Dale Vince is the founder of Ecotricity, a green electricity provider, and for the past few years, he has also been the manager of the Forest Green Rovers (FGR), a 130-year-old Gloucestershire-based (UK) football club.

But how does the founder of an energy company become the chairman of a Football League team? “I would say it was kind of like a happy accident; you could even say serendipity,” Vince told EURACTIV.

In 2010, the Rovers got into financial troubles and asked local entrepreneur Dale Vince for help to get through the summer. However, it soon became clear that the club needed much more than just a hand.

“Our choice was to walk away and see them go out of business or to take complete responsibility to run the club. We chose to take the responsibility,” Vince explained. But by taking over the club, they wanted to bring in their ethical approach to sustainability.

“It has all been pretty straightforward because we approached this from a point of view of passion. We believe these things have to be done,” said the FGR chairman. He applied a holistic approach to every single aspect of the management from transport to energy to food.

The Rovers play on an organic pitch free from pesticides and irrigated with rainwater; the New Lawn stadium is powered with green energy, most of which is produced in its own solar panels; their next season t-shirts are made 50% of bamboo to replace plastic and the FGR is the first vegan club in the world.

The biggest challenge remains, as in many other sports events, transport. As the current location of the facilities is hard to access, the Rovers are building a new stadium.

In the meantime, they encourage the use of public transport, car-sharing for displacement to other stadiums and has installed electric cars charging in the facilities of the club.

This set of initiatives have allowed the Forest Green Rovers to substantially reduce their ecological footprint, becoming in 2018 the world’s first UN certified carbon-neutral football club.

Preaching in the desert?

Nevertheless, Dale Vince soon realized that talking about sustainability, ecology and climate change to football fans was not necessarily ‘preaching to the choir’.

“They’re exactly the kind of people that we need to reach on issues of sustainability to get changes to happen on a large scale,” he argued. It has not been easy but according to FGR chairman, it is working.

“Some were more sceptical than others about the changes we were making,” Vince said but explained how a big part of the club supporters “have embraced” the change and “are proud of what the club stands for, what the club does.”

Becoming the world first vegan football club “was the most difficult thing we did, and I would say it wasn’t that hard,” he said.

“We just had some angry fans saying you can’t do that you’re dictating to us what we’re eating. And we said, well, no, we’re just setting the menu for our venue,” Vince explained.

“Football game is once a fortnight for two hours. So why not come and try something different instead of something that you eat every other day of the week? And, you know, our fans did, they came and they tried it and they loved it,” he stressed.

“Many of our fans have changed their own lives because of what we do. Many have gone vegetarian and vegan, for example, and looking at electric cars and solar panels and the kinds of things that they can do at home,” FGR manager explained.

A worldwide reference

Forest Green Rovers is considered the world greenest football club and has gained support around the world thanks to its work on boosting sustainability in sports. “We’ve got fan groups in 20 different countries of the world,” Dale Vince explained.

The notoriety is not only coming from their performance on the pitch – they play in the second division – but for their stance on environmental issues, which has helped them to spread their messages across other sports organisations.

The FGR was one of the founding organisations of the Sports for Climate Action Framework that the UN launched in 2018 during the COP24. The initiative aims at raising awareness and support actions in the field of sports to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement to fight climate change.

Furthermore, the Rovers signed up to the Eco-Management and Audit Scheme of the European Commission, becoming the first football club to do so.

As a leading figure in working towards a more sustainable football, the club also helps other sports organisations around the world to reduce their carbon footprint.

“We thought that we could reach football fans through our club, not just our fans, but the wider world of football and the wider world of sports,” Vince explained, “we could get them engaged in the issues of sustainability, and we can make them become fans of the environment.”

Nevertheless, the Forest Green Rovers still wants to go beyond. In the near future, the club will move to a new stadium, the first in the world made almost entirely of wood. “The big challenge is to start with a blank sheet of paper in terms of sustainable development,” Vince said.

“We’re building a place with nature at its heart, a very different kind of football ground, and a very different kind of stadium, which will seek a very different kind of football club.”

However, the club suffered an important setback as the Stroud District Council rejected last month the project for the new 5,000-seat stadium. Deal Vince announced the Rovers will appeal the decision.

“We have to put this right and fight this ridiculous decision,” Vince said in a statement where he accused the Conservative party of the project rejection.

“We need radical change to have any hope of fighting climate change, as part of that we need sustainable development, we need to show there is another way to do things,” the FGR manager said. “The world is moving this way, but we need more deeds and less words.”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]