Discretely tucked away in the south of Brussels and surrounded by a 24 hectares large Park Duden, Stade Joseph Marien has been Union’s home for the last 102 years, since it was built in 1919. The only permanent part of this 8000-seater – its west stand, which houses the lockers, the club house, the VIP area, and a few other facilities, is classified as a cultural heritage, particularly thanks to its unique Art Déco façade, making it unsusceptible to any demolition.

Union’s 11 national titles, won between 1904 and 1935, make them the 3rd most successful Belgian team to this day. This season, nearly 50 years after the club was relegated from the top division in 1973 and never promoted again, Union is back! And as if all this past and present success was not enough, the club announced its ambition of becoming the most sustainable and environmentally friendly club in Belgium and Europe. This was a perfect occasion for Ernest Kovacs of ACR+ to meet up with Raphaële Moeremans, the club’s Head of the Sustainability, and Alex Muzio, the club’s Chairman.

While sustainability departments and staff members assigned to such roles are rather a rare occurrence among football clubs and football associations, Union decided to tackle this field very seriously. Raphaële was hired specifically for this role, as part of a wider long-term strategy. As Raphaële explained, her only predecessor was an existing staff member, who was given the additional responsibility of overseeing environmental sustainability activities, on top of her core development and operations role. She further clarified “The decision for these changes came from the club’s chairman, Alex Muzio, who had set environmental sustainability as one of the priorities for the club in the years to come. This decision also coincided with the moment we were all looking forward to – the promotion to the top division, and the need to further professionalise the club in light of the new challenge ahead, while putting sustainability at the heart of our development”.

As Raphaële further explains, this decision meant that their sustainability initiatives were no longer meant to be isolated efforts but rather be part of a proper long-term environmental strategy instead. The development of this strategy has been taking place over the last year, leveraging key ad-hoc initiatives that have already been put in place in identified areas, with low-hanging fruits that could be tackled immediately. The club is working with an external consultant in order to ensure additional expertise being poured into this strategy. Raphaële added: “The fact that we were the first Belgian club to sign the United Nations’ “Sports for Climate Action” programme proves our long-term ambitions – 50% reduction of GHG emissions by 2030 and becoming a net zero carbon emission club by 2040. With those objectives in mind, we conducted an assessment to calculate our emissions for the 2019-2020 season, with all our operations considered, which we will use as a baseline as we continuously monitor data and advance”. However, she highlighted one important thing: “From the very beginning, what we wanted was to include our fans in our project and make sure that they were on board with the club’s ambitions. Our fan base and community are very important for us. Therefore, we consulted them via a survey, which helped us identifying certain barriers and challenges to be dealt with, such as mobility among others. The survey results contributed to and supported a lot the decisions we took so far”. Alex Muzio, the club’s chairman, elaborated further: “It fits in our fan culture as well. Our fans are very positive and open-minded. If this wasn’t the case, it would be a lot more difficult for us to move forward on our sustainability journey”.

Alex also explained the club’s motivation for this journey: “I’m a passionate environmentalist in my own way. If we all did a little, then the whole world would be so much better off. The biggest problem with the environmental space at the moment is that there is a small group of people doing a lot and shaming people who aren’t doing anything. As a group we should be praising anyone who makes any progress and even just considers the planet in their daily routine. As such I want the club to show that it is easy to make small changes that can make a big difference. A big goal of this project is also to document what we’re doing and let other football clubs see what we do and copy it hopefully. Most football clubs hoard information as they see it as a competitive advantage. This isn’t a criticism as we do it too! A football match is a zero-sum game – i.e., when we play on Saturday both teams can’t win. The environment isn’t a zero-sum game – we can all win”.

While Union can surely be considered as a pioneer in Belgium, environmental management in the international world of sports has been progressing and becoming an established practice for the last decade with many reports, toolkits, guidelines and other supporting material being published, as well as many working groups, events, and conferences taking place. Raphaële confirms that these materials and communities were very interesting inspiration and helped a lot for the initial self-assessment. She specifies: “We did want to see what has already been done, both within the sports industry but also in other sectors. For example, the Sports Positive Leagues rank football clubs of some major European leagues based on key environmental sustainability information and initiatives undertaken by the various clubs. Although the Belgian ProLeague isn’t yet covered by their research, we used that matrix and did a self-assessment to see where we stood compared to English Premier League clubs. Also, by being a signatory of UN’s “Sport for Climate Action”, we have access to many useful materials and working groups”.

As the LIFE TACKLE project showed, environmental management improvements can’t be solely based on the club’s own workforce, capacities and resources as they most often require cooperation between stakeholders. Raphaële confirmed that the club has started collaborating with local and regional authorities, as well as private sector partners, on sustainability-related topics, such as mobility. Furthermore, as explained to our readers, the stadium has very few permanent structures apart from the west stand, which is considered as a heritage building, while offices, bars, food stands, restrooms and fan shop are made up of modular containers. Moreover, the stadium is surrounded by a huge park from three sides and a residential area starting only 10 metres away from the stadium. Raphaële reflected on that, too. She said: “This fact has both its negative and positive sides. While the stadium setting is very valuable to the club and is a part of its identity, it is also limiting in terms of space and development planning and is one of the reasons why cooperation with external stakeholders is inevitable”.

Apart from new suppliers and more sustainable products, the two practices that have been implemented in the stadium and are most visible to anyone attending a game are reusable cups and separate waste collection. Raphaële reflected on those, too, sharing her first impressions: “The reusable cups were introduced already last season and have definitely led to a reduction of plastic waste. The fans are getting used to them, and we’re working on improving the collection aspect of the operations, for everyone’s convenience”. The separate waste collection also came into force during the pandemic. Observations confirmed that, overall, the practice of selective waste sorting has been adopted by fans. The sorting of waste will need to be further expanded, for example to include paper and food waste, once sanitary conditions improve and food starts being sold again, Raphaële confirmed.

After having heard what has been done so far, one could wonder what this brings to the club as an added value. Raphaële explains: “We embarked on this mission because it is a must, a no-brainer decision. As a sport club we must show initiative and leadership –. We will be publishing annual and sustainability reports so that our partners and community can be informed of what we do. Hopefully this can start some conversations around sustainability, with those existing partners as well as prospective partners. In addition, by publishing reports, we hope to share what we learned in the process with anyone else who want to embark on a similar journey”.

Did Union just start a “green revolution” in Belgian football? We asked Raphaële what advice she could give to other clubs who are considering joining. “All it takes is a decision. Many doubts and insecurities will come up at different stages. But eventually, with a bit of patience and learning, everything can be put into a framework that matches the club’s capacities. The worst thing to do is to postpone such a decision. Start talking to your partners, suppliers, fans as these discussions will help you concretise your objectives”, Raphaële suggests.

For closing this interview, we wanted to get back to what made us reach out to you in the first place – your aspiration for becoming the most sustainable football club in Belgium and Europe. How would Alex define what the most sustainable football club is? “That is an incredibly tricky question. But I would suggest that it the club that does the most to advance the sustainability model. If it was purely based on CO2 emissions, then the smallest clubs will always “win” that league table. Ultimately if we try really hard and we’re only 2nd or 3rd because other clubs have done even better – then we’ll be delighted. As I previously said, this isn’t a zero-sum game we’re trying to “win””.