Forest Green gained worldwide attention after they were certified as the first carbon-neutral football club by the United Nations in 2018. You might think that they would be happy with this title and perhaps rest on their laurels, however the 130-year-old Gloucestershire-based Rovers have pledged to reach carbon emissions of net zero by 2040 as they continue their march towards an ever increasingly important sustainable future – a march seemingly as enduring as time itself.
You would be forgiven for mistaking these endeavours as distractions that could impact the performance of the club and team on the field, yet their recent results from seasons past suggest otherwise. Since 2018, when Rovers became history makers off the pitch, they have also made progress on the field of play. After a prolonged stint in the 6th tier of English football, 2016-17 saw Rovers make their way into League 2 after a successful campaign culminated by a play-off trophy lift.
Following this milestone in the clubs history they began building on this success, and a relegation battle in 2017-18 that saw the club survive the drop by a singular point, the club catapulted themselves up the table in 2018-19 to a 5th placed finish, though their play-off run wasn’t successful.. Like many of the 72 clubs in the football league, 2019-20 saw Rovers struggle for form and for health with the global pandemic at its peak. Nonetheless, they bounced back the following season to an almost perfect recreation of their 2018-19 form, alas again losing on aggregate in the play-off semi final to a superior Newport County. In the wake of another season within touching distance of promotion, the club remained strong and Rob Edwards (head coach) steered the proverbial ship to a title winning season, guaranteeing a place in League One in the 2022-23 season.
It’s clear that the on-pitch performances haven’t been negatively impacted by the off-field aspirations; in fact there is plenty of evidence to suggest the opposite, with the club using sustainable methods across all areas of their institution. Their kit supplier, PlayerLayer, have integrated these values and have innovated a technique that uses 3 cups of recycled coffee beans and 5 plastic bottles to manufacture each match shirt, leading to less waste and a smaller carbon footprint. Not only does this follow the club identity of environmental friendliness, the shirts have actually been found to be more lightweight and breathable through scientific testing in comparison to their counterparts.
Furthermore, Rovers have introduced a multitude of ways to keep their playing surface healthy and in good stead, from their use of the ‘Mow-Bot’ (a solar powered robot used to crop the surface at The New Lawn) to technology that uses rain water to irrigate the pitch, the clubs ambition has no limits when it comes to sustainability. Yet, they again decide not only to implement new technologies, but to improve the ones already in place – the irrigation system for the pitch now uses the toilet water from the ground’s facilities as well as rain water to provide the players with an organic world class pitch likened to the surface of a velvet carpet. Dale Vince, the owner of FGRFC, green energy industrialist and a polarising figure in the world of energy, dreams of the next steps – one of which is to build ‘Eco Park’ a stadium made completely of wood powered by the renewable sources of wind and solar power supplied by Ecotricity. It’s a plan that has been met with scepticism but Vince, not one to back down or shy away from new ideas, wholeheartedly believes in the project.
However, it is not only the external factors at play in an effort to remain true to the ethos of sustainability whilst maintaining and improving on-field performances, but also what is on the inside – more specifically what the players are consuming prior to match days. The club have imposed a vegan only diet for the playing staff, which has been up for debate for decades as to whether or not you can perform at the highest level of sport without the consumption of animal-based produce and a potential lack of vitamin B12, iron and calcium. But contrary to popular belief, the research and literature reviewed in a 2020 study carried out by the Medical University of Lublin titled ‘Influence of vegan diet on physical performance of athletes’, demonstrates that there is no significant difference in endurance and anaerobic or aerobic strength, so whilst the ideology is still being debated, the evidence suggests that it is not only a viable option for athletes but one that will yield the same success as their meat-eating competitors.
From their strip, to their stadium, to the food inside their bellies, Rovers are trailblazers in an industry not necessarily known for sustainability, but they won’t need me to tell them that. The phrase ‘We are FGR’ is almost twinned to their crest – they know who they are, they know where they want to go, and they know how to get there. They’re Forest Green Rovers – the world’s greenest football club.