaned up their locker room and made sure everything was in order after each match. Rather than reserving sustainability for the ‘bigger’ firms while the others look the other way with their muckiness, the world at large would benefit generously if ALL rather than a FEW corporates and governments would show genuine commitments towards the environmental sustainability. Corporates, big and small; governments, developed or underdeveloped; all have a role to play in ensuring congruence and success in the journey towards the improved and wholesome environmental sustainability, through stewardship.

Lesson 4: Sustainability should be organic not superficial; a culture not just a strategy

This Japanese gesture must have a TEK perspective. Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) underscores every deep-rooted sustainability practice. In Japan, tidiness in public spaces is widely accepted as a virtue. Such habits are taught at home and in schools; from a young age, pupils are taught how to clean up their classrooms and school facilities regularly. Keeping public spaces clean is one of the core cultural practices in Japan. This TEK perspective explains why the Japanese soccer fans consider it a moral obligation to always clean up the stands even after everyone else leaves. The lesson from the Japanese gesture requires a paradigm shift in how the world approaches sustainability. Evidence of organizations that have embraced sustainability should not be seen in their capacity to publish a sustainability report, rather it should reflect in their corporate behavior, product and service offerings; it should also reflect in the culture of engagement with the community and stakeholders, responsibility towards customers and even staff. Today, corporate sustainability is a strategy for the boardroom but totally an alien to the shop floor, in the factory and in the design shops. Even the sustainability strategies crafted in the boardroom mean nothing but checklists to the rest of the team. Audit certification of sustainability reports is just about ticking boxes rather than verifying the claims in the reports. Until corporate sustainability strategies become embedded in the corporate culture of organizations, results and reality would remain strange bedfellows.

Lesson 5: Polluter Pays

In Japan, littering or illegal dumping of refuse attracts huge fines such that contravening the law is less likely an option. The Japanese Soccer fans are passing the message that the Polluter Pays Principle has gone beyond just the influence of the regulators’ big stick, to a conscious-realization of the impact of human activities on the environment and the moral responsibility of keeping the environment clean after each use. This message therefore defines the Polluter as one who fails to clean up their negative footprints on the environment.  If regulators would wield the big stick in different climes against unsustainable corporate behaviors and negative environmental footprints, our oceans would be free from plastic wastes; the air would be healthier to breath, the environment would be made more livable for both present and future generations. The UN Polluter Pays Principle need more force and candor; it needs spread and adoption; it needs to co-exist and be co-adopted alongside the SDGs. Governments across the globe must be empowered to identify polluters and mete-out appropriate sanctions. The sanctions must be made more stringent and punitive to discourage and to deter future offenders. In the absence proper guidance and awareness polluters in poorly regulated climes are going unpunished even though the adverse effect of their inordinate behavior is biting bitterly on the global ecosystem.

Lesson 6: Not just out-of-profit

It must be re-emphasized that sustainability is not corporate charity; it is not to be undertaken just-out-of-profit. This message resonates with the attitude of the Japanese soccer fans who never failed to fulfil their post-match sanitary obligations even when the outcome does not benefit them. For example, despite their Group E loss to Costa Rica at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the Japanese fans (though in tears) were seen picking trash from the stand, even those left by the opponent’s fans; this attitude was also on display in 2018 World Cup in Russia after their team’s 2-3 loss to Belgium. The underlining message is that environmental stewardship and sustainability in general are not options for the good day; it is not only out of profit that companies should practice environmental stewardship, it should be embedded in business strategies and pursued alongside profit. When environmental stewardship is pursued after satisfying the profit-thirst, irreversible losses to the physical environment are inevitable. Like the Japanese soccer fans, every corporate citizen across the globe should develop and show genuine concern and commitment towards regenerating the environment for future uses. This entails investing time and resources in ensuring a clean and safe environment, alongside other business environments, even when no regulator is watching.

Lesson 7: Sustainability should be practiced home and abroad

What the world has witnessed about the Japanese soccer fans is the outcome of a home-grown culture of respect for the environment; a culture that is so deeply rooted that the citizens travel with it. If only Multinational corporations (MNC) from highly regulated climes would replicate the same environmental standards practiced at home in other poorly regulated climes where they operate, the global environmental malady would be under control. Gas flaring in Nigeria, for example, is perpetrated by Multinationals in whose home soil such practices would have severe consequences; but when regulation is weak, these same MNCs look the other way. In another dimension, products that do not pass quality standards for use at home in developed economies, are passed for export by their governments to unsuspecting users abroad (in less-developed countries). There have been cases of industrial wastes shipped to the shores of unsuspecting countries; how about electronic wastes shipped and sold to Africa as Seconds even when the seller is only running away from fines for disposing such wastes in the country of origin. Respect for the environment requires that the country whose soil is too holy to receive such electronic waste, should not allow such waste out of her harbor; high standards of environmental stewardship practiced in highly regulated climes should also be exported together with oversea investments even in less-regulated climes. This is because the effect of such wastes on the global ecosystem would be the same irrespective of what part of the universe the eventual disposal happens. Whilst developed nations are transiting from fuel-powered vehicles to electric vehicles under the guise of NET ZERO, same countries are still shipping fuel-powered vehicles to Africa and yet the world (including Africa) is expected to achieve NET ZERO as part of the SDGs. Indeed, home and abroad, sustainability wins sustainably.

Epilogue

Until these lessons are globalized, nationalized and internalized by all and sundry; until global corporate citizens become like the Japanese soccer fans and governments become more responsible, environmental sustainability and indeed the global sustainability campaign would remain all talks, conferences, communiques, declarations and paper works.