AI-generated image of a carbon neutral soccer ball
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By Marius Brugman and Jessy de Cooker

The daughter of Leon Vlemmings, innovation manager of FC Dordrecht, deserves credit when FC Dordrecht and TOP Oss kick off the first climate-neutral match in Dutch professional football tonight. It was she who gave Vlemmings the idea. “She said, ‘Dad, I’m going to a climate-neutral and circular festival.’ After watching a promotional video, we shared it with the club’s network, and the idea was born.”

Through the Energiek Dordt network, FC Dordrecht now wants to establish itself as a pivot in a network of local and regional businesses, government, and education to have a more social and economic impact. The football world is in a vicious circle, believes Vlemmings, who has served in several positions in Dutch professional football. “Sustainability is an important joint task now and in the future. Clubs and cities cannot solve this alone but must act together.”

In times when heat records follow one another, energy costs are rising due to the energy crisis, and the earth is warming up, current business practices are no longer sustainable for running a modern professional club. Together with its network, the KNVB, and opponent TOP Oss, FC Dordrecht examined how climate-neutral the game could become: from transport and energy to the food in the stadium. In this way, the club wants to show how sustainability can become part of structural policy, with the climate-neutral match as its flagship.

Short-term focus

AI-generated image of a carbon neutral soccer ball

Our research shows that, step by step, Dutch professional football is transforming sustainability actions into concrete climate strategies and policies on the subject. 11 of the 34 Dutch professional clubs indicate that they currently have concrete sustainability policies in place. They have made internal agreements and set concrete goals on greenhouse gas emissions such as CO2, gas consumption, or the transition to a more sustainable stadium. In addition, nine clubs indicate they are actively developing a climate strategy.

The football industry in the Netherlands is ten years behind the “normal” business world in terms of sustainability, argues Jan Rotmans, professor of transition science at Erasmus University Rotterdam. “There is too much focus on the delusion of the day. Clubs hardly look beyond one season ahead at the administrative level. The many changes of general and technical directors also do not help to establish a policy over a longer term.”

In football, you always have tensions between the short and long term, argues Jos de Kruijff, commercial director of Willem II. “We can invest in sustainable solutions such as solar panels or LED lamps in the stadium lighting, but that requires a substantial investment. Ultimately, a football club is about the sporting result. Willem II wants to get promoted. All other matters are secondary to that goal.”

Willem II wants to get promoted. All other matters are secondary to that goal.

Jos de Kruijff

Sustainability policy as a license requirement

AI-generated image of a carbon neutral soccer ball

The European Football Association UEFA and the KNVB are putting sustainability on the agenda of professional clubs with various climate goals and guidelines. For example, in the Football Sustainability Strategy 2030, the European Football Association sets member states and itself the goal of having insight into climate impact by 2030 and halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. UEFA and the KNVB have included sustainability in licensing requirements. Starting this season, clubs must have a “regarding social responsibility” strategy around themes such as sustainability. This vision must be in line with the UEFA strategy. Clubs must also create a “written policy” around sustainability and “apply this policy in the organization.

Football clubs struggle to outline a policy due to uncertainty and short-term thinking. ADO Den Haag was acquired last year by American Globalon Football Holdings after years of administrative instability. “Due to the circumstances of recent years, we have not been able to draw up a sustainability policy,” a spokesman on behalf of the Hague-based Keuken Kampioen Divisionist announced. ADO is currently drawing up a long-term vision for sustainability.

Delaying factor

AI-generated image of a carbon neutral soccer ball

Eredivisie club Go Ahead Eagles points to its stadium as a delaying factor in sustainability. “We currently have separate projects, for example, around waste separation, which we want to bundle into policy. We want to make De Adelaarshorst CO2-neutral and build two new stands,” stated spokesman Steef Alblas. However, the local government has not yet final approval for the project. “This stadium issue ensures that we have not yet developed a sustainability policy or goals and included them in policy documents at this time. Based on continued development at the current location, such a sustainability plan can go in the trash if our stadium plans don’t go through. Then we can start all over again.”

The extent to which the theme of sustainability is contained in policy varies from club to club. Telstar established a special foundation with the Green Lions in 2019 to become more sustainable. “We want our – then fully renovated – stadium to operate energy-neutral by 2030,” reports Treasurer Steef Hammerstein. NEC spokesman Nick van der Cammen says the Nijmegen club has included the theme of sustainability “in its social strategy. “However, this is – to create support – first discussed internally.”

Own climate vision

AI-generated image of a carbon neutral soccer ball

Together with FC Twente and Vitesse, FC Eindhoven is exploring the possibilities of becoming more sustainable this season and gaining insight into its own energy consumption and carbon footprint. “It is a baseline measurement in which we gain insight into what steps can be taken on environmental aspects,” says G√ľnther Peeters, general manager of FC Eindhoven. The club is participating after establishing its own climate vision. Peeters: “We take our responsibility to the Eindhoven region. From that vision, we naturally look at our climate impact. As a small club, you have to be creative in that area.”

In communication policy, the approach differs from club to club. For example, Ajax states in its annual report that it wants to operate in a CO2-neutral manner by 2030. FC Twente reports extensively on CO2 emissions in annual reports and sustainability documentation via its own website. In these public reports, FC Twente and Ajax appear to be exceptions to the rule, and clubs’ sustainable activities are often not visible to fans. According to Professor Rotmans, a missed opportunity, given the example football clubs can set for their supporters. “Communicate what you are doing to fans. Some clubs have sustainability measures, but supporters don’t see them reflected in their stadium attendance or communication to them.” Inquiries reveal that CO2 emissions are not always communicated to the outside world or that clubs are currently still in the process of mapping all of their CO2 emissions.

Setting an ambition

AI-generated image of a carbon neutral soccer ball

Drawing up a climate policy helps professional clubs control their actions, says Joost Ploos van Amstel, program manager for a sustainable economy at regional development organization Midpoint Brabant. “In your own policy, you lay down your organization’s ambition and strategy on sustainability. You can then work on the subject in a structured way.”

Moreover, an own policy can also go beyond the set goals of the KNVB. For example, FC Dordrecht does not want to halve its CO2 emissions by 2030 but aims to be completely climate-neutral. CO2 emissions must be reduced from 341 tons in 2019 to zero with the climate-neutral match on Friday, May 19, against TOP Oss as the booster. The club wants to make the grandstand heating more sustainable, make bicycles available for supporters, and use reusable drinking cups to achieve a climate-neutral match. These concrete action points are also reflected in the plan to become climate neutral in six years. Vlemmings: “FC Dordrecht has developed a multi-year plan to make its surroundings more valuable, also in terms of sustainability. The climate-neutral match is our kickstarter, with which we gain knowledge to accelerate realizing sustainability goals.”

On Friday, May 19, FC Dordrecht and TOP Oss will play the Netherlands’ first climate-neutral match at the Matchoholic Stadium in Dordrecht. This publication was created with Fonds Bijzondere Journalistieke Projecten (fondsbjp.nl) support.