PHOTO: Future Forest Green Rovers wooden stadium, designed by Zaha Hadid Associates

England soccer team Forest Green Rovers kicks off its first ever professional league campaign in its 128-year history knowing that they are already champions if environmental sustainability and commitment to a low carbon business are yard-sticks of success.

Only a few months ago FIFA, the world governing body of football, called the team the greenest football club in the world.

Today, with his team primed to start their fight up the competitive charts of the English Football League against Saturday’s opponents Barnet, Forest Green Rovers (FGR) owner and green entrepreneur Dale Vince told UN Climate Change News how a passion for football amongst players and fans alike could be turned into a passion for the planet.

“We always felt that football fans are a passionate group of people. If we could invoke the same kind of passion for environment issues that they feel for their club, we could create some passionate environmentalists and drive change that way,” said Mr Vince, founder of the equally innovative green electricity firm Ecotricity.

In May, the team broke into the longed-for professional level with a 3-1 victory against Tranmere Rovers at England’s temple of football Wembley, making their home at Nailsworth in Gloucestershire – population less than 6,000 – the smallest ever to host an English Football League club.

Some bigger clubs do have various green initiatives but these are not business-wide programmes. FGR has proved that the size of their environmental and climate ambition is what counts and Mr Vince is certain that its success can be replicated at any level.

“Sustainability as we approach it is absolutely replicable at the very highest level,” he said. “It is totally possible, more easily for big clubs than small, because as is often the way with sustainability steps, the upfront cost is usually a little higher than the unsustainable alternative, but the life time running costs are lower.”

“We’re finding that the combination of a football club and the environment is really something special,” said Mr Vince. “The work we do has resonated with a global audience, people who have an interest in the environment and have become fans of FGR because we stand up for these issues, or football fans that have just never seen a club take a stance like this before, and get it. It’s a new combination that’s getting traction everywhere. Ahead of Wembley we had messages of support from over 20 countries, and our Wembley story reached 300 million people globally on TV, radio, print and online.”

FGR club does not just adopt a veneer of sustainability, it lives the idea.

At the heart is its organic pitch, free from pesticides and chemicals and irrigated with natural water sources. From solar panels to energy efficiency to electric vehicles and free charging points for the players, the club aims for 100 percent renewable energy use. The diverse local flora and fauna on its land near Nailsworth are protected and nurtured.

Most astonishing to some, it’s catering has gone vegan, with no meat dishes, including for players. But far from reducing their drive on the pitch, feedback from the team has shown that the carefully-managed menus boosts match day energy.

Watch this FIFA video to learn more about the steps the Forest Green Rovers are taking to be the world’s greenest football club.

”Our vegan diet has definitely had an impact on the pitch, we had no soft tissue injuries in the whole squad last year at the end of the season at Wembley, pretty much unheard of in football,” said Mr Vince.

Dale Vince has never been shy of following his path and taking on a challenge. Leaving school at the age of 15, he went from the life of a New Age traveller on the road in his van to founding his first renewable energy company in 1995. In 2011, he bought into FGR and soon became club chairman.

FGR is now ready for its next green transformation.

“There’s not much more we can do to green up FGR at our current location. We’ve done almost everything possible in a retro fit scenario,” said Mr Vince. “So the next big green step for us will be to build Eco Park, the proposed site of our new stadium, and green technology business hub.”

The all wooden stadium, designed by Zaha Hadid Associates, is a key part of FGR’s longer term thinking because 75% of the lifetime carbon footprint of any sports stadium comes from the materials used to build it rather than its operation.

Future Forest Green Rovers wooden stadium, designed by Zaha Hadid Associates

“We hope this will set the bar for new stadia design,” said Mr Vince. “It’s part of a 50-hectare development we call Eco Park, which is roughly half sports complex and half green-tech business park. The whole development will bring a 16% increase in biodiversity. It shows development done in the right way can be sustainable in every sense.”

But Dale Vince said that it is the associated impacts of FGR’s green vision and soccer success on its fans and the local community which has shown, yet again, that sustainable, low-carbon economics and principles can put people and places on track to healthier, wealthier lives and livelihoods.

“Our fans are very much on board and increasingly proud of the stand the club takes. At first, some thought it was not really what football should be about! Others worried about what other fans might think, or that the food would be no good – and so on. But in the last few years all of that has changed.”

“Our work, and the publicity that it has attracted, and the audience we attract to the club, has also definitely had an influence in our locality and supply chain. Nailsworth, for example, probably has more vegan restaurants and cafes, per capita, than anywhere else in the world!”

“Entry into the English Football League is providing us with a massive, new opportunity, it’s a bigger platform for our message and for our work. There are no additional environmental challenges from this, only opportunities to do more and reach more people.”

The world of soccer has had its ups and downs in history but there is no doubt of its power to influence billions of people for good. Forest Green Rovers is showing that what few thought could be possible – soccer as a fully sustainable sector increasingly free from climate-warming emissions – is not only a realistic but a desirable future for fans and clubs alike.

Their success is an important practical and symbolic signal that the agreement by the world’s governments under the United Nations in Paris in 2015 to turn away from the paths of dangerous climate change and environmental disaster is achievable.