Liverpool Football Club’s latest sponsorship deal, with Tibet Water Resources Limited — a company committing ongoing human rights and environmental atrocities in the region — is a case example of the kind of partnership brands just cannot make in today's world if they are striving for sustainability.
This matters because England-based Liverpool FC is a widely recognized sports brand. According to Forbes, the team is worth $1.49 billion, making it the eighth most valuable soccer club in the world.
Its breadth extends far beyond England's borders, deep into soccer-crazed Asia, where Liverpool FC enjoys popular support and several marketing deals. In fact, this deal is just one of many the club has across the region, such as those with Konami and Malaysia Airlines.
“Given the huge respect, loyalty and affection that people feel for business entities such as soccer clubs, companies they partner with also benefit from those same positive feelings by extension,” said Sondhya Gupta, a spokesperson for SumOfUs. “Liverpool FC really is giving its seal of approval to Tibet Water and saying its business model is normal and legitimate.”
In fact, the more one learns about this partnership, the worse it sounds. Despite its name, Tibet Water is a Chinese-run company that is, according to groups, exploiting water for financial gain and giving little benefit to local Tibetans, who, instead, are seeing their environment destroyed. Though Tibet Water is just one of dozens operating in the region, it is, so far, the only one to make a deal with a foreign soccer club.
“This deal represents the issue at the very core of the Tibetan struggle: the detrimental effect of the Chinese occupation on Tibetans and the lack of consultation about their land and resources,” said Gloria Montgomery, Head of Advocacy at Tibet Society. “For 70 years, Tibetans have endured injustice, indignity and discrimination at the hands of the Chinese authorities, as the occupation has resulted in systematic human rights violations against them.”
Since Tibet was invaded in 1950 and annexed shortly thereafter, the vast region, which is more than double the size of Texas, has immense natural resources that have been exploited by Chinese companies.
“Tibetans under military occupation have been given no say over how their resources are used, and in the past, have been punished severely when they have attempted to protect their environment,” said John Jones with Free Tibet.
Water is especially important as Tibet is considered the world's third pole, its vast glaciers holding one of the planet's largest reserves of freshwater, the source for many of Asia's great rivers including the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Indus, which flow into South Asia; and the Mekong, the lifeblood of Cambodia, Laos and Southern Vietnam. Water development, including bottling, could reduce flows downstream and impacts millions.
The occupation has also seen the region become home to some of the world's longest-running, widely documented human rights and environmental abuses — from the widespread destruction of Tibetan monasteries and temples, restrictions on Tibetan language and freedom of movement, to the jailing and torture of Tibetans from crimes as small as having a photo of the Dalai Lama.
“Chinese rule over Tibet disrupts every aspect of daily life,” Montgomery said. “It affects whether, when and how Tibetans can travel inside Tibet, go abroad, visit their relatives, attend a protest, fly their national flag or display a picture of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.”
SumofUs, FreeTibet, Tibet Society and other organizations participating in this campaign want Liverpool FC to take one simple step — to stand up for human rights by terminating this deal with Tibet Water.
“Terminating the deal should be the priority — we wouldn’t ask anything more or anything less,” Jones said. “We recognize that for many, sport and politics should not be mixed, but a deal with a company that exploits resources from a people under occupation is not an acceptable state of affairs.”
Unfortunately, Liverpool FC has, so far, decided to take a different path. Despite having issued a statement in November 2016 on human rights, the club has resisted opening up a dialogue with both fans and the organizations concerned about this partnership, and did not respond to Sustainable Brands’ requests for comment.
“Tibet Society and other Tibetan campaign groups are simply trying to ensure that Liverpool FC and Tibet Water are held to international standards, as well as those championed by the club itself,” Montgomery said. “Under international standards, businesses have human rights responsibilities, including to conduct due diligence measures to ensure their operations respect human rights and do not contribute to human rights abuses.”
So far, over 40,000 people have signed a petition asking Liverpool FC to reconsider this deal, and take human rights and the environment into consideration when deciding partnerships. So far, no response from the club itself.
“We have received messages from Liverpool FC fans concerned about this agreement, and others have written to the club directly themselves,” Jones said. “From the directors, there has largely been silence, despite our attempts to contact them and ask for a meeting where we can explain the dire human rights situation in Tibet to them.”
Only time will tell if the team will follow its own commitments to human rights, or continue a partnership that is certain to damage its brand image — which, in sports, is basically everything.