The world's greenest football club
Modern football is associated with vast levels of (financial) waste, but it seems soccer and sustainability can go hand in hand. Edward Perchard talks to Forest Green Rovers to find out what it takes to run the ‘world’s greenest football club’
Looking at the back pages these days, you’d be forgiven for thinking that football and excess are intrinsically linked. But at Forest Green Rovers, the National League (fifth-tier) side from the small Gloucestershire town of Nailsworth, it’s green by name, green by nature.
Six years ago, Forest Green was in a dire financial situation when Dale Vince, founder and CEO of green energy company Ecotricity, based in nearby Stroud, invested in and subsequently bought the club. Along with Vince’s investment came his environmental ethos, with a focus on sustainability becoming part of the club’s mindset. Even the club’s strip, historically black and white, took on the green theme.
Bruce Cockrean, Head of Sustainability at Ecotricity, which handles the back-office functions for the club, says that the first thing the company did was develop an environmental management system, for which Cockrean is responsible. Forest Green was the first, and so far only, football club to create such a system, which, he says, created the framework for environmental development.
With an average of 1,700 fans travelling to The New Lawn, the club’s ground tucked away in the Cotswolds, there are plenty of opportunities for match day waste. But Cockrean says that procurement and operations are based around optimising resource efficiency. The vast majority of packaging, plates and cutlery at the club’s famously vegan- only food kiosks (a decision based partly on the carbon footprint of meat products, though fans are free to bring non-vegan products with them) are made from recyclable materials and can be recycled, with all waste separated on site. Moreover, locally-produced canola oil is used for cooking, and following use is collected by suppliers and converted into biofuel to power the combine harvesters and other machinery to produce the next batch.
The club even changed kit suppliers in 2014 to one that could provide less packaging waste. Although the new shirt proved to be the most popular ever, Vince pledged to forgo modern football practice and keep it for two years so that fans wouldn’t have to buy a new one every season. The shirt to be launched this year will also last for two seasons, and will carry the logo of marine conservation charity Sea Shepherd.
On the pitch, literally, grass cuttings produced by the club’s electric, solar-powered lawnmower, are separately collected and composted, while the pitch itself is organically treated. Indeed, solar panels on one of the stands (right) and an array located at the entrance to the ground provide about 10 per cent of the energy used at the stadium.
Last season, the club came within 45 minutes of promotion to the Football League, falling in the National League’s play-off final to Grimsby Town. This coming campaign, though, they are the bookies’ favourites to top the division.
Growth both on and off the pitch since Vince arrived at the club has led to ambitious plans that incorporate its operations with those of Ecotricity. A £100-million Eco Park development by the M5 in Gloucestershire is set to house a 100-acre sports and green technology business park that will include a new 5,000-seater stadium, training pitches, public facilities and a sports science hub as well as commercial and industrial units for green businesses and a nature reserve.
Vince has said that with the move the club can aim as high as the Championship, English football’s second tier, and take advantage of a large catchment area for fans in the West. What challenges will the club’s impending growth have on the sustainability effort? “From the point of view of managing the club, it’s the same environmental issues, but on a larger scale”, says Cockrean. “But the real benefit [from the move] is that we can build in solutions from the beginning. So we can design in good practice as opposed to building it in as we go along on an existing carbon footprint. It is an absolutely fantastic opportunity to get it right from the beginning, and those opportunities don’t come along too often.”