At the beginning of May, the British NGO Sport Positive unveiled its first ranking of the most ecological clubs in the French Ligue 1. Its founder, Claire Poole, explains to us how this championship, dominated by Olympique Lyonnais, works and why the football world can do a lot for it environment.
I had been working on the themes of climate change and sport for eight or nine years. This allowed me to be very aware of the actions of certain clubs in favor of sustainable development. And in the exchanges I could have about these questions, I realized I was always coming out with the same examples of Premier League, Bundesliga or Ligue 1 clubs doing real action. I wanted to have a more complete, global view of the entire football ecosystem. It is this reflection that gradually led to the launch in 2021 of the first Sport Positive Leagues ranking for the English Premier League. Our philosophy is to share information about what clubs are doing, to inform organizations, but also to encourage less advanced clubs to copy it. The competitive spirit that exists in sports can be helpful in this area of sustainability efforts.
How were you initially received by the football world?
(She smiles.) The goal is to easily share information: have we done research, how do we present it effectively? Few people would read a 40 page report, but a ranking is what fans read every weekend. It seems like a good mechanic for our job, it makes for a friendly match to deal with an extremely important question. It is clear that it is not pleasant for people in the lower-ranked clubs. Everyone, especially in the football world, is competitive and wants to perform. But what reassured me is that we have not received any negative feedback from the clubs as a result of these publications.
“We have reached a stage where the clubs know that a ranking will be released during the year and they are asking us what new categories will be taken into account.”
Have you seen any concrete effects, for example a club that was poorly ranked and accelerated the following year to move up?
Yes, even before publishing our first ranking, when the clubs were aware of the project, it had a positive effect. Some clubs, especially global ones, can react very quickly if they identify an area they are lagging behind. A club like Southampton launched the ‘Halo Effect’, a sustainable development programme, after our first ranking. It was a realization for them to see that sitting alone in the middle of the table, they thought they were doing a lot. Liverpool also launched ‘The Red Way’. The “conversation” we started with our rankings has increased their focus on these environmental issues. We have reached a stage where the clubs know that a ranking will be released during the year and they are asking us what new categories will be taken into account. The aim of our approach is, outside the clubs, to raise the awareness of their supporters. That’s why we place great value on the communication of clubs about their actions: the more a club makes access to this information easy for its audience, the more we tend to give points. When we launched our project, few clubs had a page dedicated to ecology on their sites, now almost all of them have one.
Looking for a scale effect?
Precisely. Sport is a microphone to address the world. It is important to reduce the carbon footprint of football, but by reducing the carbon footprint of football you are also encouraging almost the entire planet to do the same, the fans, the companies, the entire economy. The real ecological victory through the sustainable development of football would be to change the habits of those who consume football. Football and sports in general can change all other industries, for example in the organization of transport, one of the human activities that has the most impact. If we change the way teams and supporters travel, there are big gains to be made. Displacement of people will always have an impact on the environment, but if everyone makes an effort, there are opportunities for progress. But for the words of the sports world to be credible, the sports world must first lead by example.
“It would be fantastic if in the near future players could focus on the environment and make it a lever for career choice. †
More and more young graduates are refusing positions in large groups because they feel they are not sufficiently advanced in values, especially in the fight against global warming. Do you think footballers will one day say no to a big club with the argument? “I’d rather go to Southampton, they do more than you do for the climate…” †
I’d love to see that happen, but I don’t know if it’s possible in the near future. We’re talking about an individual level choice so that a player does it, it’s really possible, but it’s more difficult to imagine it becoming a huge phenomenon. It would be great if players focused on the environment in the near future and turned it into a career choice lever. But football is a very complex universe, the transfer system, loans, financial considerations, tactics… More generally, more and more football players are speaking in public about environmental issues. Patrick Bamford, for example. In addition to the choice of clubs, there is more directly the choice of sponsors by players and clubs. This is a criterion that we want to integrate, the environmental responsibility of the sponsors with which the clubs cooperate. The difficulty is establishing fair criteria without positioning ourselves as judges who decide what is good and what is bad. There are purist views, a company investing in fossil fuels shouldn’t be on a football club’s shirt, and there are more pragmatic views, encouraging polluting groups to take a more virtuous approach. It is important not to exclude companies that are in transition as they can bring significant benefits.
What methodology is used to establish your club ranking criteria?
We mainly look at their concrete operations. Are they efficient in waste management, efficient use of energy or not. We don’t necessarily use the carbon footprint, because on the one hand not all clubs had calculated theirs when we started, and on the other because there are different ways to calculate it, different data that can be integrated into it. Focusing on actions, in communication, in education, in waste management, it is more concrete. The way clubs manage their merchandising is another very important criterion. It is an activity that can have a very heavy impact. The ranking is not as important as the dynamics it can create in the clubs.
You mentioned cooperation with UEFA. Is it possible to see a ranking in a day? “durability” with guaranteed places for the best federations or clubs, in terms of fair play?
I hope ! They are not direct partners in our actions of Sport Positive Leagues, but we are in close contact with them. In the future, it would be good for them to see this as a sufficient priority to consider these types of mechanisms. I would be very happy if UEFA, FIFA or the Premier League took matters into their own hands, with strong decisions in this direction.
Do we have data to assess the overall environmental impact of the football industry?
It is very difficult because of the magnitude of the phenomenon, of its practice. Only entities such as UEFA or FIFA could launch studies to assess this, as they are likely the only ones with the resources to do so. The most immense part of football is the foundation, the amateur practice. It’s really hard to judge this level, we can only judge the professional dimension, but it’s up to the organizations at the top to make sure.
The president of a green club.
“Over time, this growth in the number of matches makes no sense if we are serious about combating global warming. †
Is a professional football match possible that is environmentally neutral?
We are still a long way from this ideal, because we are really at the beginning of the path. Because even if all clubs managed to have neutral activity, there would still be a need to bring supporters to the stadium. Neutrality would thus depend not only on the clubs, but also on other sectors of activity. Sport is a lever to create a dynamic. It’s good to strive for carbon neutrality, but we have to be honest, we live in an economy that is dependent on fossil fuels. The football world is not going to change everything on its own. After that, you must not lack ambition, but you must have patience, think in terms of progress, even small ones. The subject of neutrality is really a long way off, we have steps forward.
World Cup with 48 countries, Super League project, Champions League with 36 teams, what inspires you?
I think you have to be honest, even if you like football you can’t continue to ‘grow’ if you take the environment seriously. We can understand the idea of opening up a World Cup to more countries, but organizations should assume that the motivation behind these expansions in the number of participants is primarily financial. Over time, this growth in the number of matches makes no sense if we are serious about combating global warming. This applies to sports, to industry, to commerce. We can no longer view growth as a positive thing, we have to think about doing more or better with what we have available. If we continue on this path, the planet will one day be so decimated that there will be no more high-level sports competitions.
Interview by Nicolas Jucha