On Sunday the new football season kicks off, and my husband and I will be tuning in for the traditional curtain raiser, the Community Shield. But while Matthias will be focused on whether his beloved Arsenal can get one over on Chelsea, it won’t just be the goals that are at the forefront of my mind.
Lost in the welter of transfer news, stories of footballers behaving badly, and glamourous WAG photo shoots is the question of the environmental impact of the game. How much carbon does the fixture emit? Do they recycle their waste? Do any footballers actually care about the environment? Are some teams greener than others?
Green facts about football aren’t easy to find, but the Carbon Trust undertook a useful study of the 2013 FA Community Shield game between Wigan and Manchester United. It estimated that 5,160 tonnes of CO2 were produced, 5,000 tonnes of which were from travel to and from the game. You’d have to recycle 550 tonnes of aluminium to offset that.
Admittedly, it’s an unusual game, attended by 80,000 people rather than the 36,000 average for the Premier League, and with many fans of both teams having to travel down to London from the North West. But there are 380 top flight games each season – and 550 games in each of the next three divisions, along with cup and European matches. All in all, we’re talking about some significant emissions, especially for clubs with poor public transport links.
Once inside the stadium, the impacts continue. Floodlights, heating, cooling and ventilation all require energy, which the Carbon Trust estimated produced 60 tonnes of CO2 at the 2013 Community Shield game. Surprisingly, the fans’ penchant for burgers and pies had an even greater impact, with their carbon intensive meat content accounting for a further 75 tonnes of CO2.
Football is also a thirsty game, not just in terms of fans’ beer consumption. A Crystal Palace groundsman revealed to the Guardian that the pitch can need 15,000 litres of water – equivalent to a small swimming pool – on a match day during drier times of year. That’s a worry, especially in the increasingly dry South East.
Then there’s the waste. Cardiff University estimated that an FA cup match held at the Millennium stadium generated 59 tonnes of waste – more than 50 years’ worth for the average Cardiff household in just a couple of hours.
If its environmental impacts are nearly as inflated as players’ salaries, what is the football industry doing about it?
Some bigger clubs are taking steps in the right direction. Manchester United, for example, holds a number of eco-standards, including ISO14001 for its environmental management system, ISO20121 for event management sustainability, and the Carbon Trust Standard for Energy Efficiency and Carbon Reduction. They recycle rain water for pitch irrigation, operate a comprehensive recycling scheme and have even worked with Chester Wildlife Trust to create a nature reserve near their Carrington training ground. Some clubs are even more innovative: Aston Villa collect rainwater falling on the stadium for use on their nearby allotment, which in turn supplies food to the club’s on-site restaurant.
These cases, however, appear to be the exception rather than the rule. Several Premier League clubs have little or no environmental information on their websites. Even where clubs are managing their direct impacts, the biggest emitter of carbon – transport – receives at best a cursory mention in a policy document. ‘Promoting alternative forms of transport’ seems rarely to go further than providing a little information on public transport.
Perhaps the lack of environmental action reflects indifference amongst the game’s governing bodies. The story here is not one of complete inaction: at international level, recent world cup hosts have had green plans in place, though of questionable effectiveness. In England, even the basics appear to be lacking.
In 2007 the Premier League worked with consultancy ‘Beyond Green’ to produce an environmental ‘starter pack’ for stadium managers. That’s great as far as it goes, but it’s unclear how much influence it has had. Neither the Premier League nor the Football Association websites have any reference to sustainability or the environment, so they don’t seem to be actively promoting their green thinking at present. If we are to believe that people are led by example, it’s not that surprising that the environment isn’t seen as a footballing priority by most clubs, players or fans.
Fruits of the forest
To find the real champions of sustainability in football, you have to look five rungs down the football league system to a small team in the South West of England: Forest Green Rovers of the Conference Premier league. They aren’t just green by name – sustainability is core to the club’s mission, and their efforts are already bearing fruit.
Their vision is in the main attributable to owner and chairman Dale Vince, who is also founder and chief executive of the renewable energy company Ecotricity. Vince, a former new-age traveller, makes sustainability a high priority in all of his business ventures. The football club is explicitly intended as a way to convey his green message: part of the club’s vision is:
‘To reduce environmental impacts to as close to zero as possible, and to use football as a ‘new channel’ to bring sustainability to all walks of life, engaging with a new, large and passionate audience.’
Based just a couple of miles south of Ecotricity’s head office in Stroud, Gloucestershire, Rovers were struggling financially and on the field when Vince took over in 2010. Since then, a string of mid table finishes have brought them some much-needed stability, and they’ve taken on some significant environmental projects. Progress towards their ambitious targets is tracked in the ‘FGR Footprint Report’ – a refreshingly transparent document that reflects both on their impressive achievements and the remaining room for improvement.
So how is Forest Green different from the average club? Here are few examples:
- The club uses Ecotricity as its energy supplier, ensuring that its electricity is backed by renewable energy certificates;
- It has installed solar PV on site to ensure it supplies some of its own renewable energy.
- Players’ fitness regime includes a meat-free diet;
- All food sold in the stadium is vegetarian and locally sourced where possible and in November 2014 it held what is claimed to be the world’s first vegan football match, with support from Paul and Stella McCartney;
- Only rain and reclaimed water is used on the pitch, and is pesticide and chemical-free.
- The car park has electric vehicle charge points;
- Urinals are water-free;
- They aim to reduce waste to landfill down to 5%.
- Local biodiversity is being supported through wildflower planting in spare land on the site;
- They have built an eco-education centre to publicise the changes that have been made at the club, and cultivate enthusiasm for green living amongst supporters, and created an ‘eco-trail’ around the stadium that explains the measures that have been installed, such as the PV panels, the electric charge points, and the wildflower planting.
FGR is bringing green issues to the forefront, and helping supporters translate sustainable living into their own lives. It’s impossible not to be impressed by the effort and commitment of the club. Their model is one that many vastly more wealthy clubs could easily aspire to equal, or even exceed.
However, culturally the environment still seems to be a blip at the outer edge of football’s radar, and there seems to be little pressure to improve being applied from within the game.
One way to motivate clubs to change could be through their players, who have a huge potential to influence how fans of all ages view the importance of the environment. Two well-known former England players, Gary Neville and David James, are rare high-profile advocates of sustainability, and it would be great to see them lending their support to green projects. They could also help enlist the support of current stars, whose ‘role model’ status for kids would be an even more powerful driver of change.
If anyone has Lionel Messi’s phone number, I have a great idea to pitch him for an anti-litter campaign…