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Sustainability and football: why the beautiful game is getting a green makeover

Ruth Styles

3rd August, 2011

In the second part of our sport and environment mini-series, Ruth Styles reports on the efforts some football clubs are making to turn the sport into an eco-friendly one, although there's still plenty to do

With everything from sex scandals to corruption allegations, the last six months haven’t been kind to the national game. Scandalous behaviour and Sepp Blatter aside, football remains one of the most lucrative – and most watched – games on the planet. But popularity has come with a price and it’s the environment that’s paying it. When the new season kicks off next weekend, some 700,000 fans will make the trip to one of the UK’s 40,000 clubs where they’ll watch a game played on emerald-green grass maintained using gallons of water, fertiliser and pesticides under floodlights in a power-hungry glass and steel stadium. Many will also head to one of the stadium’s cafes for a half time burger or pie, most of which will be mass produced. When they leave, it’s likely to be by car, or if it’s a long distance away game, by plane. With everything from food to transport included, the average Premier League football match creates an estimated 820 tonnes of carbon. That’s an awful lot of pie and chips. 

For a sport widely seen as caring about little that goes on outside of the game, the last five years have seen a quiet revolution with everything from footballer’s lifestyles to watering the training pitches coming under increasing scrutiny from green groups. To its credit, football has begun to rise to the challenge with clubs making credible efforts to reduce their environmental impact. One of the pioneers is Forest Green Rovers, which is owned by Ecotricity founder, Dale Vince. ‘I play football every week and Forest Green Rovers were on the verge of bankruptcy,’ says Vince by way of explanation for his foray into football. ‘’They have 100 years of history and are a big local employer but it was also a great opportunity to take the environmental message to a wider audience.’ And that, in a nutshell, is exactly why green groups are so keen to get involved in football. With a global audience of 1.15 billion tuning into matches every week, there’s no better way to get the message across than to encourage a little greenery in the sport – and that’s exactly what Vince is planning via his foundation, Sustainability in Sport.

Renewable energy

Formally launched at Neville’s Old Trafford testimonial match in May, Sustainability in Sport was founded by Gary Neville and Dale Vince with the aim of making all sport – not just football – more eco-friendly. First on the list was the testimonial match itself, which was powered by renewable energy from Ecotricity’s 52 wind turbines. But the duo have bigger aims in mind over and above fuelling a single football match, with plans in the pipeline that include working with commercial organisations to raise funds for the installation of renewable energy technology and low-impact infrastructure at grassroots clubs, and persuading clubs at all levels to rethink the ways in which they source and use power. And it’s not just power they have in their sights either. Sustainability in Sport also encourages the use of low-carbon transport, rainwater harvesting systems and solar panelling, all intended to reduce football’s carbon footprint. What’s more, they also plan to use it as a vehicle for spreading the green message to a wider audience, with Neville commenting that: ‘Sport is such a powerful [vehicle for change]. If Manchester United want to get a message across in something, they will do, they have that power, and so do the Premier League.’

But while Vince and Neville are championing the cause of all things green, what about the clubs themselves? Here too, there are some encouraging signs. ‘Football clubs are expensive to run and often lose money,’ says Bristol City’s CSR director, Pete Smith. ‘Reducing our utility bills [by using less power] is important to make us more sustainable financially. Secondly we take a huge amount of pride in our community work and social responsibility is important to us. Football clubs are not normal businesses driven solely by profit; we are part of the fabric of Bristol and the South West. We may not be able to save the world on our own but we are determined to do out bit.’ ‘Doing their bit’ Bristol City style means a new stadium heated by a biomass boiler, rainwater harvesting facilities and eight acres of wetland habitat making up part of the grounds.

Other, bigger clubs are playing their part too with Chelsea’s CSR director, Simon Taylor, taking home first prize at the People and Environment [PEA] Awards in the Sustainability in Sport category. How did he do it? By kicking off a wave of initiatives covering everything from a grass roof for the training ground to using rainwater on the pitches. ‘We’re setting an example that other clubs could and should follow, with many initiatives which include harvesting rainwater for reuse on the pitch,’ he commented. ‘We have a major Premier League club and sports brand giving a leadership signal that others will follow.’ Arsenal too have introduced a wealth of green initiatives including recycling all paper, cardboard and printer cartridges at their training ground, introducing greener LED floodlights at the Emirates Stadium and encouraging all members of staff to use public transport. While you aren’t too likely to bump into Robin van Persie on the tube, some of his colleagues, Neville included, are doing their bit to introduce a bit of greenery to their daily lives.

Zero carbon

His zero carbon eco-mansion might have been the subject of much mockery from certain sections of the press who likened it to the set of the Tellietubbies children’s TV show, but Gary Neville is one of a growing number of footballers putting their money where their mouth is on green issues. Likewise, while Neville’s club colleague Rio Ferdinand might seem like no ones idea of a green guru; the Manchester United defender recently had an ‘energy fitness audit’ at his home and is now planning to build a carbon neutral residence in Surrey for his retirement. ‘It's about the future,’ he said in an interview with the Guardian. 'Natural disasters, sea levels, ice melting, fires… people have to understand that's down to humans. Governments need to let the public know how we can become energy self-sufficient.’ Footballers might seem unlikely role models at times but according to Vince and Smith, that’s exactly what they are. ‘Our strength is that we can get messages over to our fans and especially children,’ says Smith. ‘Football clubs and players can act as role models for such projects and boost awareness relatively easily.’

In the meantime, the mantle of role model has fallen to Vince’s club Forest Green Rovers who are taking sustainability to levels not seen elsewhere in the game, with even the pitch going organic. ‘We’re seeking the Soil Association stamp of approval for that,’ enthuses Vince, ‘and we’re also looking at installing a borehole for spring water. We already have a drain to collect the run-off from the pitch, so we’ll be able to use a mixture of recycled water, rainwater and springwater on it.’ And that’s not all. The club are also working on installing LED floodlights and are hoping to get planning permission for ground-mounted solar panels, which will be put where the fans can see them, because as Vince puts it: ‘we want fans to get up close and personal with them.’ Vince has even changed the menu, dispensing with the usual pies and chips and replacing them with something considerably healthier. ‘The stuff we used to feed people was so grim,’ he remembers. 'We’re working towards making all the food local and organic and towards a Soil Association Gold Standard.' We’ve done away with mass produced food to show that sport really can be greener.’

Messaging

Between Ferrari-driving players and ridiculously high power use, football as a whole still has a long way to go but the signs are good. The 2010 World Cup created a whopping 2.8 million tonnes of carbon, the equivalent of making 20 cheeseburgers for every single person in the UK. But while the antics of players and the undoubtedly high environmental impact of match days will continue to raise eyebrows, there’s no denying that football can be a real force for environmental good – not just in terms of what it does for itself, but in terms of getting the message across to billions of fans. ‘I think sport can have a big role [in promoting a greener lifestyle] but in truth, professional sport probably hasn’t done enough to date,’ says Smith. ‘Professional sport often concentrates on issues around health and education but there is unquestionably a growing awareness of the environment.’ ‘I think using football to get the message out there is really important,’ comments Vince. ‘Football fans are an attentive audience who love their clubs. If those clubs can say they’ve got solar panels, don’t use red meat in menus and so on, it gives [those things] credibility. Forest Green Rovers fans are already getting involved.’ And that, in a nutshell, is why efforts to green the beautiful game need to be taken seriously.

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