Forest Green Rovers are flying high in League Two. Tuesday’s win at Carlisle moved them up to second. However, it’s their work off the pitch that has garnered the club support from around the world. Sky Sports News presenter David Garrido spoke to FGR chairman Dale Vince to find out more.
Now that the dust has settled on the winter transfer window, Dale Vince can take a deep breath, steel himself and go again, his focus returning to his two core objectives: the battle for promotion from League Two and the fight to save the planet. Yep, it’s a demanding enough brief, being the chairman of any Football League club, but even more so if you have such a distinctive ethos as Forest Green Rovers have.
Sustainability is at the heart of everything they do at FGR, which is why they’re highly regarded and considered a beacon for climate action in sport.
How would that impact transfer business then? The little details reveal the bigger issues. “We look for players who either live local to us or who are going to move and be closer to us to minimise travel,” might seem like an obvious statement for Vince to make, but there are actually plenty of footballers who commute long distances, sometimes city to city, racking up the miles on the motorways to get from home to training ground or stadium. Not great for your green credentials.
The carbon footprint there is as clear as the smoke billowing from those exhausts isn’t, and if transport is one big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, then diet is clearly another.
But here, the message is absolutely getting through and Vince is finding kindred spirits amongst Rovers’ recent recruits: “Increasingly, elite athletes are aware that a vegan diet is better for them. We’re well known for that, and we’re attracting players that are very much bought into that when they knock on the door.” Quite a smart strategy then, if you’re getting signings in who are already better prepared nutritionally.
Are attitudes changing generally on veganism? Inside the club itself, there’s no need to preach, they’re already converted to plant-based provisions. But among society at large, there’s perhaps still work to do, as perceptions can be based around a fear of missing out.
“It’s one of the big myths we have to deal with, that living a green life is about giving stuff up,” says Vince.
“It’s one of the big messages that we work on as a football club – we don’t have to give up things like cars, football and burgers, we just have to do them differently.”
Daring to be different, with genuine purpose at heart, is definitely aiding FGR’s progress since being taken over 10 years ago.
Being successful on the pitch (they’ve had four play-off campaigns in the last six completed seasons) will always attract attention and help grow an audience, but so will having a strong identity focused on planet health. In fact, the support for FGR to tackle global warming is… well… global.
“We’ve got 100 foreign fan clubs in 20 different countries of the world and we’re a League Two club. I think that’s quite exceptional,” enthuses Vince.
“They just sprung up. Sometimes they’re football fans, sometimes they’re environment fans, sometimes a little bit of both.
“But we’ve found that in the process of creating a green football club, a new kind of football club, we’ve created a new kind of football fan.”
It’s not just Forest Green who are doing good things in this space as far as football clubs are concerned. Hibernian are the example that most impresses Vince, having become the first club in Scotland to sign up for the UN’s Sports for Climate Action Framework and only the second in the UK after founding signatories FGR. The framework is basically a pledge for a club or organisation to strive to achieve five key points:
– promote greater environmental responsibility
– reduce the overall climate impact from sport
– use their platforms to educate on climate action
– promote sustainable and responsible consumption
– advocate for climate change through their communications
And the framework itself backs up Vince’s assessment that overall, it’s about connecting with your audience: “The whole point of the programme is to reach sports fans with the message about the climate crisis and what they can do about it. Sport essentially is a platform or a vehicle for carrying that message.”
To reduce their carbon footprint, Hibs could, for example, carbon offset, bring in renewable generation at their stadium and training ground, harvest rainwater, engage in a circular economy, eradicate single-use plastics, buddy up with local public transport providers… the list goes on and on. The good thing about the self-styled “greenest club in Scotland” is that even as leaders, there’s still so much to learn.
Even closer to home, albeit only slightly (just the other side of the Scottish border, in fact), Forest Green Rovers’ last game was away to Carlisle United – a 500-mile round trip which ended in a 2-1 victory to send them second in the table, for the time being at least.
As fate would have it, Carlisle’s ground, Brunton Park, has felt the effects of climate change – flooding which ruined their stadium and left parts of it under 10 feet of water after Storm Desmond in 2015. It caused millions of pounds’ worth of damage and they had to have their pitch totally re-laid.
These extreme weather patterns are a stark reminder that the crisis is closing in on the planet unless we slam the brakes on. And back on that mobility theme, there is at least some good news on the horizon.
“We’ve got electric buses on the road in Britain right now, town buses not coaches… I think coaches are probably just two or three years away,” says Vince.
“Even for the elite level of football which often gets criticised for having to fly to international games, electric planes are coming. They’re 10 years away, we’ll have planes that have a range to cover all of Europe carrying 200 or 300 people, proper passenger planes.”
Another cause for excitement is this week’s news that the Football League have now approved the club’s move to their prospective new home, Eco Park: an all-wooden stadium, which won’t just look great, it could radically change the way stadia are designed, planned and built – to help fight climate change.
“From an environment point of view, 75 per cent of the carbon footprint of all stadia in their entire lifetime comes from the materials they’re made from. It’s not about the energy used to run them, it’s embedded on day one. So we’ll have the lowest carbon footprint of any stadium anywhere in the world since the Romans invented concrete,” smiles Vince, again setting the bar high, or, in this case, low.
And here’s another bold statement from the club chairman: “We’re probably three or four years away from playing our first game in that stadium, there’s a lot of work to be done. We need a new road, there’s a business park attached to it… but that’s the place we hope to become and stay a Championship football club.”
A bit OTT from FGR? If they do reach the EFL’s top tier, it’s not like their efforts are going to stop there. “As a Championship club, I think it would be fantastic – our reach, our credibility for the message. By the time we get there probably, this will be a well-accepted agenda anyway. There’ll be a lot of people doing the same kind of thing, but we’ll still be there pushing the boundaries,” says Vince.
Even now, people, rivals, are thinking of doing the same kind of thing. But this isn’t an ethos that Vince wants to hide away like some sort of secret recipe, even in the cut and thrust of the current season with the promotion race for League One looking pretty tight. For him, imitation is flattery: “We’ve been approached by another League Two club – their players have asked to have our matchday burger and they’re asking if they can buy it in bulk because their players want to eat vegan, which is fantastic.”
In truth, Vince will probably relish the battle on the pitch, especially if it ultimately helps find another ally in the fight for the planet.