Football for Sustainability

Sustainability is like love: a pallet full of different colours. A similar pattern also holds for another art, namely the game of soccer. It requires “talent, skill and science”. But what makes it sufficient as a game is its appeal to the larger humanity where principles of sustainability get enmeshed with sustainability centred activism across the world. Such activism has different dimensions, forms and are conducted by individuals, governments, corporates, technology firms, and institutions in their own way within the vast spectrum of – “Football for Sustainability”. In this article, Anandajit Goswami of Goalden Times, takes you through this journey of football for sustainability over time and across spaces.

The genesis of this article needs to be traced back to an event in 2008. I was in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, for my professional assignment with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. It was a Friday afternoon and like every day I was walking back home after work at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa when I saw a group of young children. They usually spend their days begging tourists for spare change, but they were doing something different that day. They were playing football with a homemade ball made up of dilapidated clothes and waste paper. The ball consumed them and made them forget about the money that usually consumed their daily lives.

I smiled inside as I watched the children play, and at the same time two words – “Football and Sustainability” were born within me for the first time: Football and Sustainability. The reason being because the children — those green warriors — converted waste paper and old clothes into an object that generated happiness. The little geniuses didn’t overcomplicate things when they created their sustainable ball, but they were courageous to go against the trend by converting their collected waste papers into a football.

Nine years down the line when I was motivated and inspired by Indranath Mukherjee of Goalden Times to write something on “Football and Sustainability”, the first thing that came to my mind was that the word “sustainability” has “sustain” and “ability” in it. It is like love with a pallet of colours where colour portrays its own narrative in frames of an artist.

Then I remembered an English Premier League event from August 2015 when fans of Chelsea, Manchester United and Newcastle took a pledge to follow sustainability strategies by cutting emissions through car- pooling and sharing on their way to away matches [1].

During that same year, Dale Vince, chairman of Forest Green Rovers- a football club that plays in the English League Two, and CEO of green energy company Ecotricity made a telling statement.

“We want to bring our message to the world of football – which is relatively untouched by eco stuff,” Vince said [1].  “Our work is on the issues of energy, transport and food; and within football you find that, like a stick of rock, written through the middle. So we decided to dive in and create the greenest football club perhaps in the world and use that as a way to reach a totally different audience” [1].

The journey of writing this article started with me organizing my thoughts within the professional domain of sustainability and including personal ideas curated over time.

So, as a part of that organization process, a question was asked: what is sustainability?. One of the several answers that emerged was that sustainability essentially translates to sustain, endure and remain diverse, productive and relevant for tomorrow.

Today, after the United Nation’s 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, sustainability entails meeting the needs of the present without compromising the wellbeing of the future. In 2000, the word sustainability, through the Earth Charter, expanded the definition by including principles and ideas based on the “welfare of the global society”, respect for nature”, “universal human rights”, “economic justice” and a “culture of peace” [2]. These lofty goals are aimed to be attained through policies focusing on environmental protection, socially responsible behaviour, economic practices, sustainable production and consumption, conservation of energy, sustainable society, climate change mitigation and adaptation and development of sustainable technologies [2].

This beautiful game of football across the world is now generating a movement for sustainability by addressing the social, economic and environmental goals of sustainability. For a long time, it has been realized that football pitches and stadiums can lead to unsustainable consumption of energy, water and raw materials. The game has now taken a pledge to change such practices to address all of the principles of sustainability. Several real practitioner perspectives and narratives bear ample evidence towards addressing the pledge and direction on sustainability put forward by this wonderful game. Different actors across the world are already joining the movement.

The movement spans out from Rio de Janeiro’s slums where Pavegen, a London based tech firm is showcasing the potential of a renewable option: power-storing tiles [3]. Pavegen has installed 200 “kinetic-harvesting” tiles within a local football pitch in Rio’s Morro da Mineira neighbourhood. The 56 mm tiles are placed under the football pitch’s Astroturf surface and whenever a football player takes a step, the tiles flex fractionally. Each footstep of a footballer generates a power of around five watts per second. The entire system is supplemented by solar panels, which helps in illuminating the pitch and adjoining area for ten hours in the night [3].

Football for sustainability: Rio, Favela [Source:]
Football for sustainability: Rio, Favela [Source:]

Another milestone of connections between football and sustainability lies in the first organic football pitch of Gloucestershire-based football club Forest Green Rovers [4]. Through a three-year-effort, the club has eliminated all nitrogen-based fertilizers and chemicals used for maintenance of its ground. The club is now applying a range of plant-derived products, from compost tea and coconut wetting agents, to seaweed fertilizer for turf maintenance. This is also supported by an autonomously-driven mower, which creates organic mulch and fertilizes the pitch as it mows. Charcoal is also provided to the pitch to create a carbon base for bacteria and fungus [4]. The additional upfront costs of setting up organic turfs are offset in the long term by savings in the energy bills through installation of 170 photovoltaic panels catering to a capacity of 45kW. On top of that, the team’s kit is washed in phosphate-free washing powder [4].

However, from Brazil and England, if we turn toward Spain and move back a little in time, it comes out that in 2012, Real Madrid had upgraded its eleven training pitches with a new generation turf produced by Dutch cradle-to-cradle pioneer, Desso [5]. The pitches do not use any pesticides. In 2012, in the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio De Janeiro, while policy makers were debating about whether or not to produce a new outcome document of “Future We Want”, which had a chapter on – “Green Economy”, some football practitioners were actually greening their turfs and were following the lines of Mahatma Gandhi – “Be the change you want to see in the world”. Desso wanted to ensure that the old pitches were reused in schools and sports clubs in the area. It started reusing components from dismantled pitches in other products [5]. Desso made a pledge to make all its artificial turf pitches, which are produced from polyethylene, polypropylene or nylon, as 100% cradle-to-cradle certified by the year 2020 [5]. In recent times, a famous club from Manchester, our very own Manchester United picked up the principle of recycling and started using recycled materials for artificial turf pitches by partnering with an Indian company called Apollo tyres [5]. Manchester United installed a pitch at its Old Trafford complex by using 2,200 recycled tyres weighing about 10 tonnes. The waste rubber, sourced from Apollo’s European subsidiary, is generally reused as a high calorific fuel in industrial ovens. The ground has been FIFA-certified recyclable pitch and is now open to the community in the neighbourhood of the club’s home ground [4,5]. So, when it comes to the history of sustainability, there has been a time and space reversal. It is interesting to note that in the past, Mahatma Gandhi called for a movement to boycott clothes from Manchester in India and move towards hand spun, Indian clothes to support local economy, and defy unsustainable patterns of consumption within the society. However, today we see collaboration between a Manchester football club and an Indian company to promote the cause of sustainability.

If the Brits are following this path, it is apparent that the Germans who are the pioneers of renewable energy application in decentralized mode will not be far away. The testimony of German commitment to sustainability lies in the fact that FC Bayern Munich, one of Germany’s top-ranking football teams, is installing 380,000 energy-efficient LEDs to create a huge “light show” at its Allianz Arena stadium. According to Bayern Munich’s official “lighting partner”, Phillips, the project will be 60% more energy efficient (and will lead to saving of about 362 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year) than the conventional lighting currently being used [6].

United States, the other power centre has already shown to the world their commitment to sustainability by building a new stadium in Santa Clara which has won the prestigious gold standard from eco-building certifier LEED. The state of the art green stadium is marked by a 400 KW solar plant for meeting the power demand of the stadium, a geothermal heat pump transferring the heat from the sun-drenched ground around the stadium to the hot water supply and a water recycling system that produces up to 1,800 gallons of grey water per minute to keep the turf fresh and clean [6].

While these individual actions are being taken at different parts of the globe, FIFA, at an institutional level, started its Football for Planet programme which is their official environmental programme aiming to mitigate the negative impact of its activities on the environment [6]. This programme started since the FIFA World Cup of 2006. In the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Local Organizing Committee (LOC) implemented projects to reduce the impact of the World Cup on the environment. FIFA and the LOC estimated the total carbon footprint of the event to be around 2.7m tonnes CO2 [6]. Out of that 251000 tonnes were controlled through operational control by means of carbon reduction projects. These emissions were largely catering to travel and accommodation of all staff, officials, teams, volunteers and guests along with emissions of venues, stadium and offices [6]. Most stadiums in Brazil were planned to achieve LEED certification for green buildings and many solar panels were installed on their roofs to generate renewable energy. FIFA and the LOC organized training courses on sustainable stadium management for all twelve stadium operators. Moreover, a new waste law in Brazil was created to manage the handling and desalination of waste. Local waste cooperatives, FIFA, the LOC and Coca-Cola together developed a waste management system for the stadiums to ensure that waste was handled properly and recycled where necessary [6]. The overall carbon footprint of 2014 FIFA World Cup was estimated to be just over 2.7 million tonnes of CO2 (tCO2e). Currently, a new Russian standard has been developed for certifying the 2018 FIFA World Cup stadiums to be in line with international standards [6].

Gandhi had realized that football can bring unity amongst the masses. Due to this foresight of merging football with social goals of sustainability, he can be regarded as one of the high profile sustainability professional, practitioner and commonly unknown passionate follower of the game in India.

Sometime back, Poobalan Govindasamy, president of the South African Indoor Football Association, provided rare insights about how Mahatma Gandhi a visionary in sustainability discourse, held football in high regard. According to him, Gandhi used the game of football to build teamwork, spiritual peace, communication platform, non-racial sporting structures through small associations like Transvaal Indian Football Association or the Klip River District Indian Football Association to unify people and build social capital. Gandhi’s involvement with football was not only limited to associations, but he even facilitated establishment of three football clubs in Durban, Pretoria and Johannesburg. All three were named Passive Resisters Soccer Club, as Mahatma realized that his passion for football, coupled with marginal people’s interest in the game could help his political and social agenda for sustainability.

Gandhi had realized that football can bring unity amongst the masses. Due to this foresight of merging football with social goals of sustainability, he can be regarded as one of the high profile sustainability professional, practitioner and commonly unknown passionate follower of the game in India. However, today, with the global movement on sustainability happening through football, the time has come to create several Gandhis in different parts of the world through football. Let a million flowers bloom and spread the fragrance of sustainability through football all across the world!




Cover Image Credit: Danny Choo

Anandajit Goswami

About Anandajit Goswami

Anandajit Goswami is an economist by training and interested in exploring the interfaces of sports and sustainability. His research interest lies in analysing the social, economic and environmental impacts of football through an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary lense.