Sport and Sustainability – partners for the long term

This weekend saw Sky and Tottenham Hotspur partner for GameZero, the world’s first major net zero carbon football game, against London rivals Chelsea.

The aim of the game was to raise awareness of the threat of climate change and inspire fans to make simple changes that will help reduce their carbon footprint. Sport takes its toll on the environment; there are questions around the management of major events including sustainable travel policies to get to them; then there’s the disposable nature of the clothing, equipment and packaging surrounding sport, highlighting the need for the selection, integration and use of ethical and recyclable materials. All in all, there’s plenty of work to be done.

Climate Targets

While Tottenham were given a solid 3-0 beating on the pitch, off of it they’ve been named the Premier League’s greenest club following a study carried out by the UN-backed Sport Positive Summit, having implemented a range of sustainable measures across its operations and partnered on a host of climate-focussed initiatives. Sky itself has committed to be a net zero carbon organisation by 2030.

In a wider context, the UK government have set a net-zero carbon target by 2050 to combat climate change. Given all that needs to happen and the increasing awareness of the scale of the problem, the sustainability sector is going to boom over the next few years, with employment opportunities spread around the UK. The Guardian, reporting on analysis from kMatrix, said:

The UK’s low carbon economy is now worth more than £200bn, almost four times the size of the country’s manufacturing sector, with growth expected to accelerate in the coming years.

For athletes, many of whom are in tune with the social zeitgeist and often want to find a purpose-driven career beyond their sporting days, sustainability could be a good option. Here are some ways that athletes and organisations are already working in sustainability:

Nico Rosberg

F1 driver Nico Rosberg announced his retirement from motor racing five days after clinching the title. He’s since gone on to dedicate himself to supporting sustainability causes by backing green technologies and mobility startups, including the electric Formula E and he also founded the Greentech festival in 2019, which drew over 40,000 guests in its first year, to promote green and sustainable technology.

Rosberg says that while winning in F1 was “absolutely awesome,” he always felt it had been missing purpose and meaning and that’s what he’s found with his work in sustainability.

“I’m loving it, I’m energized, motivated. … I hope to contribute to the lives of many, but also even in a small detail for me personally, to my kids … I have two young daughters of 3 and 5, and I wish to inspire them as well with my legacy, this is what I’m trying to do,” he said.

Sports Stadia

In 2018, Ajax and Arsenal both installed battery storage systems at their stadiums.

Ajax’s stadium began using solar panels and used electric vehicle batteries from Nissan to cut its CO2 output by more than 115,000 tonnes and feed surplus energy back into the grid. Arsenal became the first Premier League club to install a battery storage system to provide revenue for the club and renewable energy for the region, while supporting the UK’s climate goals.

Edward Sargent, director of business development at the system’s designers Pivot Power said:

“In very simple terms, the battery in the Emirates Stadium is the same type of battery as in a mobile phone. It’s a lithium-ion battery that can be charged up with electricity and then will release that electricity when it is called for. Sporting venues have a relatively unique configuration in that they have large amounts of power capacity available for fixtures but a lot of the time that capacity is not used. Utilisation of this ‘spare capacity’ is a source of potential revenue for the venue and, more importantly, a source of storage potential for renewable energy in the region.”

Forest Green Rovers

In 2017, FIFA described Forest Green Rovers as ‘the greenest football club in the world’, certified as carbon neutral by the United Nations.

Owned by green energy entrepreneur Dale Vince, the club has introduced a range of sustainability-oriented measures and innovations including:

  • Using 100% green energy from Ecotricity, some from solar panels on the stadium roof.
  • A fully vegan menu during the week and on matchday.
  • Playing on an organic pitch free from pesticides and weed killers.
  • Cutting the grass with a GPS-directed, solar-powered lawnmower.
  • Collecting rainwater to irrigate the pitch rather than using mains water.
  • Providing electric car charge points at the stadium.
  • Trialling a kit made from coffee bean waste from PlayerLayer.

Forest Green are hoping to add an electric team bus is in the pipeline and have plans for an eco-friendly stadium made from wood. They’re also great people, as evidenced from our chat with team captain Jamille Matt back in the summer!

Dale Vince said about sport’s role in sustainability,

“I think in football we are seeing some great examples of players stepping up and using their platform. Players have a great ability to influence people. There is an enormous opportunity that sport has and a bigger responsibility because people look up to sporting icons and take their lead from them.”

Hylo Athletics

Co-founded by former pro footballer Michael Doughty, sustainable sportswear brand Hylo Athletics aim to reinvent sports shoes and push for new standards in an industry that has been slow to do anything about its environmental footprint.

Michael Doughty spoke to us about the GameZero initiative, saying:

“Super Sunday is a huge part of the football fan weekend and has been throughout my life. And Premier League games don’t come much bigger than Spurs against Chelsea. It’s great to see climate issues being spoken about on such a big stage.

I really hope that the steps taken by all involved in this event start to become the norm up and down the football pyramid.

Because football needs to protect itself from the climate crisis. It is reliant on nature and the environment. The game needs two things: to inspire a mindset shift and, secondly, take meaningful steps in changing the way it harms the environment it takes place in.

At Hylo, we believe that can happen across sport. It’s the reason I quit football – to use sport to make and inspire change.”

Hylo shoes use seven natural materials and when a customer is done with their trainers, they buy them back and turn the fabrics into compost to be used in the next generation of Hylo shoes. They are building a team of athletes, including Leeds United star Patrick Bamford, who are as passionate about their planet as they are about their performance.

What’s next

When the world ground to a halt in 2020, sport continued showed how important it is for us as a society and how powerful a position athletes hold in setting the conversation. We’ve seen through individual and collective action from our sportspeople what can be achieved and that the changes they can make are very real.

Sustainability could make for an amazing new career for athletes who want to work on an important problem in their next stage of life. If this appeals to you, don’t hesitate to get in touch and we can connect you with an education partner or an employer who can kickstart that journey for you.