Sustainability & football - can climate action get real?

Sustainability & football - can climate action get real?

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What has football got to do with climate change? After all, football is The Beautiful Game. The objective is simple; to kick (or head) the ball into the goal more times than your opponents. You can play the game just about anywhere: all you need is a flat surface, a ball and jumpers for goalposts! It’s a global sport and many people simply fall in love with a team at a young age that they follow for the rest of their lives.

When football is described in this way, it is easy to be dismissive of how climate change could be affected by the game. Once a bit more thought is given however, we can see how the big business of football is far from ideal from a sustainability perspective:

  • The stadium the professional clubs play in may lack renewable energy generation and storage options. 
  • The kits that teams wear may contain polyester and/or microplastics. 
  • Sponsors and/or owners may be engaged in fossil fuel based activities and may only be involved in the sport for greenwashing purposes. 
  • Food served to fans and players may contain products responsible for high carbon emissions (beef). 
  • Travel options used by teams and fans may be reliant on fossil fuels. 

A successful football club focused on sustainability

With so much to change and so many stakeholders, you would be forgiven for thinking that this is too big a task to undertake. Classic change management theory would suggest that a change agent and change sponsor are necessary components. Remarkably enough, these components do exist within football and all within one club: Forest Green Rovers!

The background on why the club has done this rests on one person alone and that is the owner, Dale Vince, the founder of Ecotricity.  Mr Vince founded Ecotricity from a single windmill in Gloucestershire in 1995. The firm, which has a turnover of £300m, now supplies renewable energy to an estimated 200,000 homes and businesses across Britain and employs more than 800 people. It pioneered Britain's first megawatt scale windmill and solar project - and making green gas from grass is the company's latest renewable energy innovation. While Mr Vince has recently stepped down from his role at Ecotricity, he continues his work at Forest Green Rovers, where:

  • The club has Implemented power generation through solar panels as well as getting further supply from Ecotricity’s green energy.
  • The pitch is free of chemical fertilisers or pesticides.
  • The club has charging points for electric cars, an electric van for the kit man and is set to use an electric bus for the team’s travel.
  • The kit is made with a composite of waste coffee grounds and recycled plastic.
  • The pitchside adverts celebrate brands associated with sustainable living.
  • The club has all-vegan menus for the team as well as fans.
  • There are plans for a new all-timber stadium.

Some of these initiatives, like the vegan menu, appear to have received more resistance than others but ultimately the naysayers were won round. All of these efforts when combined with sporting success (through promotion) have contributed to widespread recognition, which can turn into a virtuous circle. With so many sustainable initiatives, it is perhaps not a surprise that the United Nations has certified Forest Green Rovers as the world’s first carbon-neutral club.

Which begs the question: if a League One club (the third tier of English football) can have this much impact, then what could happen if the whole of football stood up for climate action?

Communicating climate action through football

Football (and sport) is often used to project certain political messages. The Camp Nou, the stadium used by FC Barcelona, was considered to be a refuge where Catalan could be spoken freely without fear of punishment when it was banned by General Franco, the Spanish dictator, who incidentally made it clear that Real Madrid, currently the winner of the greatest number of Champions League titles, was his favoured team. In recent decades, the Champions League has risen to the status of being the most prestigious football competition. While UEFA (the governing body in charge of the Champions League) has often shied away from substantial actions to punish clubs when racist incidents have taken place (UEFA often fines these clubs a pittance relative to their earnings), perhaps its most enduring collaborative exercise against racism is the “No to racism” campaign.

More recently, the kneeling gesture popularised as a way of communicating dissent/protest by Colin Kaepernick (an American Football player) crossed over into the UK as part of a Black Lives Matter campaign and was supported by the Premier League. This resulted in players of all Premier League teams kneeling before the start of each game to signify their commitment to combat racism. It was derided by some  as simply “gesture politics” but one might argue that by highlighting the issue it brought into focus how big an issue racism remains. Ultimately, the regular repetition of the act before every game meant it lost its potency, so the players believe, and they have consequently decided to only kneel at significant moments during the season. The lesson here for climate activists could be that an act which simply becomes part of the pre-match routine will not be enough to change behaviours.

So what should the fight against climate change look like when it is articulated by the football family? One simple way may be to replicate as much as possible from the Forest Green Rovers playbook (i.e. leading by example through genuine #climateaction and not education alone) but this relies on a key decision maker at each club to have significant overlap with Mr Vince’s values and beliefs. That seems unlikely if we only consider the decisions being made at other clubs. While it is possible that an increasing number of people may be emboldened by Forest Green Rovers’ success, one could be forgiven for thinking that wholesale changes are unlikely unless forced by higher authorities. With the Government willing to sanction the purchase of Newcastle United Football Club by Public Investment Fund from Saudi Arabia (with all of the complex political, economic and environmental implications), we may also consider that the Government’s focus on NetZero may face the occasional “distraction”.

Consequently, we are left with a patchwork of initiatives from clubs and fans:

  • To tie in with COP26, Tottenham Hotspur teamed up with Sky to make the Spurs game against Chelsea (dubbed #GameZero) the first elite level net zero carbon emissions game. Read the case study here.
  • The Premier League has signed up to the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework, which brings together sports organisations from all over the world to achieve climate change goals. As part of this commitment, the Premier League as an organisation aims to reduce 50 per cent of its own emissions by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2040, in line with the 1.5ºC global warming limit of the 2015 Paris Agreement. Read more here.
  • There continues to be increasing reporting around the value of vegan diets for footballers wishing to avoid injuries / reduce inflammation. Footballers such as Hector Bellerin, Sergio Aguero and even Lionel Messi have been mentioned!
  • Noticing a gap in measures from clubs, a number of fan groups such as Planet League have attempted to educate others on the need for climate change through small lifestyle changes.
  • Regular readers will be aware that #ShowYourStripes collection from Pomp bears the warming stripes developed by Prof. Ed Hawkins of Reading University.

Sustainable #Showyourstripes hoodie from Pomp

    • The stripes have now made their way onto the shirt sleeves of Reading Football Club!

These are all steps in the right direction but questions remain. Will the world of football, and indeed sporting events in general, ever be able to make the transition to a more universal sustainability? Can football teams and leagues make a true impact beyond these opening gambits, some of which could be considered token gestures? Or does the big business of football just get in the way?

Dear Reader, you may think that these steps are not enough. You may also simultaneously think that we have not covered everything so please let us know in the comments what we have missed!

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