A more beautiful game: Sustainability in football comes of age

Sancroft Team
By Sancroft Team

By Matt Thorogood, former Senior Analyst at Sancroft.

2021 was in many ways a breakthrough year for sustainability in the Premier League and English football:

  • #GameZero, billed as the first net-zero carbon match in premier league history, took place on 19th September 2021 between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea. This fixture encouraged the clubs and fans to minimise their carbon footprint for the day, and the remaining carbon emissions were offset.
  • Premier League clubs, including Liverpool and Southampton, published sustainability strategies for the first time. This shows that sustainability is now seen as a key strategic priority for some Premier League teams.
  • The environmental sustainability performance of football clubs became front page news, with performance in the second annual Sport Positive sustainability league reported on the BBC homepage.
  • COP26 included participation from football clubs in the CUP26 tournament and led to a net zero pledge from FIFA.

However, although 2021 was a successful year in moving forward the agenda of sustainability in top level football, ESG performance is sure to become a growing priority for the rest of 2022 and beyond.

Why should football clubs care about sustainability?

Broadly speaking, there are three key reasons that sustainability is rising up the agenda for football clubs:

  1. The direct threat to football clubs from climate change.

Climate change has a direct impact on sport, both in terms of the physical stadia used during sports and in the impact on participants. Out of 92 teams across the Football League, 23 are expected to be partially or totally flooded by 2050. This includes four current premier league grounds: Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge, Norwich’s Carrow Road, Southampton’s St Mary’s and West Ham’s London Stadium. The hot weather associated with climate change will also lead to extremely challenging and regularly dangerous conditions for players and spectators alike, who become more likely to suffer negative impacts such as heat stroke.

  1. The changing expectations of stakeholders.

There has been a pronounced movement towards sustainable viewpoints becoming more mainstream over the past few years. Football fans are not classically considered as environmentalists. However, there has been movement on this over the last few years, and there were multiple examples of fans from many sports receiving sustainability initiatives positively reported at the 2021 Sport Positive Summit. Research by Jennifer Amann revealed a changing mindset amongst fans who reacted positively to suggestions of how to engage with climate change. Furthermore, young people are collectively far more engaged with environmental sustainability, with 60% surveyed globally “very worried” or “extremely worried” by climate change. Moving past environmental concerns, fans and other stakeholders are increasingly interested in governance and social issues, such as the appropriateness of the Abramovich regime at Chelsea in the current geopolitical climate.

  1. The financial incentive for clubs to get their house in order on sustainability.

Finally, it will soon be a financial imperative for football clubs to be sustainable. Commercially, environmental sustainability leads to efficiency savings and waste and energy reduction. There is likely to be increasing regulation and green taxation, and this will therefore mitigate or avoid the additional risk that this may bring to a club’s finances.

For investors, ESG concerns are particularly important. Sustainable investments are a fast-increasing proportion of total investments each year. In future, sponsors will increasingly reflect investor, as well as consumer, demand for sustainability.

How can football clubs make a difference?

The carbon footprint of football is significant. It is estimated that football contributes around 0.3%-0.4% of global emissions. Over 60% of this carbon footprint comes from travel to and from games. Engaging with fans and ensuring that there are climate friendly ways to attend matches is crucial to reducing this significant contribution to climate change.

Furthermore, the influence football clubs can have on the world by engaging with those who watch and support it is tremendous. FIFA estimates a staggering 5 billion people around the world are now football fans. As football fans typically listen to and respect what their football club has to say, there is a huge opportunity for clubs to leverage this and mobilise people into acting in ways which are aligned with the club’s strategic priorities.

What can clubs do right now?

The key thing football clubs can do to make a start on sustainability is develop their strategy. A sustainability strategy is an agreed framework which focusses investment and drives forward sustainability performance against an agreed set of priorities, which are developed from the corporate vision. This allows football clubs to pull together their environmental and social initiatives and communicates their commitments to stakeholders.

An immediate way that football clubs can show their intention to become more environmentally sustainable is to become a signatory to the UN Sports for Climate Action framework. This voluntary commitment spans the whole of the sports industry and commits the participants to five principles underlining their climate commitment.

Sancroft is a leader in sustainability strategy. If you would like to find out about how we can help you to explore how your sports organisation can be more sustainable, please get in touch with the team at hello@sancroft.com.