Can we make the grassroots game of football greener?

By Andy Carmichael

Football in England has a significant environmental footprint; 29,000 clubs, 40,000 grass pitches, energy use, demand for water and waste, it is more than a summary of the efforts of Premier League clubs. Mitigating this requires broader thinking than encouraging (or shaming) individual organisations. As football is a social practice, solutions must embrace change in the relationships between the elements that constitute the sport.

The organisation Sport Positive recently released a report on Premier League club sustainability identifying the environmental efforts of the 20 highest placed teams in England. Features such as energy efficiency, waste disposal and plant-based food choices in a stadium were accorded points and a league table was constructed to show performance. Aside from the amused comments that Arsenal were finally winning at something, it was an interesting update on a similar exercise undertaken by Jenkins (2012), and the broader, peer-reviewed, work on corporate social responsibility (CSR) in professional football (for example, Hamil & Morrow 2011, Reiche 2014, Walters & Panton 2014).  The report achieved its aim of generating headlines on the subject and highlighting the work of top-flight clubs, but deeper analysis is required to properly reflect on the state of environmental management in football.

Football has a significant environmental impact. Almost a third of the 123,000 operational sports facilities in England are grassed pitches used for football (Sport England 2017). These cover an area of 241 km2, an artificial landscape that demands water, fertiliser and management using fossil-fuel burning machinery alongside the requirements of any buildings used by participants and the transport to get them there. Dosumu et al. (2014) estimated around 74 million kg of waste was sent to landfill by the lowest eight tiers of football annually (Football League One downwards), resulting in greenhouse gas emissions of approximately 2.1 million kg CO2e.

To date there has been limited work towards the mitigation of this impact. Parnell et al. (2013) note football’s ability to promote positive messages and achieve social change, yet within academicstudies of the sport the environment is little mentioned. The Routledge Handbook of Football Studies (Hughson et al. 2016) contains forty chapters documenting many social, political and cultural aspects of the game, the environment is not one of them.  Soccer and Society devoted an entire issue (Volume 17, Issue 6, 2016) to the challenges facing youth and junior level football yet does not include management of their environment. What work has been done has been relatively specific to certain events (Collins and Flynn 2008 on the FA Cup Final), teams (Baldwin 2010 on Ipswich Town) or as a small component part of CSR.

In the broader sport literature, there is slightly more discussion. However, Trendafilova and McCullough (2018) identified just 84 articles in 96 peer-reviewed journals across the decade 2007-2016, hardly indicative of the ‘climate crisis’. Within this research authors tend to gravitate towards the concept of behaviour, and the idea that changing activity that adversely impacts the environment is a matter of changing individual behaviour. There are now papers on, for example, the efficacy of interventions relating to stadium recycling (McCullough 2013), the pressures to adopt ‘green’ management approaches in a facility (Babiak and Trendafilova 2011) and the forces that drive adopting pro-environmental stadium design (Kellison and Hong 2015). Typically, these efforts are viewed, like the Sport Positive report, from data gathered from the elite and the spectacular level of the game.

This evidence base, and the idea that people act based on specific influences, is appealing to policy makers as it justifies exemplification, interventions and nudges towards desirable outcomes without needing to embark on major changes to existing frameworks. This is apparent in Sport England’s ‘Sustainable Clubs’ self-help guide and football’s lack of specific environmental programmes in favour of individual club submissions for funding improvements. The behavioural approach is, however, flawed and the similarity between some sports, particularly football, at the elite level and the experience for the majority who organise, host and play the game, pretty much starts and ends at using a ball. 

Football at the non-professional, grassroots, level is not a matter of individual choice. There are 29,000 clubs in England, playing the sport in accordance with competition rules, FA compliance and a wealth of regulatory and financial requirements. When the sport is organised, administered and made competitive, it is not jumpers for goalposts on a piece of grass, it is a social practice; “the active integration of materials, meanings and forms of competence” (Shove and Pantzar 2005 p45). Just as Reckwitz (2002) demonstrates that playing football is a social practice  (the competence to understand and move the body in appropriate ways, a ball; a physical goal and a surface to play on for materials, and the aim of the game to give it meaning), so to the nature (and impact on nature) of hosting football is the product of relationships between these elements. These relationships are very different from professional football as what can be called ‘community clubs’, many of them junior, have limited resources, little power and rely on volunteers and funding.

Practices, and the relationships between materials, meanings and competencies, at all levels of football need to be questioned and subject to broader, and potentially more radical proposals, if those involved in its organisation really want to offer leadership in the provision of an environmentally responsible sport. As the largest participatory team game, with the greatest number of facilities and most land used in the country, community-based football has the potential to be at the forefront of a new movement in how we organise environmentally responsible sport.

The surface required to play the sport of football is a tract of land, with clearly defined dimensions. The equipment of the goals, the ball and players’ clothing are similarly identified within the sport’s rules. The facilities that must be provided for participants and spectators are prescribed by the FA and are a requirement of playing in a competition. The maintenance of the playing surface and management of the immediate surroundings are highly recommended to the point of impacting funding should such recommendations be ignored. There are no behavioural decisions to make in respects of these requirements. The materials of the game are imposed, they are intrinsic to the structure of codified, standardised football. What is produced, and what is ultimately seen by the governing body as the ideal, are homogenous spaces for play, planned to be exact across football club sites regardless of the existing environment and ecological needs.

The competencies for managing the provision of the materials largely rely on voluntary efforts at a community level. For those intent on pursuing the individual socio-psychological behavioural strategies of environmental change this poses a problem. Cary (2008) suggests there is a difficult challenge in achieving environmental goals with a voluntary behavioural agenda as the goals are often based on complicated or unspecified assumptions about how that behaviour might be changed.  As Kennedy and Kennedy (2015 p498) note, football at the community-level “is an activity for its own intrinsic usefulness to the individual and society”.  Moreover, over 80% of football facilities are owned by education or local authority organisations (FA 2013), not the clubs using them.  Whatever agenda volunteers may have they are likely to be unable to make changes to their physical environment.

That the game at a community level is not for profit owes much to the provisions of funding and the likelihood of generating a surplus, often a reason for the inability to pay those helping host matches. And yet non-professional football is subject to high levels of regulation, exacting standards and a wealth of bureaucracy. The extent of the top-down instruction, the ownership of the facilities and creation of this meaning for everything undertaken in community football renders the concept of self-help and individual choice redundant. Changing practices within football would be challenging as it would require FA support, and there have been repeated accusations of intransigence and out-dated thinking at the governing body by both former leaders of the organisation and members of parliament (BBC 2017). Future research could seek to assist the change process but first it feels necessary to simply add the pro-environmental debate to the study of football. Existing work offers neither the detail, nor the scope, that examination of the environment and football as a sport, or the relationship community-based clubs have with their environments, could provide.


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