Walking the Talk
Football as a Force for Good? Meet the Forest Green Rovers

The Rovers are proving that the popularity of sport, even at lower levels, offers a unique opportunity to spread key sustainability messages to the masses.

The NFL season may be upon us, but it is the ‘football’ (US readers, note: The word ‘football’ here refers to soccer) made famous on the other side of the Atlantic that continues to soar in popularity — and one club is using its power for good.

The most recent football World Cup, held in Russia last summer, was watched by more than half of the world’s population, with 3.5 billion people tuning in to watch some or all of it on their TVs and smartphones. Meanwhile, this year's women’s World Cup final, which saw a dominant US team defeat the Netherlands earlier this month, was something of a watershed moment for TV viewing figures. More than 15 million viewers tuned in, with the FOX audience (13.98 million) eclipsing that of its men’s final audience the previous summer.

Such popularity continues to drive pay-per-view TV sales, as well as the profits of companies that pour sponsorship money into the sport. Half of the 20 teams in the English Premier League, considered to be the best in the world, carry kit sponsorship of a gambling company.

Aside from regular anti-racism campaigns and efforts to promote LGBT+ inclusion in sport, football’s huge captive audience is rarely leveraged for pushing messages for social and environmental good.

There is one club looking to change that. You almost certainly won’t have heard of them, especially if you live outside of the UK: Forest Green Rovers play in the third tier of English football. The club was founded in 1889 and plays its matches at The New Lawn stadium in Gloucestershire, a two-hour drive from London.

Described by the world governing body, FIFA, as “the greenest football club in the world,” Rovers won a prestigious United Nations award last year in recognition of becoming a carbon-neutral business. At the stadium, the club has gone further than most to reduce its impacts — with an organic pitch, electric car chargers, solar panels, and even a solar-powered robot lawnmower.

A trip to the New Lawn stadium is something of showground for green living. All of the food concession stands feature an entirely vegan menu — with veggie burgers, pies, fries and plant-based chicken-style nuggets on offer. In fact, Vince owns another business — Devil’s Kitchen — a vegan food company that supplies schools and local authorities with plant-based options produced at a facility close to Rovers’ ground.

Alongside the aforementioned solar panels, which currently supply 10 percent of the stadium’s electricity needs, the pitch is fed with a mixture of rain, drains and spring water, and low-energy floodlights are used sparingly for evening matches. Meanwhile, the Etesia robot mower uses GPS technology to guide it around the field without the need for human intervention, using solar power.

The club’s chairman and owner is no ordinary chap either, as you might expect — Dale Vince is also the founder of UK clean energy company, Ecotricity, and a Climate Champion for the UN.

“Plenty of people doubted we could make this improbable combination of a football club and the environment work, but it’s proven to be a powerful combination,” he says. What he has created is a “new kind of football club and a new kind of fan.” Billions of people have engaged with the Rovers’ story in the last couple of years, and more than 20 Rovers fan clubs have sprung up in all corners of the globe — a feat unheard of for a lower-league team.

All the more surprising for a sports-team owner is Vince’s anti-capitalism stance. “The pursuit of profit has taken priority over people, over the environment, over everything,” he says. Rather than be motivated by money, he has his sights set on creating positive change. And his football club is a perfect vehicle to achieve that.

The latest story Vince hopes will get people talking — and considering the impact of plastic production and waste on the environment — is the one concerning the club’s kit for the new season. In a first for football, it is made using a 50 percent bamboo mix, drastically reducing the amount of plastic used to make most kits. Developed with PlayerLayer, the intention is to go further in the future to create a 100 percent sustainable uniform, making use of the ultra-sustainable, fast-growing plant. 

“I was pretty shocked when I found out that modern sportswear is actually made from plastic; that feels wrong to me — not just from the sustainability point of view, but for performance, too,” Vince says.

Like most businesses — and sports clubs — entrenched systems and processes will make Rovers a tough act to follow, especially with such a force of nature as Vince at the helm. But as the club continues to prove that the popularity of sport, even at the lower levels, offers a unique opportunity to land key sustainability messages and spread awareness of environmental issues to the masses — an idea that is only just starting to take hold in the US.

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