Sparks

The goal of ecosustainability

 By Davide Perillo

The Telegraph published its manifesto last year with the support of Michael Gove, then Environment Secretary in the May Government. It followed an investigation by the paper into how clubs from the Premier League – the most popular football league in the world – perform when it comes to the environment…

Twelve clubs were studied and ranked based on everything from renewable energy and waste collection, to the safety of their bike parking. The results showed they performed pretty well, but with a lot of room for improvement. Top of the league were Brighton and Tottenham, with Arsenal lagging just behind. Liverpool and Manchester City were in mid-table, while United provided no comment. The Telegraph went on to draw up a six-point action plan for the League: LED floodlights only, no plastic, vegan options at bars and cafés, charging points for electric cars and, if possible, at least two trips by bus instead of by plane to away games every year. Point six was the most important of all: influence. Clubs were asked to do everything they could to spread the eco-friendly message to fans, through signs, posters and initiatives. The reason was simple. As Shaun Spiers, Executive Director of Green Alliance, an environmental think tank, explains, “Football clubs are at the heart of communities and can have a huge influence, not only in what they do themselves to reduce their environmental impact, but in communicating its importance to their fans”. He’s right. The Premier League is the very pinnacle of super-rich world football. It’s watched literally everywhere, beamed into 725 million homes around the globe. Its six most famous clubs have 70 million followers just on Twitter. Whatever the players say or do, their fans are going to know about it. They’ll think about it. And very often, they’ll copy it. The same goes for the sponsors and the advertisers, and always has. There have been public campaigns in football in recent decades. Why not use them to promote care for the environment? Given that three and a half billion people caught at least one match from last year’s World Cup, wouldn’t green football be the perfect way to educate people at the same time as promoting the sport?

Sponsors embrace sustainability

Clubs are getting on board one by one. And they’re changing. The upcoming season will be the most eco-friendly in history. A lot of teams have signed up to Sky Ocean Rescue, a global campaign by the TV channel that holds the rights to the Premier League. Its goal is to kick disposable plastic out of stadiums by 2020, inject £25 million into innovative green projects and, most of all, educate people everywhere, in schools, community centres, clubs and associations. Players and coaches have endorsed it. That’s why you’ll often see the hashtag #PassOnPlastic cropping up in tweets and posts by clubs, or the Ocean Rescue shirt sported at Tottenham by manager Mauricio Pochettino and ace centre-forward Harry Kane. Their club has also announced a ban on plastic at their new stadium. Arsenal player Nacho Monreal, meanwhile, is promoting beer cups that “can be reused up to 200 times.” They get drunk from, washed and used again. This system has been tested at four Gunners matches and will be tried over at West Ham this year. Each more organised than the last, these are milestones on a road that more and more clubs are heading down. To take another example, Man City under Pep Guardiola are supporting the ‘Show the Love’ campaign. They’ve rearranged their training centre, adding a recycling plant that saves them 83% on water and planting two thousand trees. Meanwhile, their rivals at United have signed up to the ‘Parley For the Oceans’ clean-up campaign, an American NGO. The result on the pitch last season was their third kit, made of recycled plastic (and blue in memory of what they were wearing when they beat Benfica in the European Cup final in 1968). Other teams that have deals with Adidas, among them Real Madrid, Juventus and Bayern, have done the same in collaboration with Coral Mouldings, a British recycling giant. The Red Devils have even come up with a slogan, ‘Reds Go Green’, for other eco-friendly campaigns they’re involved in. Rain is now being collected at Old Trafford and used to water the pitch. They take painstaking care when sorting rubbish, and even pick up fans’ leftovers to send to a composting plant.

ecosustainability-world-football
Harry Kane for the #PassOnPlastic campaign, by Sky Ocean Rescue (Sky)

The zero-emission team

Naturally, stadiums are one of the fronts in the battle. Ajax sent shockwaves through many clubs when it installed 4,200 solar panels and a wind turbine at the Amsterdam ArenA, not to mention a storage system that uses recycled batteries to send electricity to the surrounding area. Arsenal, Huddersfield, Newcastle and Brighton are now mostly using renewable energy. But if you want to see the prototype for totally eco-friendly football, you’ve got to look outside the Premier League, and get out in the sticks in both geographical and footballing terms. Nailsworth in Gloucestershire is home to 7,746 people and Forest Green Rovers, who may only be in League Two (fourth division overall) but can lay claim to the title of world’s greenest football club, as proudly stated on their website. This is thanks largely to their chairman Dale Vince, who bought the club in 2011 and got to work straight away moulding it to the principles that he built his fortune on as an entrepreneur. He is the founder of Ecotricity, one of the first green energy companies. Energy is king at his club. It’s entirely renewable, thanks to the 180 solar panels on the roofs of the New Lawn stadium, which seats 5,147. No oil gets used. In the fans’ car park you’ll find charging points for electric cars. Even the robot that keeps the pitch tidy, a self-driving lawnmower named Etesia, is electric. Similarly to the Old Trafford, the stadium grass is watered with rain and free from pesticides. And there’s more. Half of the material for the kits (black and lime-green horizontal stripes) is bamboo. The players are subjected to a rigid vegan diet and fans will only find vegetarian food on offer at the stadium. All this was enough to earn the club a certificate of carbon neutrality, the first in the world for a football team. But it was awarded most of all to set an example. “A lot of our fans have changed their minds on certain issues”, explains Vince. “Some of them have become vegetarian. Some of them have even installed solar panels on their houses”.

ecosustainability-world-football
The uniforms of the 2019/20 season of the Forest Green Rovers team are composed of 50% bamboo (Forest Green Rovers)

Chris Latham jokingly refers to himself as “the world’s first carbon-neutral fan”. He says he “was unaware of the environmental impact of what we put on our plates” and of “how many miles I drove. I’m understanding a lot of things now”. It’s a perfect example of a basic concept. Vince sums it up to The Telegraph. “There is a big tendency in environment circles to preach to the choir. What we do with football is take our message to an entirely new audience”. These are sentiments that, fortunately, we’re hearing more and more elsewhere in the world of football. Real Betis, trading on faded glories but still fighting on in the Spanish Liga, have just announced their new training centre. At 50 hectares, it’s one of the biggest in Europe, but will be completely carbon neutral. Its energy will come from solar panels, rubbish will be recycled, water will be reused and vehicles on site will be electric. In a friendly last season, the players’ shirts (green and white as always) were made mostly from plastic collected at the stadium. This experiment will be repeated in the upcoming season. “It may seem odd to hear a football club talking about these things,” says Antonio Ortega, head of international development of the Betis brand. “But we’ve thought about it a great deal and decided to commit ourselves to it. Football is one of the biggest movers in our society and we want to do our part to improve society”. That much is clear. The next World Cup in Qatar in 2022 could be a showcase for the green path world football has taken. It’s being talked about for a million reasons, not least because it will be played in winter for the first time. But no one’s talking about the 12 plants, nine of them brand new, that will make it carbon neutral. A complex conditioning system will transform solar energy into fresh air. They built a pilot mini stadium with 500 seats in 2016. With an open roof and 44 degrees outside, it was only 26 on the pitch. The emirs are sure it will be the jewel in their World Cup’s crown. Perhaps it will help make the world a better place outside the stadiums too. Only time will tell.

READ MORE: Preparing Qatar for the 2022 World Cup by Nicholas Newman

about the author
Davide Perillo