“Football can’t exist in a bubble”: Forest Green leading the way on sustainability

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The top level of the game is only just beginning to address its huge carbon footprint but the League Two club have long made environmental responsibility their ethos

12 November ~ You can imagine the groans at Old Trafford when Manchester United were drawn with Astana of Kazakhstan in their Europa League group but the cost was more than tricky logistics and stiffening muscles. That’s a 6,000-mile round trip and a rough calculation (using myclimate.org) suggests 70 tonnes of CO2 would be spewed into the air. Some context: in 2016, on average UK citizens were responsible for 5.6 tonnes of CO2 emissions per head. Again it is hard to be precise but that round trip accounted for roughly the same as the annual carbon output of 1,400 people in a less developed country such as Chad. I hope it was a good game.

The scheduling is not Manchester United’s fault, of course, and Trabzonspor v Getafe and Sevilla v Qarabag were scheduled on the same evening. Nothing, it seems must get in the way of football’s match schedulers: but as the ice caps melt and the sea rises does Chelsea against Arsenal really have to be played in Baku?

In 2017 Syria’s national team played a 90-minute World Cup qualifier in Australia. That’s an atmosphere-choking 17,500-mile round trip. If you can’t think of an alternative, I would suggest you haven’t grasped the gravity of climate change.

It isn’t just the travelling. Environmental campaigners Friends of the Earth estimate that at least six million single-use plastic cups were binned at Premier League grounds last season. Spokesman Neil Verlander has been asking clubs what they intend to do about it. “Football clubs are hugely influential, and although most of the focus is on what happens on the pitch, their off-field activities can have a tremendous impact too – particularly on the environment. Token effort isn’t good enough – environmental protection should be at the very heart of every club’s thinking.”

There have been encouraging signs. Last month Liverpool became the latest club to introduce reusable cups at their stadium. Leicester, Bournemouth and Manchester City all have schemes operating already. More are expected to join in soon, although there has been a deafening silence from others. Tottenham took advantage of their stadium move to kick off a range of sustainable practices from waste management and locally sourced food to water use and energy efficiency.

In 2015 Arsenal were rightly pilloried for taking a flight to an away game in Norwich, just over 100 miles away. Now they have a claim to be the Premier League’s most environmentally friendly club, working with a green energy supplier to generate and store their own power. They have an internal working group which tries to find new ways of improving the club’s sustainability and, perhaps coincidentally, the most prominent environmental activist footballer is Tesla-driving vegan Héctor Bellerin.

But the real pioneers of environmental responsibility in English football are Forest Green Rovers and their chairman Dale Vince, New Age traveller turned Ecotricity entrepreneur. “Football doesn’t do well enough but I don’t mean that in a harsh sense. It will do more. There’s a sense that it’s early days for football yet. Football and footballers have a big responsibility because people look up to them. I have had people say football shouldn’t get involved in politics but politics is everywhere and football can’t exist in a bubble. Football takes a stand against racism for example, and it can take its other responsibilities seriously as well.”

Forest Green serve only vegan food to their players and fans, use sustainable energy and allow you to plug in your electric car at the stadium. This season they are calculating the cost of their fans travelling to games and incorporating a carbon offset into ticket prices.

Vince admits even FGR have to improve: “Offsetting isn’t a long-term solution but it’s raising the issue. We’re looking to get an electric bus so our players’ travel is zero carbon. The football authorities need to look at three areas: transport, energy use and food. Switching to greener energy is easy. Ideally you generate as much on site as you can using solar panels. It is possible to get vegan foods into grounds. You can ban single-use plastics and have electric charging points.

“Football players are looked up to, so the way they behave is important and we all need to fly less. We have to be zero carbon and we’ve got about ten years if we want to avoid the worst effects of climate change.”

Done smartly and done soon, football becoming sustainable doesn’t have to be grim. No one truly relishes drinking out of a throw-away plastic cup and if public transport works fans will use it. If clubs lead, supporters will follow: Forest Green Rovers have fan clubs in 20 countries, and League Two football really isn’t that good. Jon Driscoll

Friends of the Earth are asking football fans to sign a petition: “Get pointless plastic out of football”

This article first appeared in WSC 393, December 2019. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more here