Forest Green Rovers earned UN recognition for sustainability successes
Vegan food, green energy and an organic pitch among their measures
Unprecedented on-field success has followed, as chairman told FIFA.com
'The greenest football club in the world'.
It is a grand title, and a bold claim. Yet Forest Green Rovers’ status in this respect is beyond dispute. Don’t believe us? Ask the United Nations, who this year declared the English fourth-tier outfit to be the world’s first carbon-neutral football club and bestowed on them a UN ‘Momentum for Change’ climate action award.
Only 15 organisations received this honour, and Forest Green earned theirs thanks to a range of pioneering measures that have caused ripples across the world.
Food: Forest Green claim to be the world’s first fully vegan club, with players on a strict diet of vegan food, which is also served to staff and fans.
Energy: The entire club is powered by green energy, some of which is generated by solar panels and a solar tracker at the stadium.
Pitch: The club’s organic playing surface is sustainable and free from all pesticides and herbicides, while rainwater is collected for irrigation.
‘Mow-bot’: The pitch is maintained by a GPS-directed electric lawnmower, powered by energy harnessed from the sun.
Travel: Electric vehicle charging points are in place at the stadium, while the club provides a ‘park-and-ride’ scheme for fans to reduce congestion and emissions.
Taken together, and with bold plans for the future, these measures make for something of a football revolution. But how have they been received in the English game, an environment in which meat pies and other long-held traditions have long held sway?
“Our fans haven’t just accepted the changes – they’ve embraced them and become passionate advocates for everything we do,” chairman Dale Vince told FIFA.com. “And that’s not just the fans we have coming to our matches week in, week out. We now have fan groups in 20 different countries around the world. Those fans have bonded with Forest Green as a direct result of the stance we take on the environment.”
Even in isolation, Forest Green’s off-field activities would be remarkable enough. But the fact that they have coincided with unprecedented on-field success has ensured added credibility for their unique approach.
The club was on the brink of bankruptcy when Vince came to its rescue in 2010, and had never participated in the Football League. But that historic promotion was won shortly after FIFA TV’s visit - shown above - in May 2017, as Nailsworth became the smallest town or village ever represented in the upper echelons of the English football pyramid. Nor have Forest Green stopped there. They are currently challenging for promotion from League 2 and have ambitions of reaching the Championship.
“We knew we had to be successful on and off the field,” Vince acknowledged. “If one side of things was sub-standard, our credibility would have suffered.
"Fortunately, we’ve been able to marry the two in lots of respects. Some of the stats guys we have in energy training, for example, have got involved in stat analysis of games and players. That’s brought a technical approach to our player recruitment and matchday assessment. We also try to bring a cutting-edge approach to sports science, sports medicine, recruitment, training and so on, and we feel the vegan diet gives us an edge too.
“We know that people are watching, ready to judge us harshly if we do fall short. So it’s not enough just to have vegan food and an organic pitch - it has to be great food and a great pitch; better than the mainstream alternative. It’s part of a wider issue we’ve identified, which is addressing this stereotypical view that being green is all about living a life of denial. We need to show that it’s not about that – it’s about having different, and better, versions of the things we already have.”
Did you know? As of the 2018 edition of the FIFA World Cup, FIFA introduced green building certification as a mandatory requirement for all official World Cup stadiums under construction or renovation. All 12 of the Russia 2018 stadiums met international sustainability standards.
The next step for Forest Green is predictably ambitious: a proposed new stadium, Eco Park, which would be made almost entirely from wood and built in parkland amid the planting of five hundred trees and 1.8km of new hedgerows.
Yet while such measures continue to set the club apart, Vince's hope is that their status as a shining exception to a widespread rule is quickly lost. And it seems others are already beginning to follow their lead.
“There’s a lot of real interest out there in what we’re doing,” he said. “Just before I spoke to you, I was answering an email from a club in Germany. We’ve also had contact from clubs in our own league about the likes of the mow-bot and car charging points, and we’ve had Premier League clubs in touch about green electricity.
“When we were at the UN last October, we also spoke to the German and Japanese FAs, and the San Fransisco 49ers. We’ve even been talking to the FA about Wembley, including getting some vegan food in, and a couple of our fellow League 2 clubs have put on fully vegan matchday menus when we came to visit.
“There’s a lot for clubs, and football in general, to do on the environment. But it’s not difficult. The opportunities are there, the technology is available and so too are the goods, services and products. Clubs of all sizes can make the kinds of changes we have made. They just need the will, and I’m confident that will come.”