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With multinational chemical company Ineos taking over the sponsorship of Team Sky, David Burrows asks if there could be a conflict of values here – and whether the company is taking its environmental responsibilities more seriously

Ineos has taken over sponsorship of the Team Sky cycling team, and it hasn’t gone down well in some quarters. On Twitter, the “extreme mismatch” was quickly exposed: “A low-carbon, energy-efficient method of transport in #cycling & proponent of #fracking, #plasticpollution and #climateinaction in @Ineos,” noted ex-Green Party leader Natalie Bennett. 

Under Sky’s ownership, the team and its famous faces, including Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas, fronted the media company’s 2018 Ocean Rescue campaign, an ocean health and pollution initiative that the Marine Conservation Society called “genuinely ground-breaking”. The likes of Thomas wore cycling shirts with a whale logo and the hashtag #passonplastic during last year’s Tour de France, while celebrities encouraged the public to cut down on disposable packaging. Some 33.5 million people have so far interacted with the campaign.

Ineos, on the other hand, is a global manufacturer of petrochemicals, speciality chemicals and oil products, with sales of $60bn: the largest private UK firm you’ve never heard of. Its products include solvents, chlorine, insulation and “modern plastics to package, protect and preserve food and drink”. It wants to undertake fracking in the UK so it can produce more plastic, more cheaply. 

Friends of the Earth (FoE) chief executive Craig Bennett called the whole thing “deeply depressing”, while others predicted a backlash from cycling fans. This month, Team Ineos lines up for its first official outing at the Tour of Yorkshire – where Ineos is hoping to run fracking wells. As one campaigner put it, the timing is “a spectacular misjudgment”. Or is it? With fracking and plastic pollution in the media spotlight, is this the perfect moment for Ineos to step out of the shadows and into the saddle? 

Charm offensive 

So far, very little detail has emerged about Ineos’ plans. The company’s owner, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, is Britain’s richest man, an outspoken Brexiteer and a critic of Europe’s “foolish” green taxes and “expensive” energy and labour laws, but coverage is often limited to the business pages. “You may not have heard of Jim Ratcliffe, but he’s is in your life from the moment you wake up until you go to sleep,” wrote the Sunday Times in 2017. “He is responsible for the plastic cap on your toothpaste tube and the chlorine that cleans the water you use to brush your teeth.”

It’s a fair bet that, today, a few more people know who he is: the man who bought Team Sky. Indeed, this kind of deal represents an opportunity to talk to the public about the company, what it stands for and what it does. “If you don’t, people make their own assumptions,” suggests one sponsorship expert who has worked with Team Sky in the past. 

Read some of the articles in the Ineos staff magazine and you’ll find a charm offensive under way. “The public often think we don’t care about plastic pollution, but we care massively,” Ineos’ director of corporate affairs Tom Crotty said in a recent issue. “Plastic waste in the ocean is totally unacceptable. But plastic is not evil. Plastic waste is evil. And that needs to be said. Maybe it is now time to fight fire with fire. We have got to get out there and tell people what we are doing.”

A search of the Ineos website offers plenty of narrative on sustainability, but very little detail or data. Having been sent a series of straightforward questions, a spokesman declined to comment. 

Ineos has, however, signed up to Operation Clean Sweep, a voluntary initiative within the plastics sector that aims to reduce the loss of pellets, flakes and powders from industrial plants. The tiny pellets – each the size of a lentil, and also known as ‘nurdles’ – are a huge microplastic pollution problem. The consultancy Eunomia estimates that 53bn of them could leak into the environment every year in the UK, while in the 352 “Nurdle Hunts” run worldwide by the Scottish environmental charity Fidra in February, pellets were found on beaches from Galloway to the Galapagos. Grangemouth, where Ineos has a major site, remains a hotspot. Ineos says it has been trying to tackle the problem “for years”. On its website, Jason Leadbitter, sustainability and corporate social responsibility manager at Ineos’ PVC arm Inovyn, shares a tale from a decade ago when, sitting on a beach in Sardinia, his daughter fished plastic pellets from the sand and asked what they were. “I was rather embarrassed to tell her that her daddy worked in an industry that made such pellets.”

Campaigners say Ineos has plenty to be ashamed of. However, given the fame of the cycling team and the popularity of cycling as a sport and pastime, this could be a golden opportunity to bash Ineos on the global stage. “They will become more high profile as a company and people will ask: who are these guys and what are they doing?” says FoE regional campaign coordinator Simon Bowens.

Could Ineos become the hero of British cycling or the bad boy pin-up of plastic pollution? Or both? Given Sky’s long-term investment – both at grassroots level and in developing the best cycling team in the world from scratch – there is a legacy of success; that means the residual value in continued success under Ineos’ ownership is always going to be lower. Ineos will have to go some way to oust the likes of Nestlé, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Starbucks as the focus of anti-plastic ire: it sits in the bottom half of the 40 most criticised corporates on plastics in the past 24 months. However, there’s every chance it will move up the table, with tracking firm Sigwatch having already noticed a “sharp upward trend in activity”. Data shared with Transform also showed that Ineos has received a lot of criticism for its sponsorship deals during the past 12 months; here it is second only to Coca-Cola, above some big tobacco companies. 

“These days, consumers are a lot more discerning when it comes to sponsorship”

Reflected glory

These days, consumers are a lot more discerning when it comes to sponsorship – think Lego and Shell, or McDonald’s and the Olympics. A 2017 study by Aston University showed that big deals between businesses and football teams can cause harm to brands if the deal arouses suspicion. ‘Badging’, where brands associate with a sports team so they can bathe in reflected glory, still goes on. However, collaborations are scrutinised closely these days, as the National Portrait Gallery’s recent rejection of a £1m donation from The Sackler Trust proves.

In Ineos’ case, it isn’t just the cycling that has ruffled campaigners’ feathers: last year the company also agreed to fully fund sailor Ben Ainslie’s America’s Cup team, to the tune of £110m. An open letter signed by a number of NGOs and scientists in October claimed that allowing Ineos to take part as a sponsor undermines World Sailing’s Code of Ethics, which promises “to protect the environment on the occasion of any events; and to uphold generally accepted standards for environmental protection”. FoE has called for a fossil fuel sports sponsorship ban.

Sponsorship experts wonder whether Ineos has a master plan, or if the investments are simply down to Ratcliffe’s love of cycling. Rory Stewart-Richardson from sponsorship marketplace Connexi believes it could be an emotional purchase. “From a value proposition it is hard to see the alignment, bar the fact that Ratcliffe is a passionate cyclist.” 

Successful sponsorships tend to work when the two parties’ purpose and interests are aligned, which makes the Ineos deal puzzling. “It’s not clear why they are doing it,” says Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at University of Salford, Manchester. “Ineos clearly has some reputational issues, so are they trying to address these by acquiring high-profile packages with a mainstream team everyone knows and is associated with success?”

Ineos’ cycling deal could also have a political subtext: it “could be a statement about Britain and what we stand for and how we compete”, according to Chadwick. Ratcliffe, a staunch EU critic, stepping in to save a British asset as Brexit looms is certainly an intriguing backstory. The past reputational issues of Team Sky – from therapeutic use exemptions to ‘jiffybags’ – could also be spun as conspiracy, with nothing proven. Ineos could bill this as a fresh start for both parties.

Data compiled by YouGov Sport and Connexi shows that it may have been the right time for Sky to step down: the brand impression of Sky has grown within the UK’s general population, but fallen among the cycling community. Given that few cycling fans will have heard of Ineos, does this represent a clean start for a company associated with dirty industries? Time will tell, but the company’s detractors will warn that a leopard rarely changes its spots. What’s more, if Ineos and its owner are the face of ‘Brand Britain’, there could be consequences for the whole country’s reputation should an environmental scandal be exposed. The world will be watching. 

David burrows is a freelance journalist


Image credit | Getty Images
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