Do Your Members Care If Your Gym is Sustainable?

There’s been a fundamental shift towards sustainability as a collective responsibility. Individuals, businesses, organisations, and governments have all been charged...

There’s been a fundamental shift towards sustainability as a collective responsibility. Individuals, businesses, organisations, and governments have all been charged with minimising their environmental impact with mixed results.

These examples suggest how challenging sustainability can be at a policy, business, and customer level. Despite this, we know that, generally, sustainability is important to policymakers, stakeholders, and consumers, but what about gym members? And if you try to make your gym more sustainable, will anyone care? 

Why Sustainability is Important to People 

One study found that 75% of Millennials considered sustainability when purchasing. Another reported that just over 80% of UK consumers would pay at least 10% more for sustainable products. Several other studies also concluded that younger generations are more likely to spend money with brands that align with their social values, even if that means paying more. There’s also a tangible link between health and sustainability. Climate change has been linked to several health-related issues, including respiratory and cardiovascular disease. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, traffic-related pollution is strongly associated with the development of asthma in school-aged childrenHigher temperatures are linked with premature births in Australia, and a third of heat-related deaths are now associated with climate change. In the UK, a study published in the Journal for Climatic Change reported that rising global temperatures have increased the frequency of hot weather, drought, and flooding.

We know that extreme weather threatens human life and health. We’ve seen numerous examples in 2023 worldwide: wildfires in Greece and Canada, flooding in Turkey and China, etc. We’re also seeing it in the UK. In the summer of 2022, the UK registered record-breaking temperatures of 40.3 degrees, which is believed to have contributed to 2,800 additional deaths. Climate change is something that used to happen abroad, many miles away. Unfortunately, that’s no longer the case  

Many people also believe that COVID-19 helped the sustainability agenda. PwC’s June 2021 report found that, since the pandemic, ‘half of all global consumers surveyed say they’ve become even more eco-friendly.’  And gyms are in a fortunate position to take advantage of this. Since COVID-19, people are now thinking of fitness as a crucial component in wellness and self-care, and according to Ideafit, this ‘expands interest in the environment and their communities’ 

 Pale pink smog-like smoke over the Empire State Building in New York

Mental health professionals have also reported a rise in the number of people suffering from eco-anxiety. Eco-anxiety is when concern about climate change becomes akin to mental distress affecting a person’s daily life. It shares many anxiety-based traits: shortness of breath, racing heart, intrusive thoughts, overwhelm, etc. 
Professionals have noted eco-anxiety for some years now, but it made the headlines earlier in 2023 when smoke from Canadian wildfires spread into the United States, reaching as far as New York City and affecting air quality. Videos on news channels and social media accounts showed a thick, reddish, smog-like smoke that shrouded the city in a dystopian haze. During this period, mental health professionals reported a rise in the number of clients they were seeing in which anxiety about climate change was discussed.  

We’re likely to see this rise in the UK, too. According to the Office of National Statistics, 74% of people reported feeling either somewhat or very worried about climate change. 


Do Gym Members Care About Sustainability? 

Most likely, they do.  

Around 66% of consumers are willing to spend more on sustainable brands. For many, sustainability is a lifestyle beyond just shopping and travelling habits. Of course, not everyone will be ride-or-die for the environment. Some members will have zero interest, but you’ll probably find that most will be receptive to sustainability initiatives. 

It’s worth mentioning here that sustainability isn’t just about doing the right thing for the planet; it can also leverage an advantage over competitors. Deloitte completed a study and found that 37% of people had chosen brands with ethical practices or values. Interestingly, 34% of people admitted that they’d stopped purchasing certain brands or products if they had ethical concerns about the brand or business. This is consumer activism. It’s when someone buys from a brand that they feel aligns with their values and boycotts those that don’t. Yale released a study that showed in the US, people were more likely to ‘engage in consumer activism than political activism to combat global warming’.  So, aligning your business with the values of current and potential future gym members will make you a more attractive prospect for anyone interested in the environmental impact of their fitness routine. 

But gym owners shouldn’t think that sustainability is all-or-nothing and all at once. Eco-gyms are explicitly designed for carbon neutrality with sustainable flooring, walling, self-generating or electricity-generating equipment, biophilic décor, and plastic-free, locally or ethically sourced food and drink products. This may not fit your business model (at least not yet), but there are also many other ‘regular’ gyms adopting sustainable practices and processes, increasing their sustainability over time. The Gym Group has over 8,000 members and 229 sites in the UK. It aims to become net zero by 2045, which means the carbon it omits will be no more than the amount the company is saving. Part of this plan means buying 100% renewable power from energy companies and replacing all lighting with LEDs.

Similarly, Storm Cycle Studio in Berlin has recently installed electricity-generating bikes, meaning its sound, lighting and air-conditioning systems are all human-powered.  

Both gyms are making a clear commitment to energy efficiency, but there’s also a benefit for marketing and PR, especially for retaining current members and attracting new ones. This depends on whether a gym is genuine in its efforts and not greenwashing.  

Greenwashing is when a brand or company makes misleading sustainability claims. We mentioned in the introduction how ASOS, Boohoo, and Asda George have been accused of this by the UK’s Competition and Market Authority. Sometimes, greenwashing happens by accident – perhaps an overzealous marketing team or genuine miscalculation – but whatever the cause, it can seriously harm a brand or gym’s reputation. 

Often, sustainability's biggest obstacle lies in showing people that individual action can have a significant impact. Consumer activism is an excellent example of this. In Yale’s Study on sustainability and buying habits, researchers found that consumers often underestimate how much their actions influence how companies and brands operate. People will likely feel they’re making a bigger impact as part of a community or group. This puts gyms in a fortunate position. They already have a ready-made community. One article by the IHRSA states that ‘members can feel like they’re contributing to a more profound shared goal’. This then feeds back into the community, building a stronger sense of purpose that should, ideally, positively influence things like membership retention.  


What Can Gyms Do to Become More Sustainable?  

Sustainability can seem overwhelming, especially if your gym has been operating for some time. Challenging economic conditions can also make sustainability feel financially risky, but sustainability doesn’t have to happen overnight. Gyms can make changes over an extended period, as The Gym Group is doing. It’s also worth remembering that sustainability and efficiency often go in hand, and the more energy or resource-efficient a building and business is, the less money and resources are wasted. Over time, switching to sustainability could represent a significant saving.  

Get an Energy Audit 

Completing an energy audit is a good first step. This is when a professional company investigates how energy-efficiency your business is. At the end of the process, they’ll produce a report with recommendations for areas that could be improved within your company. Energy audits give you a clear picture of your energy-efficiency, providing a baseline against which you can measure any future progress.  

Be Energy Efficient

There are a lot of the usual changes to consider, too. Switching to LED energy-efficiency lighting, installing eco-friendly gym flooring, eliminating single-use plastic and making the building more water and waste-efficient. If you own the building you operate from or have an eco-friendly landlord, then solar panels may also be an option. There’s also the option to install electricity-generating equipment like the RE:GEN Studio.

Turn Down the Temperature

During the winter of 2022/23, many gyms and leisure centres turned down their pool temperatures while some facilities even switched Jacuzzis and saunas off completely to try and reduce costs in the face of rising bills. The goal of sustainability isn’t to reduce service or customer experience, but it suggests that even small changes, lowering temperatures in small increments perhaps, may have a compounding effect over time. 

Encourage Sustainable Transport

Gyms can also encourage members to travel more sustainably. Some gyms provide bike racks for cyclists. Other ensure paths to local amenities, houses, and transport links are visible and signposted, so members can choose how to get there.  

Align Your Marketing with Sustainability

Incorporating environmental and social issues into a brand strategy can also help. Celebrating relevant national days like World Health Day, National Tree Week, and International Day of Zero Waste. A good marketing strategy could align the gym with any number of these dates in conjunction with challenges related to environmental events. Gyms could arrange sessions walking the length of the Amazon on a treadmill to raise awareness about deforestation or partner with a local environmental charity to raise awareness or money for local, national or international good causes.  

Sell Sustainable Products

You can push sustainability by selling and promoting local or sustainable products and merchandise  

 Person putting 'glass' post-it note on a recycling bin

Do Your Members Care If Your Gym is Sustainable? 

Your gym members likely do care about climate change. They’ll also probably respond positively to sustainability initiatives. While it’s unlikely that they’ll all be at the Greta Thunberg level of activism, studies show that more people are now engaging with environmental issues.  

We know that 18 to 34-year-olds attend the gym more than any other demographic. We also know that this age group is more likely to champion sustainable causes and participate in consumer activism, spending money with brands that reflect their social values. We can assume, therefore, that Generation Alpha (those born between 2010 and 2024) are also likely to become sustainability advocates, given that their generation will be the most affected by climate change in the UK.  

So, sustainability isn’t going away, but there is another factor worth mentioning: the cost of living.  

Many people are experiencing financial challenges or uncertainty, which may impact consumer activism and buying decisions, including whether someone decides to start, continue or cancel a monthly or annual gym membership. Articles like this may push for more sustainability in the industry, but this may not always be a priority to gyms facing rising operating costs and pinched margins. One critical thing to remember is that sustainability doesn’t have to be achieved in leaps and bounds overnight. When it comes to being more energy efficient, you may find that greater efficiency also equates to greater savings further down the line. And anyway, minimising our environmental impact is a responsibility that applies to everyone, whether we own a gym or not.  


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