Is event sponsorship by a car manufacturer ever okay?

By Martin Elcoate

We’ve explained our problem with sportswashing in our blog Sportswashing – should events take oil money and use it for good? – ( Now we explore the challenges event organisers face when working with car manufacturers that produce both dirty Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles and cleaner Electric Vehicles (EVs) 1.

First off, we understand that in some situations event organisers need to use cars. And that using cars provided by a car manufacturer can be an attractive proposition, reducing costs and hence making the event more accessible. So, what’s the problem if the cars in question are EV? Surely a headline sponsor promoting EVs is good, right? Don’t we want to encourage people to dump their fossil fuel cars for cleaner EVs?

Well, it’s not that simple (and we’re not going to get into the EV / ICE debate here. In truth the planet needs fewer cars of any type – as The Green Runners we will always advocate for public and active transport over private car use).

Most car manufacturers make ICE vehicles and EVs. And for most car manufacturers, ICE vehicles make up by far the largest number of sales (we’re talking over 90% of sales for most brands) 2. Also many still produce Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs) and emissions from those are so huge that if they were a country they’d be the sixth largest emitter in the world 3. So, when a brand is promoted, it’s difficult to ensure the promotion focuses solely on EVs and isn’t driving up ICE car sales. We haven’t seen that done successfully at any running events yet.

It all comes down to how people perceive the brand being sponsored or promoted by the event across all channels – within the name of the event, across social media, website, emails, promotions, stands at the event and so on.

Therefore, the event is at risk of promoting ICE vehicles if it’s not clear across any of the channels that the promotion relates solely to EVs. And that’s sportswashing, folks!

So, even if the event website only focuses on EVs, using the car manufacturer’s logo and / or name without direct reference to the EVs is, like it or not, promoting ICE cars. Toyota [insert your city of choice] Marathon promotes ICE vehicles, even if there’s only mention of EVs on the event website.

For this very reason, a headline sponsorship or partnership deal with a brand that sells both ICE vehicles and EVs will always be problematic.

Taking it down a level, lower tier sponsorship or partnership by a car manufacturer that sells both ICE vehicles and EVs is unlikely to be a great deal better. It’ll be hard work to ensure that each and every reference to the brand only promotes EVs. This becomes even more challenging, if the car manufacturer is involved in the event’s marketing and communication. Consequently, ruling out car manufacturer sponsors and partners is definitely the way to go in order to completely avoid sportswashing.

We appreciate that sportswashing exists across a spectrum, from low key references on footnotes to widespread advertising across the event’s website, communication, and/or branding materials. However, we believe that avoiding any form of sportswashing is the correct course of action and is the best way to avoid continual debates and disagreements about where the line is drawn based on the amount and prominence of brand promotion.

It’s also worth noting that sponsorship or partnership often includes a financial transaction. And, more often than not, the money received derives from the car manufacturer’s profits, and primarily ICE vehicle sales. Consequently, oily money is funding the event, which we believe is unethical and provides another reason for event organisers to avoid sponsoring or partnering with car manufacturers.

So, what about car manufacturers who provide EVs to an event without a sponsorship or partnership arrangement? In other words a provider or supplier. Obviously, the brand will want to generate some publicity by having its shiny EV vehicles on display at the event and may want some recognition of their support on the event website or branding.

Typically, providers and suppliers are often offered far less exposure than the higher-level (and higher funded) sponsor or partnership deals. Hence in this situation it should be far easier to avoid sportswashing. However, transparency is key. The event organiser needs to ensure it is clear the brand is a provider of EV vehicles whenever and wherever the brand is mentioned. If not, the organiser is still actively promoting a brand that sells ICE vehicles. And, you guessed it, that’s sportswashing, folks!

Check out our previous post oily races to see which races have problematic sponsors!


  1. Badvertising recommend that sports sponsorship should exclude all advertising and promotions for petrol, diesel and hybrid vehicles and Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV). They also comment that advertising for Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV) as distinct from PHEV could still be permitted, and in principle hydrogen fuelled vehicles. PHEVs have been shown not to yield meaningful emissions savings over conventional vehicles. See their report “Sweat not oil: Why sports should drop advertising and sponsorship from high-carbon sponsors.” Sports Sponsorship Pledge — Badvertising ( Badvertising’s report contains a lot more information and heaps of references on the topic of sportswashing.
  2. “The world’s largest automakers are portraying a green image through electric vehicle (EV) commercials and net-zero pledges. However, the truth remains stark: in 2022, a staggering 94% of cars sold by these automakers still run on fossil fuels.” For more facts like this, including car manufacturer rankings, head over to Greenpeace’s excellent analysis Don’t let automakers drive us further into the climate crisis – Greenpeace International
  3. “Carbon emissions from global SUV fleet outweighs that of most countries” Carbon emissions from global SUV fleet outweighs that of most countries | Greenhouse gas emissions | The Guardian

About the author

Martin is a recreational runner living in Devon, UK. He runs to explore his local area, enjoying long days out in the Devon hills. Martin works behind the scenes for The Green Runners on campaigns, social media and promoting ways in which we can make a difference in the face of the climate emergency. His pledges include continuing not to eat red meat, speaking up to promote The Green Runners & calling for action in relation to the climate emergency.

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