An organic pitch, renewable energy and vegan food: the sustainability strategy behind the world’s greenest football club

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2012 was a productive year. The Queen celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. The UK held the Olympic Games. On a personal level, I entered the realms of adulthood: I finished school, began university, met my first long term girlfriend – and Chelsea Football Club became the first London team to win the Champions League.

It was also the year that Forest Green Rovers (FGR) won the IoG Environmental Project/Innovation of the year award. This recognised the club’s extraordinary commitment to sustainability, as the first football club in the world to gain Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS) accreditation, a voluntary commitment to improve environmental performance.

Two years before the award, Dale Vince, the Founder of Ecotricity and Chairman of FGR got involved with the football club for two reasons: social and environmental. The club was financially stricken at the time, and the takeover was a welcome investment in the local community. It also offered Ecotricity the opportunity to bring their sustainable message to a new and somewhat unlikely audience – football fans.

But how did the Paul Polman of the footballing world turn FGR into what FIFA has called ‘the greenest football club in the world’?

1)     Firstly, sustainability was elevated to a core business strategy by top management. Mr Vince has put the environment at the heart of what the club does, claiming that it is “embedded into its DNA.” With objectives to become a zero-carbon club, to improve biodiversity and to reduce the environmental impact of the stadium and grounds management – FGR have bags of ambition.

2)     Secondly, they have embedded green principles into their innovation efforts. Alongside their EMAS accreditation (which has led to reduction in waste and carbon emissions), the club’s organic playing surface, spread using Scottish seaweed, is thought to be the first of its kind in the world. Efforts in this area are further supported by an autonomously driven mower which produces organic mulch that fertilises the pitch as it cuts the grass. FGR’s waste cooking oil is recycled into biofuel, and it is also the first and only football club in the world to serve players and fans vegan food. Chilli sin carne as they say.

3)     Thirdly, Mr Vince has considered green principles in making major decisions. Having implemented as much as possible to make their current stadium properly sustainable, it simply was not built with the environment in mind. Plans have now been unveiled for a new 5,000-seater stadium within an ‘Eco Park’ to be complete later this decade. It will be the first in the world to be made entirely out of sustainable wood.

4)     Finally, the club has integrated sustainability into brand marketing and messaging. Having already had the word ‘green’ in their name made life a little easier, but the first team kit for example has since been coloured accordingly. FGR are proud of their eco-friendly stance and the club is clearly branded as such.

Last year saw the ‘Green Devils’ win promotion to the English Football League for the first time in its history; begging the question as to whether we should all move to a plant-based diet? That’s another debate.

In any case, football and sustainability, in the past, have been regarded as incompatible. Keeping pitches and stadiums running can often end up requiring unsustainable levels of energy, water and raw materials. Yet as with any other form of organisation, sustainability and resource efficiency are rapidly becoming a part of the agenda. Here’s hoping that key footballing organisations such as UEFA and FIFA really start to get their act together in laying down the law and that more club owners take notice of Forest Green Rovers and their path to sustainability and success.