Competitive Sustainability with the Forest Green Rovers
Sports are a hot topic in the exclusive “Blue Zone” at COP26, with executives from a range of clubs and governing bodies set to discuss urgent changes that facilitate greener sporting events and more sustainable stadiums. The “Sports for Climate Action” UNFCCC panel has 256 signatories and should yield interesting insights; but in elite sports every little edge counts, and it’s hard to justify a losing streak with one’s carbon footprint reduction. A key figure in these talks is Dale Vince, owner of “FIFA World’s Greenest Football Club” the Forest Green Rovers, to show by example that performance and sustainability are not mutually exclusive. In the highly emotional world of sports, a poorly executed greenwash could quickly turn into a managerial bloodbath.
Sustainability is central to everything we do at Forest Green Rovers. From solar panels and electric vehicle charging…
Vince’s mission at Forest Green since 2009 has been “to create a truly sustainable football club — somewhere we can demonstrate sustainable thinking and technology to a new and passionate audience”. Before this, he founded Britain’s largest green energy company Ecotricity in 1991, and has since amassed a fortune in excess of £100m. Other fun facts include his heated battles with Elon Musk over electric vehicles, and his latest side hustle called “Skydiamond” that, as the name suggests, sustainably forges diamonds from thin air. These innovative business and environmental practices brought FGR from the brink of relegation and bankruptcy to 1st place in English Football League 2, and in the process have captured the admiration of global football and climate fans alike.
“We’re bringing together football and environmental consciousness in a way no other football club in the world is doing right now. We’re the first club on the planet to be certified carbon neutral by the United Nations, and FIFA have described us as the greenest football club in the world. And it’s working.”
It sure is. And that puts Dale in a position of genuine authority during these discussions. Success and sustainability are at best equally important for elite sports organizations.
In his recent podcast with The Athletic, Vince dials in from Glasgow where he is attending, and de facto leading, the sustainability in sports talks at COP26. He believes that football, and sport in general, provides an incredible platform to engage a wider audience about the climate crisis. As a starting point, the kinds of food served and advertised at sporting events are quite counterintuitive considering the focus on athletic performance. We often see Coca Cola, McDonalds, Papa Johns and others sponsoring major competitions filled with burgers, popcorn, and beverage concession stands:
“Where’s the association between that product and performance on the pitch in the sport that we’re watching?” — Dale Vince
This was Forest Green Rangers first major green implementation — the stadium banned single-use plastics, installed robust recycling and composting processes, and most importantly: went 100% vegan. This bold move was increasingly accepted by fans, if not by away managers, particularly as FGR players began to adopt and promote healthy diets. Soon after, electric car chargers popped up for fans, staff, and players, as did solar panels on stadium rooftops that provide 20% of the stadiums required energy. The rest is sourced from a nearby wind farm owned by Vince, which works out nicely to say the least. The solar-powered lawnmower robot, cleverly named “Mowbot”, has also made several headlines:
Their current stadium the “New Lawn” seats just over 5000 fans, and boasts an organic pitch free of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Under the pitch, rainwater and irrigation capture mechanism are set up to recycle runoff water from the grounds. In conjunction with the local municipality, Vince lead the initiative to create wildlife areas on the edge of the stadium area. I also enjoyed learning that their jerseys are partially made from recycled materials including bamboo and coffee beans.
And now to the bottom line. Forest Green Rangers carbon footprint is: 32.7 tonnes, which is less than the typical U.S. household at 48 CO2e/yr. That’s an enormous achievement!
One may note that “Fan Away Travel” is marked as 0 for 2020, which is a pandemic-specific occurrence. Dale repeatedly emphasizes the room for improvement in the travel department. The first carbon-neutral Premier League match between Chelsea and Tottenham was a big step in the right direction in terms of publicizing the issues and subsidizing bicycles for fans, but should probably have used electric busses instead of biodiesel.
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More critically, the strain of fixture congestion against the desire for peak performance leads to situations like Manchester United’s 10 minute fight to Leicester City just a few weeks ago. I wouldn’t want to be the one telling Cristiano Ronaldo that his ice bath may not be worth the carbon footprint, especially in the form Man Utd have been on. Perhaps the situation could have been avoided with more careful planning, perhaps not; the result against Leicester was the only thing in sight.
Participant and fan travel is a logistical reality of any large-scale event, that Vince believes can only be addressed from first principles. “From an environmental point of view, 75 per cent of the carbon footprint of all stadia in their entire lifetime comes from the materials they’re made from. It’s not about the energy used to run them, it’s embedded on day one.”
With this in mind, Dale has set out with world-renowned architectural practice Zaha Hadid to create: EcoPark. The premises will be almost entirely built from timber, with considerations for fan movement and travel logistics. I look forward to visiting this stadium one day as a “Green Devil”!
Dale is now helping other clubs implement his FGR blueprint as part of the EFL Green Club Scheme. On the podcast, he made a very interesting comment about his thoughts during the meetings in October:
“It’s pretty convenient actually that I’m here today talking to these clubs about sustainability in football and we’re sat top of the league; because if we were in a relegation battle, the clubs will be going yeah that’s all very well but when you took your eye off the football, look what happened. So, it helps!”
And this is the crux of what I call “Competitive Sustainability”, or the alignment of conditions for competition and conservation. Jurgen Klopp says Liverpool’s head of nutrition Mona Nemmer was “one of my most important signings”, and though I myself am not vegan, agree that a healthy food system aligns with both personal and planetary goals. Dale Vince’s vision of the future is quite extraordinary, and I look forward to the impact his current efforts at COP26 will have on the future of sports.