How to make a Premier League club truly ‘sustainable’

Imagine weekly climate newsletter

Whether it’s the controversy over Newcastle United being taken over by oil-rich Saudi Arabia or the social media backlash when top players take private jets to sign for a new team on transfer deadline day, the environmental implications of elite football are facing growing scrutiny.

At the same time, events like Green Football Weekend – on February 2-5 this year – show how football can change, and even be a force for good in energising a climate change response across wider society.

But what might a sustainable Premier League club look like, now and in future?

Let’s start with day-to-day operations. When I reviewed the evidence on the topic for a recent academic paper, I discovered multiple studies, both from the UK and overseas, which found that travel constitutes the biggest part of football teams’ carbon dioxide emissions. Of this, the largest share comes from players and supporters travelling to away fixtures.

The wealthier a team is, and the higher the level it plays at, the higher these emissions are likely to be. Elite teams are more likely to be travelling further for international competitions, and by air to and from domestic fixtures.

One of the most immediate ways a Premier League club can improve its sustainability performance, therefore, is to look at how its players and supporters travel. This means using trains and coaches to get to away games in the UK.

Better coordination between match timings and public transport schedules would help, by ensuring that matches finish in time for away fans to catch the last train back to their home town. This is a common complaint among Premier League fans, whose games are particularly vulnerable to TV schedulers.

European fixtures at both club and national level are tougher to crack, especially when bodies like Fifa and Uefa are pushing for more tournaments and fixtures rather than fewer. One way to reduce the overall carbon footprint would be to play the early rounds in regional groups, so that teams play those geographically near to them.

The good news is that smart scheduling doesn’t have to mean a drop-off in the quality or competitiveness of top-flight football. Researchers in the US looked at their “big four” sports during the pandemic, when restrictions made it harder for teams to travel and fixtures had to be grouped together. They found the reduction in travel and related decrease in stress on players helped to keep things exciting on the field.

Stadiums and kits

There are other sources of pollution which are more prominent at the highest levels of football. A big stadium needs to be powered and lit, and grass pitches need water and energy inputs to maintain. Green energy can help with this, and clubs such as Forest Green Rovers are even starting to generate renewable electricity on-site.

The ever-increasing number of replica kits that teams produce also comes at an environmental cost. It’s been estimated that a polyester football shirt has a carbon footprint of 5.5kg – about the same as driving a petrol-powered car 45 kilometres.

Follow the money

But the emissions associated with the everyday running of a football club are just one part of the picture. Companies, individuals and even state-linked investment organisations who make their money from high-emitting industries have an important role in sponsoring or even owning top-flight teams.

This can prompt accusations of “greenwashing” or “sportswashing”, where big polluters or other contentious industries use the positive feelings associated with sport to distract from harmful business practices. Such accusations aren’t limited to petro-states. Sir Jim Ratcliffe, who recently bought a stake in Manchester United, is the chairman and CEO of Ineos, a chemicals company that has been heavily involved in oil and gas.

One could therefore argue that a “sustainable” Premier League club would not rely on funding from environmentally damaging activities such as oil and gas production, car manufacturing or aviation. Arts and culture organisations have come under increasing pressure in recent years to divest from fossil fuel sponsorship, and organisations such as Fossil Free Football are similarly campaigning to break the link between football and high-polluting sponsorship.

These can be difficult conversations to have with supporters. Everyone wants their team to do as well as they can on the pitch, and the most effective way to achieve that is by attracting sponsorship or ownership that can be invested in players and infrastructure.

In some cases, clubs can be intrinsically linked with industries that can be markers of pride and identity locally, but sources of pollution globally. Nagoya Grampus and VfL Wolfsburg, for example, were founded as works teams for Toyota and Volkswagen respectively. So, a “just transition” that respects the people and places whose livelihoods depend on carbon-intensive industries may also entail thinking about what the energy transition means for the football teams who are intrinsically linked to high-emitting industries.

Calls for change

The climate challenge may seem insurmountable to Premier League teams, precisely because there’s so much money wrapped up in the current way of doing things. However, there are signs that clubs and players themselves are leading the calls for change. Bristol Rovers, Bristol City and Millwall from League One and the Championship are among a group of clubs who have adopted “no-fly” policies or sustainable travel strategies for domestic games.

News outlets including the BBC having picked up on Premier League teams flying short distances for fixtures shows that clubs’ environmental practices are coming under greater scrutiny as the climate crisis intensifies. Premier League players in both the men’s and women’s games are likewise speaking up as “climate champions” to not only campaign for change within football, but also empower their fellow professionals to act.

Green Football Weekend is a great point of departure for thinking about how the sport might change in response to the climate crisis. The fact that events like this are happening regularly shows the needle is shifting on the professional game’s environmental impacts. Getting fans, players and ultimately clubs on board is vital to cracking some of the tougher aspects of football’s climate challenge.

Don’t have time to read about climate change as much as you’d like?

Get a weekly roundup in your inbox instead. Every Wednesday, The Conversation’s environment editor writes Imagine, a short email that goes a little deeper into just one climate issue. Join the 30,000+ readers who’ve subscribed so far.

The Conversation

Leslie Mabon is an Ambassador for the National Centre for Resilience in Scotland, a cross sector partnership spanning Scottish universities, government and practice which is committed to improving countrywide resilience to natural hazards. Leslie is also an Associate Member of the First Minister's Environmental Council in Scotland; and a Member of the Young Academy of Scotland. However, the views expressed in this Conversation article are personal, and are based on a programme of research Dr Mabon has conducted independently of the above organisations. At the time of writing, Leslie has received no external funding for his work into football and climate change.