business sustainability

Who’s winning the green Premier league?

At the weekend two London rivals, Arsenal and Tottenham, went head to head in football’s Premier League. Arsenal won, which is as it should be. But in the overall standings, Arsenal are second to Tottenham at the top of the league.

I’m not talking about the actual league here, but the more important one: the Premier League Sustainability Rankings, which the BBC have compiled for the second time this year. Tottenham leads with a maximum 21 points, with Arsenal, Brighton & Hove and Manchester United on 20. At the bottom are Burnley and Aston Villa, who didn’t bother to fill in the survey.

The survey is organised by the BBC and the UN’s Sport Positive project, and it looks at clean energy, efficiency, sustainable transport, waste and plastics and a variety of other things. Clubs can also score points through community engagement among fans, and use their platform to encourage good environmental choices. Offering vegan or vegetarian options in the catering is included, and measuring how fans travel to matches.

Tottenham come out on top because their new stadium is very efficient, and uses half the energy of stadiums built ten years ago – such as Arsenal’s. They run on 100% renewable energy and have a zero waste to landfill policy across all their sites. The training ground is heated with heat pumps and is rated BREEAM excellent. There is generous provision of bike stands to encourage fans to cycle to home games, and they have stated targets for reducing the number of fans travelling by private car.

Arsenal are no slouches themselves. They were the first Premiership club to shift to 100% renewable energy a few years ago, and then they partnered with Octopus Energy to create a renewable energy tariff for fans. There’s a 3MW battery in the basement of the stadium, meaning they play a useful role in balancing the local grid. They also boast the presence of Hector Bellerin, a passionate advocate for sustainability whose tree planting scheme plants 3,000 trees every time Arsenal win, though that’s not part of the official rankings.

Of course, whether you see this as a useful exercise or not is a matter of perspective. Before we applaud these steps, we ought to consider the vast environmental impact of elite sport – especially the thousands of fans flying across Europe for away games. And yes, that’s a fair criticism. But since football isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, we might as well encourage the sport to take whatever steps it can to improve.

Most importantly, sports clubs command genuine allegiance and can use their community building aspects for good. Introducing vegetarian options or beer cup reuse schemes are hardly small things when multiplied across thousands of fans, especially if it normalises choices that those fans then make in their own homes.

In his book Manifesto, Dale Vince writes about his experiences as the owner of Forest Green Rovers – which is the world’s most sustainable football club and in a different league in more ways than one. He got involved to support a struggling local club, but also because he could “see the opportunity to communicate to an entirely new audience, one relatively untouched by green messaging: football fans.”

If you find yourself tempted to call greenwash on the green premier league rankings, the scheme probably isn’t aimed at you. If it can shift some opinions among those who pay less attention to carbon emissions and single use plastics, it is worth doing. And here’s to Arsenal finishing above Tottenham next year in all the leagues that matter.

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