Can football inspire climate action?

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Can football inspire climate action?

By Alex Robinson 30th September, 2022

“I love bacon butties, pies and steak”, Carl, a Manchester United fan from Newton Heath, told us. “I’m not really the kind of person that would normally go for this”. “This” was 'Manchester is Green', a challenge using football as a hook to inspire planet-friendly diets. But when we caught up with him three months after the trial, Carl told us he only eats meat once or twice a week, down from almost every day. It’s a remarkable shift, and Carl is far from alone: 70% of participants now eat less meat, 83% waste less food, and the majority have found that it’s helped them save money and feel healthier. It makes changing people’s habits around food sound almost too easy. So, what’s going on here?

Could football be the sleeping giant of climate action?

Love it or loathe it, football is probably one of the most powerful cultural forces we have in the UK. It’s by far the most played and followed sport: a mind-boggling 27 million people watched a Premier League game last season. And people who care about it often really care about it. Their club is part of their identity, the players are heroes. That gives clubs huge influence, which they’ve used to tackle a range of issues from racism to mental health. But, until now, climate change has been largely left on the bench. That leaves a massive opportunity to engage with fans and inspire more sustainable behaviours. We wanted to test out the power of football to make a difference. Research shows that swapping out meat and dairy products for plant-based foods and reducing food waste are two of the most effective ways to reduce our environmental impact, so food seemed like a great topic to start with.

Straight off the training ground

'Manchester is Green' is a three-week challenge first trialled in May 2022. It’s based on learning from previous successful trials run by Hubbub with customers from Tesco, M&S and Just Eat. Through a series of activities including cook-alongs and match-day challenges, 72 Manchester United and Manchester City fans and their households were supported to eat better for their pockets, for their health, and for the planet. We set out to flip some of the stereotypes about football and food on their head: no more “who ate all the pies?”, lots more sweet potato fries. 

Everything was framed in football terms: plant-based swaps became ‘tactical substitutions’ and quick recipe ideas became ‘half-time meals’. Using familiar language helped to make changes more appealing, and the passion fans have for their clubs created a sense of shared identity. When people saw others like them sharing recipes and inspiration, they were keener to get stuck in.

Back of the net

After three months, a survey completed by 66 participants showed that new eating habits had stuck:

  • 70% now eat less meat 
  • 77% now eat more plants 
  • 83% now waste less food 
  • 68% say being involved with Manchester is Green helped save them money on food (£17.47 per week on average = £900/year)

These are remarkable results and suggest that this approach has the potential to make a huge impact with fans. And there’s demand too; almost 9 in 10 (88%) of the 'Manchester is Green' participants believe football clubs and players should play a role in inspiring football fans to take on even more planet-friendly behaviours.

The bigger picture

While the media focus around sustainability in football has often been on teams taking private jets, or their fancy new stadiums, there’s a growing sense that football has a major role to play in tackling environmental issues. From Brentford FC reusing last season’s kit to Reading FC putting the ‘climate stripes’ on their sleeves, and advocacy from stars such as Juan Mata and Hector Bellerin, the conversation is changing.

Leading the way is Forest Green Rovers, the world’s first certified climate-neutral club. We told their owner, Dale Vince OBE, about 'Manchester is Green'. His views chime with ours: “Football has a huge opportunity to engage with fans and help them become fans of the environment as well as of football”, he said. “Manchester is Green shows how the beautiful game can inspire fans to help create the beautiful world we all want to live in.

We’ve picked out three tactical changes football clubs can make to encourage sustainable diets amongst fans:

  1. Match day: Encourage more plant-based uptake on match-day menus and nudge fans to ‘try something new’.  
  2. Home fixture: Inspire fans to take on more planet-friendly behaviour at home, particularly eating more plant-based food and reducing food waste.  
  3. In the community: Keep supporting local community groups taking action to help people cook more tasty, healthy and planet-friendly food.

It doesn’t just have to be food-related: these techniques could be applied to other sustainable behaviours from active travel to lower energy use. In fact, we’ve already started to see the spill over. Naomi from Miles Platting, a Manchester United fan, told us, “Since Manchester is Green, I’ve been buying my food from stores that don’t use plastic packaging and have invested in my first eco-car.” And there’s a growing sense of responsibility. Elliot, from the blue side of Manchester, put it best: “People have realised it’s up to us you know. It is literally now or never”.

We’re with Elliot. And we’re keen to develop this approach: work with more clubs, more fans, more organisations harnessing the power of football for good. If you’d like to talk tactics, please get in touch.

Find out more about the campaign, read the impact report, and watch our impact video below.

Learn more about the challenge

Manchester is Green' is part of #InOurNature, a Manchester-wide drive to tackle climate change, trialing climate-friendly ways of living and supporting people to make better lifestyle choices that help the environment. #InOurNature is led by Hubbub, Manchester Climate Change Agency and Partnership, Manchester City Council, Amity CIC, the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and Commonplace.

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