For the past three weeks, the eyes of the sporting world were focused on the Tour de France. One of this year’s biggest stories, besides the way the tournament reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic, was the implosion of the INEOS Grenadiers.
The all-conquering British team, formerly-known as Team Sky, came into 2020 as firm favourites. They’d won seven of the last eight Tours, achievements which turned Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas into household names, and helped earn team principal, Sir Dave Brailsford, his knighthood.
This year, however, despite Brailsford’s continued leadership, the wheels fell off. Neither Froome nor Thomas was selected for the Tour, and their replacement, Egan Bernal, who won it for Team INEOS in 2019, dropped out five days before this Sunday’s finish.
Not that any of this is likely to bother the INEOS founder and CEO Sir Jim Ratcliffe too much, because as long as people are talking about the issues with his cycling team, they won’t be talking about INEOS’ core business – a series of oil, gas and petrochemical ventures which, campaigners claim, are wreaking havoc on the environment.
“Sportswashing”, the practice of sponsoring a popular sporting team or event in order to launder a company’s reputation, is nothing new. Coca-Cola first started paying to associate itself with the Olympic Games as far back as 1928, McDonald’s joined them in 1976, and Marlboro spent decades sponsoring McLaren’s Formula One team. More recently, the owners of Man City and PSG have applied the same approach at a nation-state level. Critics say this cycling team is the just the latest example of INEOS’ “sportwashing”.
As well as buying up Team Sky, the company sponsors an America’s Cup Sailing Team and owns two top-tier football clubs, in France and Switzerland. Last year, it paid for Eliud Kipchoge’s attempt to run the world’s first sub two-hour marathon, and just last week it was reported that INEOS is trying to buy Lewis Hamilton’s Formula One team – which it already sponsors to the tune of £100 million a year.
So far, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, who’s often described as a “shy billionaire”, has been reluctant to discuss this spending spree. INEOS didn’t respond to VICE’s requests for comment, and the group has previously claimed the investments are driven simply by “a love of sport”, denying any more cynical motives. Either way, there’s little doubt they create a convenient smokescreen for his company’s real money-making operations - one that’s all the more effective because, before it was a sporting brand, INEOS was hardly a household name.
“INEOS is the largest producer of plastic in the UK,” says Sarah Moyes, an expert in plastic pollution at Friends of the Earth Scotland, “but the average person on the street probably doesn’t know who they are, or what they do - they tend to slip under the radar.”
This, she explains, is because the company doesn’t make the plastic bottles or bags that most consumers encounter, but rather the material those products are made of. “They make nurdles, these tiny little lentil-sized pellets, that are used to make everything from plastic toys to plastic bags.”
The end products are harmful enough in themselves, breaking down into micro and nano-plastic particles that affect entire food chains, Moyes says. But the nurdles are arguably even worse. “They’re often mistaken for food,” she explains. “When animals are found dead, or sea birds, they’re often ingesting these plastic pellets.”
INEOS says it has committed to ensuring these pellets do not up in the marine environment through its Zero Pellet Loss Programme.
INEOS’ environmental rap sheet doesn’t just stop at plastics, according to activists. To supply its various ventures, the company bet big on fracking, acquiring licenses to exploit “over one million acres of the prime shale exploration areas in England and Scotland”. Recent bans have stopped these being used, so instead they’ve turned to new suppliers in the US. “INEOS started importing fracked gas from America in 2016,” says Moyes. “Which means they’re now creating issues for communities on both sides of the Atlantic.”
Last year, an investigation by Greenpeace found that an INEOS facility in Middlesbrough had repeatedly violated its permits on air and water emissions (INEOS said in a statement, “We have always been and remain within emission levels agreed for the site with the EA. If not, we would not be operating.”) Meanwhile, its bosses were lobbying the British government to let them ignore EU pollution rules. Sir Jim Ratcliffe supported Brexit, claiming the break would let the UK strip away these “layers and layers” of European regulation for good.
At the time, his company’s corporate headquarters had been moved to Switzerland, a decision that INEOS openly admitted was all about avoiding tax. And although the company subsequently moved some of its offices back, neither a knighthood nor the referendum result he wanted stopped Sir Jim from seeking to shift his own residency to Monaco, a tax haven.
Norman Phillip was born in Grangemouth, Scotland, and grew up in the shadow of what is now INEOS’ largest UK site - a sprawling 1,700-acre complex just upstream from Edinburgh, which includes a pipeline terminal, an oil refinery and various processing plants. “Every day there’s something,” he says. “Some days there are numerous flares, and you can see black smoke, sometimes they'll condense that into one big flare. Then there’s the smell, and the noise pollution.”
Now a volunteer coordinator for the Friends of the Earth Falkirk group, Norman worries about the global climate crisis, but he’s equally concerned with INEOS’ impact on his local environment. “If you live under an oil refinery, it's not just the carbon – the bit that goes up into the sky and causes climate change – that’s worrying. It’s the mercury, the benzine that has an impact on your respiratory tract – that's more of a concern.”
Parts of the Grangemouth complex have consistently earned “very poor” compliance ratings from the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency. But even those elements which pass their inspections sit uneasily with locals, according to Norman. “It's just the prolonged nature of it,” he says. “On any one day, they can usually say they're within safe limits, but every day it's close to that limit for a number of toxic substances – and we're breathing that in on a daily basis.”
Like much of Ratcliffe’s empire, the Grangemouth Oil Refinery originally belonged to BP. But while the petroleum giant is obviously no saint, Norman believes INEOS are worse. “Even BP has started to make announcements about [moving away from fossil fuels], whereas INEOS is fighting for the last drops,” he says. “They've always bought other people's tech - as they move away from it, INEOS moves in to get that last bit of profit.”
The similarities with INEOS’ approach to sports investments are striking. Sky had paid to build up the cycling team over the course of a decade before INEOS stepped in. Kipchoge’s sub-two-hour marathon piggy-backed off his previous attempt, which Nike had spent years sponsoring. Almost because it’s not well-known, INEOS managed to paint itself as something of a white knight in both cases - a mysterious benefactor, who’d stepped in when help was needed.
This, Sarah Moyes claims, is precisely the problem. “They’ve really tried to push themselves as a completely different company [in recent years],” she says. “But these sponsorship deals shouldn't distract from the pollution, and the problems which are associated with the way INEOS actually makes their money.”