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Sustainability disruption

24 January 2020

White line on green grass
The groundskeepers at Forest Green Rovers use seaweed supplements, natural composts and frequent aeration to maintain their fully-vegan ground.

The ‘green entrepreneurial’ journeys of Britain’s greenest renewable energy supplier and the greenest football club in the world were the focus of the latest in Cardiff Business School’s Public Value lecture series.

Helen Taylor, a member of the Senior Management Team at Ecotricity and former CEO of Forest Green Rovers (FGR) Football Club, traced the history of the green energy company, founded by Dale Vince in 1998.

She explained how Dale had a vision for bringing about a green Britain following a visit to Glastonbury Festival where he built a device to charge mobile telephones with solar power.

With the money raised from this project, Dale learned about wind turbine energy from Enercon in Germany and bringing his knowledge and expertise back to the UK, he started Ecotricity.

The company supplies 200,000 homes and 16,000 businesses in Britain with 100% vegan and green electricity and frack-free gas. With a ‘bills to mills’ business model, they invest all profits back into building new sources of green energy.

Learn, experience, inspire

Ecotricity got involved with Forest Green Rovers in 2010, a time when the club was struggling financially. After providing initial financial support, Dale offered to take a greater stake in the club as Chairman.

Having only been at Ecotricity a short while, Helen found herself as CEO of a football club. Reflecting on that transition she said: “All the things we believe in with Ecotricity are really difficult to translate through the energy side of the business alone...”

“You can kind of see bits of it, the electric charging points for example, but it didn’t all come together anywhere. So, we suddenly thought, well yes, FGR could be a physical manifestation of what we believe in. People could come and find out, learn, experience things and, perhaps, be inspired to do more.”

Helen Taylor Former CEO of Forest Green Rovers Football Club

A green transformation

One of the first things they did was take red meat off the menus at the ground’s vendors. A vegan since the age of 15 for animal welfare reasons, Dale thought it was an opportunity to do things differently. And so began the green transformation of FGR football club.

Later removing chicken and fish, the club very quickly transitioned to a vegan menu. And fans are now telling them that some of these choices are being taken home too, with many buying oat milk instead of the dairy alternative.

Following the acquisition, the Ecotricty team also installed solar panels onto one of the stands and electric vehicle charging points in the car park. Solar power now accounts for around 23% of the energy used on a matchday with the remaining energy taken from Ecotricity’s supply.

Another first for the beautiful game, saw FGR employ a horticulturalist to make the ground’s turf vegan and fully organic. The groundskeepers use seaweed supplements, natural composts and frequent aeration to maintain the ground, which across two seasons saw only one game postponed.

The one-of-a-kind pitch has even been used to make Faith in Nature’s new lawn Epsom salts body wash.

Shortly after their promotion into the English Football League in 2017, FGR was named the world's first UN-certified carbon-neutral football club - powered by renewable energy and endorsed by the Vegan Society.

Since then, the club has gone from strength to strength, with average attendances of 2,800 per match and a significant following on social media.

They are committed to community outreach projects which sees 400 shirts - made of 50% bamboo - given to 7-8-year olds in the Stroud area.

This is one of a series of engagement initiatives for children ambassadors to get involved in the club, learn about sustainable development, sample a vegan diet and even contribute to the matchday programme.

Beliefs, engagement and behaviour

It was this type of influence on stakeholder behaviour that interested Dr Anthony Samuel, Senior Lecturer in Marketing and Strategy at Cardiff Business School, to reach out to the club.

He said: “Having heard about all the good work FGR were doing in terms of sustainable development and building environmental awareness within professional football, I wanted to determine if this was having any impact on the beliefs, engagement and behaviour of their supporters and others.”

Since then, Dr Samuel has secured seedcorn funding to investigate these changes within a community based social marketing framework.

He’s held five focus groups consisting of football supporters and residents of Forest Green and Nailsworth and conducted 60 semi-structured interviews the club’s staff and associates, directors and senior management, supporters, residents and businesses from the area.

Reflecting on nearly two and a half years of work with the club, Dr Samuel said: “The commitment of the club to the sustainability agenda is winning over hearts and minds...”

“Early research findings show the club has not only sparked an interest in their stakeholders but helped some explore and adopt sustainability behaviours like reducing meat and dairy consumption or switching their utilities to smaller, ethical, clean energy companies.”

Dr Anthony Samuel Reader in Marketing and Strategy

“Personally, they’ve also enabled me to build sustainable consumption and environmental issues into our public value curriculum at Cardiff Business School.

“I’ve visited the ground with my Marketing and Business Strategy and Entrepreneurship students on several occasions and they’ve got as much out of the tours and hearing about the club’s initiatives as they have out of the football.”

A greener Britain

Drawing her presentation to a close, Helen reflected on the Ecotricity and FGR sustainability disruption. She said: “If you’re thinking about a journey like ours, I’d say just be brave and get on with it. There are ways of tackling these things and they don’t always have to be complex.

“We get invited to international discussions around sport and sustainability, and I think it’s actually about starting from the ground up and seeing what it is you can do and what can be done. It’s much easier than being told.

“There are of course difficult solutions out there too, but if we can work together, we will eventually achieve a greener Britain.”

Didn’t make the event? Watch in full now.

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