Monday 24th October 2016                 Change text size:

The beautiful game on the beautiful planet

The beautiful game on the beautiful planet

Alex Blackburne explores the ugly truth behind the environmental impact of football, and the measures that some in the sport are taking to turn things around.

Football may have the age-old moniker of ‘the beautiful game’ attached to it, but when it comes to being a sustainable sport, the word ‘beautiful’ is arguably the least appropriate of the lot.

With an average of over 35,000 fans attending each Premier League match in the 2010/11 season, and a total of over 13 million fans flocking from far and wide across the country during the campaign, carbon emissions from travelling to football are evidently high.

To combat this, green energy company Ecotricity has set up an Electric Highway – the world’s first national charging network for electric cars, which, if it catches on, will make travelling to away games far more sustainable for fans.

“When it comes to travel, football fans set a fine example in keeping their carbon footprint to a minimum“, said Michael Brunskill, a spokesperson for the Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF).

“A significant proportion of fans use public transport, especially trains, and organised supporters’ coaches to get to away games. And in terms of home supporters, the FSF’s 2009 Fans’ Survey showed that the majority of fans travel less than 20 miles to watch their team.”

It’s not just travelling that bumps up a club’s emissions, though – just think of the stadiums with their power-hungry floodlights. It doesn’t help that we live in a ‘healthy and safety gone mad’ culture, as Manchester City found out in 2008, when their plans to build a wind turbine in order to help power their floodlights were blown down because of the fear of icicles falling from the blades.

Manchester City, though, are one of a handful of clubs taking steps to become a more sustainable business. In August this year, they released a sustainable procurement policy, which states, “Manchester City Football Club recognises that the supply of goods and services to the Club should take account of how and where things have been made, the ethical origin and how they will be disposed of”, and lays out various measures in order to achieve this.

On the surface, this is all well and good – a positive step forward for the sport. But the fact that the club is owned by one of the world’s richest men – Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who made his £500 billion fortune in the oil industry in his native United Arab Emirates – the scheme could just be another case of corporate greenwash.

In 2008, Ethical Consumer magazine published a report into the ethical and environmental initiatives of all 20 Premier League clubs. Manchester City was labelled the “most progressive” club, Middlesbrough topped the kit manufacturer ratings and Aston Villa did best for sponsorship.

Rob Harrison, editor of the magazine, admitted surprise at some of the results.

Football, as an industry, tends to score better on ethics than other industries we review – such as supermarkets, banking or clothes“, he said.

“It is, after all, a potentially sustainable activity with a promising future in a low carbon world.”

If more clubs followed the lead of Ipswich Town, for example, who in 2007 claimed to have “reached the target of becoming the UK’s first Carbon Neutral Football Club“, then the sport as a whole would become globally respected, not only for its power in a sporting capacity, but in an environmentally-responsible one, too.

So, what else can be done?

Well, for starters, players must change their ways. Driving round in fuel-guzzling four-by-fours certainly doesn’t help lighten the environmental impact of the sport.

The former Manchester United and England full back, Gary Neville, is a keen sustainability advocate, building his very own eco-home and co-founding Sustainability in Sport, an organisation aimed to “support the continuing growth of sport within UK communities, whilst reducing the associated environmental impacts“.

Meanwhile, former England goalkeeper, David James, is also well-known for promoting green issues.

Photo: Jeremy RyanThese are just two high-profile, well-respected figureheads in the sport that are aiming to make a difference. Footballers are up there with the best when it comes to being role models, so imagine the impact if David Beckham or Wayne Rooney decided to endorse the nature of investing ethically.

An area that lets football down in terms of its reverence in the sector is its finances. Cameroonian striker Samuel Eto’o recently became the highest paid footballer when he signed for Russian club, Anzhi Makhachkala, in a deal that pays him a reported £17.9m a year after tax.

The debate surrounding footballers’ wages is probably best saved for another feature entirely, but it’s hard to justify paying someone that much for doing something that is essentially a game and not a job.

Changes to football certainly won’t happen overnight. It will take a lot of Gary Nevilles, a lot of Ipswich Towns, and a lot of Ecotricitys to make a real difference.

Then, and only then, will the sport live up to its nickname: the beautiful game.

The FSF welcomes suggestions from Blue & Green Tomorrow readers on how fans could best tackle their environmental footprint, in the context of supporting their team. They’re a member’s organisation so visit their website to join for free and have your say.

Otherwise, if you would like to find out more about how you can set an example to others by investing ethically, ask your financial adviser, if you have one, or complete our online form and we’ll connect you with a specialist ethical adviser.

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