Football wields immense power to inspire and influence millions of people across the globe. In recent years following media, governmental and fan pressure, the sport has increasingly embraced sustainability initiatives to actively address its environmental impact. While there have been commendable steps taken towards achieving net-zero emissions, there are also challenges that still need to be confronted. It is time to take stock of what is working well in football’s sustainability journey, the hurdles it still faces, and how communicating progress is vital for football to get right.
A deeper understanding of the challenge
The magnitude of the environmental challenge confronting football becomes particularly apparent when considering its vast scale. With an extensive network of fixtures and an enormous global fanbase, football’s reach extends far beyond the pitch. The scale of the industry – encompassing teams, leagues, and infrastructure – underscores the urgency of implementing sustainable practices at every level. But let’s start with the good stuff.
In recent years, there has been a notable shift towards more eco-friendly stadiums. Forest Green Rovers – playing its football in League Two – established the world’s first organic pitch in 2011 and the club has installed 180 solar panels for electricity generation. The ground also incorporates a drainage system that recycles water into energy. In the Premier League, Tottenham Hotspur’s stadium boasts 100 percent renewable energy certification with zero scope two emissions. And Arsenal – its rival – has implemented LED lights, waterless toilets, and a revamped BMS system. Even mammoth venues can be built and operated sustainably.
Player and fan engagement
Football players are increasingly using their platform to raise awareness about the importance of environmentalism. Recently, for example, Theo Walcott, Southampton’s midfielder, advocated for collective action to protect the planet. Walcott emphasised the importance of starting small by encouraging the younger generation to adopt eco-friendly habits – such as turning off lights and electronic devices when not in use. Similarly, Women’s World Cup players put the spotlight on the climate crisis by committing to acting on the flights taken to and from Australia and New Zealand for the tournament. By leveraging their influence and popularity footballers can inspire positive change and encourage a wider audience to take climate action.
But unfortunately, it’s far from a wholly rosy picture.
Lack of honesty
The 2022 Qatar World Cup promoted itself as carbon neutral – with recyclable stadiums and carbon offsetting. But earlier this year it was found that FIFA’s claims of carbon neutrality had misled the public. The World Cup is estimated to have generated as much as 10 million tons of carbon dioxide – around the same as the annual carbon emissions of Jamaica. The situation is no rosier with this year’s Women’s World Cup. In fact, organisers have not publicly outlined any specific emission reduction target. This is a step backwards when it comes to ambition, transparency, and quantifying the environmental impact of large sports tournaments.
Turning a blind eye to travel
A critical facet often overlooked is the issue of team travel. As teams prioritise the comfort of their multi-million-pound assets, unsustainable travel methods often dominate. Earlier this year, BBC Sport research found evidence of 81 individual short-haul domestic flights made by Premier League teams to and from 100 matches during a two-month sample period in early 2023. The study also shined a light on ‘positioning’ flights – where near-empty planes are flown to convenient airports, sometimes across the UK, in order to then transport players and staff to fixtures.
And FIFA’s sustainability report does not mention fan travel. The Women’s World Cup is taking place around 9,000 miles away from Europe – which is supplying 12 of the 30 non-hosting sides.
The power of communication
Football clubs that actively communicate their green initiatives demonstrate a commitment to responsible citizenship and position themselves as role models for supporters. It helps to foster a positive brand image. On the other hand, football clubs that disregard green initiatives risk facing public backlash and reputational damage. This negative perception could also extend to potential sponsorships and partnerships – hindering a club’s growth and economic opportunities.
While un-environmentally sponsors do persist in football – the wheel is turning, and companies are becoming increasingly interested in associating with environmentally responsible organisations. Communicating green initiatives can attract new sponsors, thereby providing financial support.
With the global shift towards environmental consciousness, fans expect their clubs to be responsible. Failure to take concrete steps towards sustainability can lead to disillusionment and disapproval among supporters – particularly among the younger generation.
A final word
By communicating and actively implementing green initiatives, football clubs can lead by example and inspire supporters, sponsors, and other organisations to prioritise sustainability. The benefits of enhancing brand image, engaging a wider audience, attracting sponsorships, and ensuring long-term profitability outweigh any initial challenges faced in implementing green measures.
The road to a greener future is one worth taking for football clubs. By stepping up to the challenge, embracing sustainable practices, and shouting about it for people to hear – football can play a vital role in protecting the planet for future generations while allowing them to enjoy a host of benefits off the field.