Forest Green Rovers is changing the world

The small football club in rural England prides itself on being the greenest club on the planet, challenging the norms around football matches and the spectator experience.

“Modern life is killing us. It should be obvious.”

These are the sobering words that begin the final chapter of the recently published book Manifesto. The book is written by Dale Vince, the British green energy industrialist who has not only challenged the way we think about our personal carbon footprint but also how the sport we love contributes to a warming planet.

Along with Ecotricity, a company that has been turning wind power into electricity since 1996, Vince owns Forest Green Rovers, a League Two football club in the small town of Nailsworth in rural Gloucestershire. But this is no ordinary sports organisation. The team bus is fully electric. So, too, is the lawnmower that cuts the pesticide-free grass at the New Lawn Stadium. 

That’s not all. The players’ shirts and shin pads are made from biodegradable bamboo. The soap in the players’ changing rooms and in the public toilets is plant-based and eco-friendly. The food served on match days in corporate suites and over fast-food counters is entirely free from animal products, and in 2017 the club became the first football side to receive the Vegan Trademark from the Vegan Society. The players’ meals are vegan, even though not all of them are. Some have been converted to veganism, convinced by the high performance aspect of an animal free diet and arguments that it helps with injury recovery and reduction of inflammation. 

This has predictably attracted some hostile attention from rival fans. On an away trip to Walsall FC last season, Forest Green centre back Farrend Rawson was felled by a sickening clash of heads that left him motionless on the ground. Not that the home supporters had any sympathy as they cried in unison: “You dirty vegan bastard, you’re eating our grass!” 

“To be honest, I thought it was hilarious,” Vince says. “Football is full of that banter humour and it’s all in good spirit. A club came here a few years ago and we were winning 4-0 and they sang, ‘Where’s your burger van?’ to the tune of Where’s Your Mama Gone? I thought it was cheeky.”

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The club is synonymous with its vegan fare. When Forest Green secured promotion to League Two in 2017, after beating Tranmere Rovers 3-1 at Wembley Stadium, commentator Bob Hunt bellowed, “Let me tell you this. Cheltenham, Swindon, Newport… you are going to eat hummus next season because Forest Green Rovers are in the Football League.” Those words are now emblazoned on the walls inside the club’s front office.

“For some reason, people get fixated on the food,” Vince says. “Everyone eats. Maybe that’s it. Some people are even offended by it. The chairman of Carlisle won’t eat our food out of principle, though he’s involved in the meat industry.

“For loads of people, pints, burgers and Bovril are part of what makes a day at the football. We offer all of that, but no animals had to die in the process. I know some of our fans aren’t happy that we’ve gone vegan, but I know many more have been turned on by what we’re doing here.”

A stadium made entirely of wood 

Indeed, Forest Green has fan clubs in more than 50 countries around the world. The side’s garish new home strip featuring black and green zebra stripes sold out in minutes when it was first introduced last season, with online orders from as far afield as Australia, China and the United States.

It’s not only the food that has garnered so much attention. In 2018, Forest Green became the first and only carbon-neutral sports club recognised by the United Nations (UN). It also helped the UN draft the Sports for Climate Action initiative, which aims to engage the sports community in the global fight against climate change.

Plans have been approved for a new stadium built entirely from wood, barring the bolts, in a green industry business park, creating 4 000 eco-conscious jobs.

“It will be the greenest stadium in the world since the Romans invented concrete,” Vince says. “More than 75% of a modern stadium’s carbon footprint comes from the materials they’re built with. Ours won’t have any concrete at all. We’ll develop a new wetland, build eco-conscious houses, plant trees and push the envelope of sustainable development to show that we can build a stadium and business park that works with nature.”

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There must be something in the water in this region of southwest England. A short bus ride from Nailsworth, over rolling hills and past idyllic country homes, is the slightly larger town of Stroud. It was here, in May 2018, that locals Gail Bradbrook and Simon Bramwell helped launch the global environmental movement Extinction Rebellion, often abbreviated as XR. Other prominent residents include Jane Augsburger and Katerina Hasapopoulos, who were arrested in April 2019 after protesting outside the London headquarters of oil giant Shell.

“It’s like a Silicon Valley for people who want to fight for a better future,” Vince says when asked what makes this picturesque part of the world such a hotbed for radical thought. “Like-minded people have gravitated here. Everywhere you look, there are XR posters and shops refusing to partake in the exploitation and slaughter of animals. More and more homes are turning to clean energy. It’s a cool place to live.”

Though he didn’t support any particular club growing up, Vince has been a football fan all his life. But this did not mean he was overly enthusiastic when Forest Green’s board members approached him to save the club when it was facing extinction in 2010. Then, relegation from the fifth tier of English football loomed, economic collapse was imminent and a proud club with more than 120 years of history was teetering. 

“I never had a plan to own or run a football club or work in football in any way,” Vince says. “But the club was in trouble and was in our back yard. I knew how much it meant to the community and wanted to help it survive the summer. It seemed like the right thing to do.”

But rather than inject funds into a project that felt disconnected from the world around it, Vince sought to align the club with his broader ethos.

“When we took this on, we realised that sport has this amazing ability to reach people and speak to them where they live,” he says. “We thought we could have some fun creating a green football club. What if we could make football fans equally passionate about the environment?”

Héctor Bellerín as shareholder 

This shift has not been universally welcomed in the decade that Vince has been in charge. Speaking to news channel CNN last year on condition of anonymity, one fan said the club had become “preachy” and “pushed the vegan agenda too much”. She added that many of her friends who are lifelong Forest Green fans now only watch their club at away matches, where bacon rolls and beef burgers are still permitted.

Stories like this are overshadowed by more flattering narratives, such as the news that Arsenal defender Héctor Bellerín became the second-largest shareholder of Forest Green in September. The 25-year-old Spaniard, who is vegan, is known for his social consciousness, having recently raised enough money to plant 60 000 trees in the Amazon rainforest. He adds genuine star quality to a movement that is often situated on the fringes.

“Lefties and greenies tend to be sticklers for detail and caveats and that can turn into dry communication, which ultimately turns people off,” Vince explains. “As I say in my book, we need to have fun while doing this. I’m not a fan of populist movements advocated by Donald Trump or Nigel Farage, but we need to take a leaf out of their book in the way they communicate.”

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This is why Vince is a vocal supporter of XR, a group critics have labelled as extremist. He has also championed the global school strikes instituted by climate activist Greta Thunberg. One of Forest Green’s main sponsors is Sea Shepherd, the international marine conservation organisation that uses direct action, such as steering ships between whaling boats and whales, to protect marine life.

“What XR, Greta and the people at Sea Shepherd have in common is that they’re disruptors,” says Vince, who also praises Greenpeace for dropping the granite boulders in the North Sea that obstructed fishing in the region. “These are exciting movements. They attract attention. Sometimes it’s about how you sell your message, rather than what that message is.”

That is not to say that Forest Green is merely a pipe organ for Vince’s green vision. Promotion to League Two, the fourth tier on England’s football pyramid, defied expectation for a club that faced administration seven years earlier. It also made Nailsworth the smallest town ever to house a Football League club. Stitched on the back of every club shirt, along with the skull and crossbones of Sea Shepherd, are three stars, signifying the goal of reaching the Championship just below the Premier League.

Learning from the coronavirus 

Forest Green’s reputation, as well as the financial might of its owner, means the club is in a less precarious situation than others in the lower reaches of English football as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Either way, the psychological blow the coronavirus has imparted has been felt keenly at New Lane.

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“It’s been a wake-up call,” Vince says. “This virus is the result of humanity’s desire to consume animal flesh. There are a lot of people who want us to do better when we come out of it. I’m one of those people. We can’t go back to business as usual.”

Amid the chaos, Vince remains an optimist. He points to the work of Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and how his calls to feed hungry children forced a U-turn from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. “That’s just another example of sport’s power to influence change,” Vince says. Then there is the US election result. “A massive win for the planet, if nothing else,” says Vince, an ardent supporter and major donor to the Labour Party in the United Kingdom.

The space and time constraints of a football match mean the sport cannot change the world on its own. It needs visionaries who consciously use the beautiful game as a vehicle to drive that change, to help shape society in their image and grab the attention of those who might not otherwise have had their heads turned. At a small football club in rural England, a group of mavericks is doing just that.

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