In Europe the football season has already started. When talking about football one seldom makes any link with climate change. However, as Colin Drury writes on The Independent website, one small English team has. Forest Green Rovers have an organic pitch, kits made from bamboo, solar panels on stand roof and even vegan half-time pies.
From League Two to UN ambassadors: how a tiny English football club is leading the world’s climate change fight
It was a global protest held in towns and cities across the world but, when young eco-activists in Stroud joined millions of others to demonstrate against climate change this spring, they did something entirely unique.
Hundreds of the town’s teenagers gathered outside the office of the local football club chairman and started chanting his name.
They held up traffic while calling for millionaire Dale Vince, who owns League Two side Forest Green Rovers, to come out to make a rallying speech.
“It was very… unexpected,” recalls the 57-year-old. “Amusing, flattering, slightly embarrassing. But lovely. I was in a meeting with the accountants when it started. I popped out and [the activists] offered me the microphone but I didn’t speak. These kids don’t need an adult telling them what to do.”
Instead, as a barbecue was cranked up on nearby grass verges, he had vegan burgers delivered for all. “Their energy, the sense of anarchy,” he says. “I love that.”
If this sounds like no ordinary interaction between student environmentalists and a local footy baron, that may be because Dale Vince is no ordinary chairman.
The one-time New Age traveller, who made a mint setting up the UK’s first renewable energy company – called Ecotricity and started with a single wind turbine on the back of a truck – has spent the last decade turning Forest Green Rovers into the world’s only UN-recognised carbon neutral sports club.
Here, the pitch is organic, the kits are bamboo, and the stands have solar panels on top. Ticket prices include a carbon-offsetting levy, while even the soap in the stadium toilets is made with grass cuttings from the playing field.
Most notably of all, perhaps, fans wanting a half-time pie or burger are offered vegan options only. The stadium is meat- and dairy-free, a state of affairs that has resulted in one of English football’s more surreal chants. “Where,” sing away supporters, “have your hot dogs gone?”
Walking into the Forest Green Rovers’ 5,100 capacity stadium, The New Lawn in Nailsworth, there are immediate signs that this is a club on an eco-mission.
Wild planting borders the ground; a wind turbine stands in one corner; the hoardings advertise things like Quorn and the Sea Shepherd conservation society.
Vince, himself – T-shirt, jeans, earrings – buzzes about, speaking to players, groundsmen, kitchen staff. Somehow, he gives the impression of being both entirely energised and laid back to the point of being horizontal. During his 20s, he had repeated run-ins with police at a range of environmental protests, and, despite now living in a £4m mansion, still has the vibe of a man who’d consider chaining himself to a tree if push came to shove.
The Independent is here because, if the UK is to achieve its now legally enshrined target of achieving zero carbon emissions by 2050, there’s probably no one better qualified to understand the possibilities and potential pitfalls than Dale Vince.
After all, if he can make sustainability work in the entrenched, macho world of professional football, everything else should be a piece of dairy-free cake, right?
“I would say 2050 is easily doable,” nods the father-of-two over coffee – liquid oats instead of milk – in the club’s green-walled boardroom. “Actually, I think in five years’ time, we could see that target coming down to 2040, which would still be achievable. But the super-important thing is that we now have this target because it’s an acknowledgement there’s a problem and that we have to get to grips with it.”
He has previously donated money to both the Labour and Green parties but says he would work with the current Tory government on reducing climate change. He met Theresa May a couple of weeks ago to workshop ideas and would be available if he got the call from Boris Johnson. “This is the biggest problem facing the planet,” he says. “And it will only be solved by people working together.”
That turning soccer sustainable hasn’t been easy, there can be little doubt.
Rovers fans, certainly, have been known to voice scepticism about Vince’s methods since he took over the club in 2010. Specifically, they have voiced scepticism about their match-day sausage rolls disappearing.
“I had someone say to me they used to be able to come here and have a pie and a pint,” smiles Vince. “I said you can still have a pie and pint – but our pies don’t have animal bits in and our pints aren’t made with fish bladders.”
Another fan told him his ideas were feminising football. “I said I’ll take that and wear it as a badge of honour,” he says.
Is he forcing his values on others, though? “Look, there’s a football match here for two hours once a fortnight. So we’re not starving anyone off meat. We’re saying use that opportunity to try something different. And it’s super-tasty. Most people have come on board.”
Fans visit from other clubs just to try the food, he reckons. Jamie and Jimmy have been here for their Friday Night Feast. When I later tuck into a burger and nut salad, I can see why. Put it this way, it knocks the socks off a cup of Bovril.
Probably more significant in easing these changes through, however, is that they have come alongside – and probably helped bring – success.
When Vince, who is originally from Great Yamouth, took over Rovers in 2010, they had just survived relegation to the sixth tier of English football and were facing a winding up order because of mounting debt.
“The club asked for £30,000 to help survive that summer,” he recalls. “It’s been here 125 years and is a big part of the community, so why not help? Then in the autumn, that had run out. They said: you need to be chairman. And I said: I really don’t, I have enough going on. But it became clear it was a choice between taking responsibility or it folding. So, there was no choice, really.”
There was never a set decision to take the club green as such, he adds – but he also saw no reason why his new project shouldn’t adhere to his lifelong belief in being low impact.
Today, nine years on, the club is financially stable, established in League Two following promotion in 2017, and is currently applying to build a new stadium – a sweepingly beautiful design by Zaha Hadid, made all from wood and surrounded (but of course) by trees.
Players and coaching staff have bought into Vince’s revolution pretty much from day one. They talk about feeling more energised because of their diet; of suffering less soft tissue injuries; of recovering quicker between games.
“This is the way football is going,” manager Mark Cooper tells me. “Top players like Sergio Aguero have gone vegan to stay sharper longer, and more will do it. We’re just ahead of the curve.”
The eco-identity, meanwhile, has created an overseas fan base among supporters who share the philosophy. This season’s new kit has sold in 16 different countries – unheard of for a club at this level. Last season, media from Russia, Japan, the US and Germany were all in the press box at some point.
“You’re aware when you come here you have to buy into the principles and be willing to be educated” says defender Matt Mills. “And that breeds success. You’re constantly striving to improve because you’re part of a project that is so ambitious.”
So ambitious, indeed, that the UN has now asked the club to lead its new Sport For Climate Action initiative, an international project which will see professional and amateur clubs across the world encouraged – and offered practical help – to reduce their carbon footprint. Many of the ideas shared will be taken directly from Rovers.
“It’s pretty amazing,” says Vince. “We’ve gone from a rescue mission of a local football club to, nine years later, advising a global programme of work with the UN.”
He shakes his head. “I wasn’t expecting that,” he admits.
The journey to here, indeed, has been even more extraordinary when one considers that Vince himself spent much of his youth and young manhood living, as he calls it, “off grid”. As a teenager he dropped out of school early and then spent a decade travelling the country in an old army truck converted to use battery power.
In 1991, he parked up on a hill in Stroud for a bit, realised a mini wind turbine he’d installed on the back of his vehicle was generating more electricity than he was using, and had something of an epiphany.
“I just had this moment where I’ve been living this low-impact lifestyle for 10 years,” he says. “And I thought I could spend another 10 years doing the same or I could drop back in to the world and try and build a big windmill on this hill, and do some good for the world.”
He chose the latter; got permission off the landowner (who was persuaded after Vince hooked up his caravan with electric lights); and spent five years constructing that windmill. His first customer, signed up in 1996, was a college in Cheltenham.
“I told their energy manager, ‘You’ll be the first place in the country using green energy’,” he says. “I think he mainly just asked what the bills would be.”
From there, Ecotricity, as he named the fledgling company, expanded rapidly.
Today, it has 186,000 customers across the UK powered by 70 turbines, generating 80 megawatts of power. It has also opened Britain’s first solar farm, a five-acre site in Lincolnshire which adds another megawatt, and operates a vast network of electric car recharging points.
And for the future?
The company is confident it will continue to expand as more people – such as those young climate change activists – choose renewable, while Forest Green Rovers are aiming for nothing short of reaching the Championship: they kicked off the new campaign on Saturday with a 1-0 win at home to Oldham. All while continuing to prioritise sustainability in everything it does.
“This way isn’t always easy,” says Vince. “But then nothing is, I think. When you’re challenging and pushing boundaries, it’s inevitable you hit obstacles and bumps in the road, but you keep going. It’s too important not to.”