“We often ask ourselves, what difference can I make? And I would say, all the difference in the world because our actions affect the people around us. It starts with one person and then it leads to more people”, says Dale Vince, owner of Forest Green Rovers, the world’s first carbon neutral football club.
“Hooking up with the UN on this Sports for Climate Action programme was beyond our wildest dreams. We have become part of the conversation within the global world of sport, not just football. With the UN, working to change opinions of sports fans and turn them into fans of the climate. I think it’s an incredible outcome and opportunity and it’s all because we did what we believed in.”
On the eve of Euro 2021, the UN spoke to Dale Vince, who is also an ambassador for the UN ‘Sports for Climate Action’ initiative, about his vision for a sustainable future in sport.
How did you get involved in creating a green football club based on sustainability principles?
“Well, it was a rescue mission first of all. This is our local football club and local to me and Stroud. It was the summer of 2010, and they were in trouble. The guys from the club said if I didn’t take responsibility for it, it would fold. The club is 120 years old and a big part of this local community so I thought I’d just help out and didn’t really give it a lot of thought as to what that might entail.
Straight away I started bumping into big conflicts in the way things were being done at the club that really clashed with the way that I lived and my outlook. The first thing was red meat. We were serving beef lasagne to our players. I was horrified to find myself part of the meat trade and so we stopped that.
That began a kind of journey of discovering things that needed changing, and then quickly realising that we had to change just about everything, and in the process, we would create a green football club, something that had never been done before. We would be communicating to a different audience of people: football fans who are not typically addressed by climate and sustainability messaging and would stereotypically be considered a very difficult audience. So, definitely not preaching to the choir! But the challenge made it more worthwhile.
We wove sustainability into the DNA of the club, we put sustainability and football on an equal footing within the club and that’s how it all began 10 years ago.”
How difficult is It to change to a sustainable model?
“It’s easy to change to a sustainable model! There is a very simple template for all our work. I have been in this game, pursuing sustainability through business as a tool for 25 years with ‘Ecotricity’. We started out as green energy company, the very first in the world to offer green energy. We did that because energy was the biggest single source of carbon emissions in Britain back in the 1990s and it made sense to start there. A few years later I thought it made sense to look at the second and third biggest sources and found they were transport and food. 80% of everybody’s personal carbon footprint is in energy, transport and food. How you power yourself, how you travel and what you eat.”
Does it make financial sense to have this kind of sustainable model at a football club?
“The answer is, it’s a moving target and in some areas now it is more economic to be sustainable than not. Generally speaking, I would also say it’s a mistake to ask that question, to ask if we can save money by acting sustainably. People often ask, well how quickly does a solar panel pay for itself, and I would ask what else in life do you ask that question of? Your toaster, your mobile phone, your car? You never ask that question, never, but in renewable energy it is the common question. When do I get my money back? That is how we try to assess its efficiency or viability.
Big picture wise it’s absolutely more economic to be sustainable because of the damage we are doing to the climate, to wildlife, to habitats. You know we’ve got to become sustainable even if it looks like it costs more on day one, its long-term more economic.”
Do you think this model could work at a bigger club?
“The richest clubs can absolutely change their ways, no doubt. They have a bigger audience and a bigger platform as well, which is the reason for doing it in my opinion. I think we have to show by doing. That’s our method of bringing about change, we do the things we believe in, we don’t preach, we don’t dictate, we try to encourage people, show them what we’re doing, tell them why and lead by doing. I think there are four Premier League clubs now on the UN programme and some big clubs in Europe as well. It’s a kind of peer pressure, if your peers are doing it then you’re going to feel the need to join.”
Do the fans understand your vision for the club?
“Our fans are completely bought in. They don’t tolerate this green stuff they embrace it. This is what we are, what we stand for as a club and our fans love it and have changed their lives as well. So many of them have told me they’ve gone veggie or vegan, taking their families with them, electric cars and solar panels as well. Football fans are just like ordinary people, they are ordinary people that just happen to be passionate about football. If you show them where the problems are and what can be done about it, and you demonstrate that by doing it yourself, it percolates into their own lives.
It’s so counter intuitive that you could take something as macho really as football and do something so considerate and caring as to become vegan. Those two things seem really unlikely bedfellows. Since we started, the one thing that every media outlet wants to talk about is our description as the world’s only vegan football club. It’s been a monster in terms of PR and therefore reach of our message around the world and therefore impact.”
What is the key to your success?
“It’s so important to have fun and it helps on the communication side of things. If people see you having fun, they can feel that in your messaging. I don’t talk doom and gloom. I talk about what we can do. Going green is presented as being about giving things up. People think they’re being asked to give up a lifestyle and quality of life.
Our core message in all of the work that we do, in the fields that we work in, is that we can have all of the things we have. You can live more or less the way that we live currently, but we can do it differently.
In my experience just about everything I’ve bumped into can be done better if it is done differently almost without exception. So not for the sake of doing it differently but because there’s a better way. Whole industries just fall into habits and ruts and ways of doing things and conventional wisdom just takes over. Football was a great example, chock full of tradition and conventional wisdom, ‘we don’t do things like that, this is football’ would be a common thing that people would say.”
What are your plans for the future?
“We are planning to build a new stadium and stadium ‘eco-park complex’ which is a 100-acre sustainable development. It’s not just a football stadium and training ground, but a green tech business park with room for nature combined with sustainable development. Including a new wetland, restoration of a canal and lots of planting.
The stadium itself will be made entirely of wood. This will make it the lowest carbon footprint stadium in the world since the Romans invented concrete. That’s what we won’t have, concrete and steel which are the big, embedded carbon materials of all buildings. I’ve done my time using business as a tool to bring change. I see what we need to do to get to zero carbon. We’ve got the technology and we’ve got the economic and life-threatening imperative to do it. People are on board, businesses are increasingly on board because the technology is there. The thing that we’re really missing is political understanding and commitment.”