Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives have appeared in every aspect of life—and football is no different.

For clubs, going beyond the pitch and into the stands and the minds of fans is a crucial aspect of generating support for their ESG agendas. Embedding sustainability in football clubs’ personnel alongside their governance and structure, and then communicating this action to the public, will grow support for the club and for the agendas they promote.

An increasingly important aspect for these clubs will be how they help their followers make the most sustainable choices and facilitate further action. Energy usage and origin, sustainable travel arrangements, integrated waste management and recycling, and education are a few of the factors that clubs have to be conscious of. There is already growing publicity for those who are successful in their approach.

Passion, clarity, and green energy?

Forest Green Rovers, who made history in 2023 by appointing Hannah Dingley as the first female manager in English men’s professional football, were the first club to be certified as carbon neutral under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) ‘Climate Neutral Now’ initiative. Rovers, which is owned by Ecotricity founder Dale Vince, is fully vegan, has an organic pitch, and has plans to build “the world’s greenest football stadium” made entirely of wood.

By openly engaging with environmentalism the club has positioned itself well for growth and, crucially, in the public eye, frequently receiving direct coverage well above its EFL League Two level, cemented further by its founding membership of the UN Sports for Climate Action initiative.

Rice, Timber, and other precious commodities

Another key initiative is UEFA’s Football Sustainability Strategy 2030, alignment with which could be key in garnering preferential treatment throughout world football. UEFA, as part of its action plan, has created guidelines and a roadmap that other football organizations can easily follow.

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By GlobalData

By engaging with these guidelines, clubs can position themselves favourably in the public eye, which is especially important when UEFA’s FSS2030 revealed that 70% of European football fans believe UEFA has a key role in sustainability.

Elsewhere, Wolverhampton Wanderers’ increasingly successful One Pack, One Planet initiative is built on popular support among fans, where over 80% of fans surveyed stated that they believe that the club has a responsibility to be a champion of sustainability.

Footballing ESG agendas

The Premier League is the first to voluntarily take a direct stance on banning gambling shirt sponsorships (although betting sponsorships are allowed on shirt sleeves and electronic billboards around the stadium). This approach follows government-led bans on Italian and Spanish top-flight leagues in 2019 and 2021, respectively.

Getting ahead of regulation and engaging with broader footballing ESG agendas puts clubs in favourable positions to sweep up sponsorships and popular support from a collection of increasingly profitable and notable companies, that are increasingly environmentally and ethically conscious.

Sportswashing and ESG

Fans can be militant against unfavourable ownership and can compel the direction clubs go, ethically or otherwise. As a result, the true final opponent of ESG in the Premier League is sportswashing, which undermines all the positive initiatives that clubs and fans support. GlobalData’s Thematic Intelligence shows that the sports industry generated more than $740 million in 2022 in sponsorship deals from the oil, gas, and petrol sectors.

Scrutiny over the financial origins and activities of owners and sponsors is growing, and in the most-watched sports league globally, criticism from fans and bad press can be instrumental in forcing more positive social and environmental behaviour. Any Premier League club with aspirations of domestic success and competitiveness, where the average spend per point is almost $6 million, will increasingly have to contend with ESG agendas.

It remains to be seen whether sportswashing will persevere despite heightened criticism, in an industry built on its attraction to billions and its even greater worth.