Football: making the pitch greener

Football crowd10 August 2012

With a new football season coming up, environmental concerns may not be the first thing fans will be thinking of. But social responsibility and green practices might be the next big goal for football clubs.

A new report from the Centre for Business Relationships, Accountability, Sustainability and Society (BRASS) has looked at how Premier League clubs tackle sustainability. The BRASS Working Paper CSR in Sport: Investigating environmental sustainability in UK Premier League Football Clubs (PDF, 278Kb) notes that the sporting industry – including football clubs - has been "somewhat slower" than other industries in taking on environmental practices and developing so-called Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategies.

As author and BRASS Research Associate Heledd Jenkins points out, most clubs appear to address environmental sustainability "in an ad hoc, unstrategic way, with no formalised management systems".

So why should football clubs care beyond the next game and the next win?

There is a growing pressure on all businesses to show 'social responsibility' for the company's impact on the community, environment and stakeholders by embedding CSR strategies into their business model. Sporting executives have reported pressures from corporate partners, customers, employees and other stakeholders to increase CSR engagement. Professional football clubs are hardly different from other medium-sized multinational companies, and their impact, for instance on the environment, is undeniable.

"Football grounds, with their massive water use and high-energy floodlights, are the site of many of the main environmental impacts of most football clubs," states Jenkins. In addition to this there are the fans travelling to matches who "generate huge amounts of waste and carbon emissions travelling and sustaining their big day out".

Heledd Jenkins interviewed representatives from 23 football clubs – the 20 Premier League clubs for the 2011/12 season including the three newcomers, and the three relegated clubs. The researcher investigated how much difference the gain or loss of a Premiership venue affected a club's ability to put in place environmental sustainability measures.

Many clubs are under severe financial pressures, and a lack of funding proved to be the biggest factor preventing the development of sustainability strategies. The research shows that club management generally recognise the importance of CSR in a business context, but have to balance often conflicting demands.

"Although football clubs come under some pressure from various sources to improve environmental sustainability, that pressure is very weak, particularly from governing bodies. Financial imperatives and the need to win football matches are a much bigger priority," the paper states.

"If there's something that is going to save money and also contribute to saving the planet, then that ticks both boxes. The first one we'll want to get ticked is the cost of course," says one of the interviewees.

A commonly held view by respondents is that most UK football clubs aren't 'big enough' to have a strategy for environmental impact. It is the larger and richer clubs that have the most developed environmental management programmes.

Environmental issues considered most frequently are energy, waste, public transport and the supply chain - with biodiversity, climate change and environmental education as lesser concerns. Although all clubs agreed that water use was a major environmental issue, only small steps had been taken towards conserving water.

It has been argued that sports organisations are in a unique position to generate awareness of social and environmental issues than other businesses, with their stadium facilities, event-based activities, teams and access to media and sponsors. "The evidence from this research suggests that football clubs are under-utilising such resources," comments Heledd Jenkins.

With the pressure for CSR strategies growing, clubs could potentially benefit from going green – boosting their image and reputation in the process. And for the time being they could have the pitch to themselves.

"While it is clear that football clubs are engaging with this agenda and recognising its importance from a business perspective, the evolution of environmental sustainability management and its incorporation into core CSR strategy is still at an early stage," concludes Jenkins.