Dale Vince never wanted to be the owner of a struggling professional soccer club with serious financial problems. But the multimillionaire founder of renewable energy company Ecotricity — and former New Age traveler — agreed to buy the U.K.’s Forest Green Rovers in 2010 after the club asked him to step in and run it.
“So we said, ‘All right, if we’re going to do this, we’ll bring our work in the field of sustainability into football, which is an untouched audience for this kind of message,’” said Vince, who in 2004 was awarded an OBE by Queen Elizabeth II for services to the environment. Punkish in attitude and appearance, with the sides of his head closely shaved, he’s an nonconformist soccer chairman who shuns shirts and ties, rides motorbikes (electric and petrol) and still plays the sport regularly in his late 50s.
Vince has sparked an environmental focus at the club that is unprecedented at any level of English soccer.
Forest Green Rovers, which was established in 1889, is now the world’s first vegan and carbon neutral soccer club. Its solar-paneled stadium, the New Lawn, is located on Another Way in Nailsworth, a town in southwest England. With a population of just 6,000 — not much more than the ground’s capacity — it’s the smallest place in the country to boast a club in the English Football League, as the top four tiers of professional soccer are collectively known.
But despite its diminutive stature, Forest Green, which competes in League Two, three tiers below the top flight teams in the Premier League, has an outsized profile.
Officially certified as carbon neutral by the United Nations last week after signing up to a scheme that requires the reduction or offsetting of all emissions, the club has found international publicity for its eco credentials, and has won fans in America and elsewhere.
“We’ve been shipping merchandise out all over the world, sending it to Canada, Australia and America,” the club’s commercial manager, Paula Brown, told the Guardian last year. “I think that’s people who are thinking about the environmental impact that we’re having and the ethos that the chairman has and they want to back us on that,”
Forest Green’s field is free from fertilizers or fungicides that negatively affect the soil’s microbes. Instead, it’s sprinkled with Scottish seaweed. “It’s an altogether multivitamin for the grass,” explained groundsman Adam Witchell, who weeds the New Lawn by hand rather than using a chemical spray. (A solar-powered “mowbot” cuts it.) Most top-flight pitches are reinforced with artificial fibers, but Witchell’s approach, studied by other clubs, is to strengthen the grass naturally. He likens it to taking steroids versus eating healthily.
Sport is not entirely untrodden ground for veganism. High-profile stars who have adopted vegan (or mostly vegan diets) include tennis player Venus Williams and Formula 1 racing driver Lewis Hamilton, and soccer players such as Barcelona’s Lionel Messi have gone plant-based in recent seasons.
These vegan athletes may be the exceptions, not the rule, but veganism is gaining momentum. Six percent of U.S. consumers identify as vegans, up 600 percent from 2014, according to market research firm GlobalData. Many are driven by concerns over the environment, animal welfare and human health. New research suggests that reducing your intake of meat and dairy, which uses 83 percent of farmland and is responsible for 60 percent of agriculture’s emissions, is the single biggest way to minimize your environmental impact. Studies have also linked plant-based diets with lower body weight, cholesterol, blood pressure and reduced risk of heart disease.
All Forest Green’s players eat vegan when they’re at the club, or at hotels before away games. (Two clubs have put on plant-based menus for their visit.) “If the chairman’s paying then it’s got to be vegan,” said Tom Huelin, Forest Green’s fitness coach. “What they do on their own time’s up to them. But the fact that it is vegan when they’re here is almost a way of educating them that they should consider their food choices.” Players are often from lower socioeconomic backgrounds where eating healthy food is not always something that’s affordable or a priority. And at this level of the sport, the footballers are less likely to be able to afford to employ their own chefs.
“I don’t feel like the players are getting any less nutritionally,” said Huelin, who believes that the protein requirements in running-based disciplines such as soccer are “overblown” by sports nutrition companies and the media. Forest Green’s players refuel after training and matches with soy milk and vegan protein powder from U.K. supplement store Revolution Foods (which was founded by an ex-soccer player).
Plant-based foods have the advantage of digesting more quickly than animal products, said Huelin, so they’re more readily utilized and don’t sit in the players’ stomachs. More research is required to prove veganism’s oft-touted health benefits, he added, “But there is a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that reducing meat and dairy can have positive effects not only on recovery, but also on reduction of injuries.” He hasn’t had any significant pushback on the diet from players, and three have turned vegan.
Right-back Dale Bennett, who played for Forest Green for six years before signing for Sutton United this June, converted to veganism last summer “mainly for the health benefits.” Initially he lost nearly 9 pounds because, by his own admission, he didn’t know what he was doing. But he soon regained the weight and “smashed” his previous season’s fitness records. He also said he felt less tired in the mornings, which he attributes to his diet. He would text Forest Green’s chef, Em Franklin, for culinary inspiration: “It gets boring having tofu.”
“It’s not actually a diet about sacrifice and martyrdom,” said Franklin, who has cooked for musicians Radiohead and Robbie Williams on tour. “It’s about inclusion, and eating well.” The food at Forest Green resembles comfortingly familiar soccer match fare: burgers, savory pies, fries. But the burgers are made with beans, and the pies are made with meat substitute Quorn. All are served in biodegradable containers. Opposition fans may imaginatively chant, “Your pies are shit,” but they’ve been highly commended by the British Pie Awards.
Food sales at Forest Green have gone up since its vegan revolution, which suggests that their own fans are not in opposition.
One, Chris Latham, 31, converted to veganism after reading a sign in the stadium about the environmental impact of meat and dairy. “What helped is that the food here is really good, and the kind of food I like, so I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything,” he said. When colleagues from his financial services firm’s offices around the country come to watch their teams play at the New Lawn, they rib him about the food; after, they admit it’s the best they’ve had all season.
Forest Green’s position has not gone down universally well. In a nationwide survey of popularity among fans of other clubs, it came second to last in League Two. Haters may envy its financial resources: “moneybags” was a common accusation as Forest Green earned — or bought — promotion into the Football League. Openly setting its sights on the Championship, one rung below the Premier League, has also bred resentment towards the ambitious club, as has its away stand, which is open to the elements.
Undoubtedly though, the lack of meat options remains a bone of contention for some, if not the activism. “That’s the last argument left standing, that we should provide a choice,” said Vince, who plans to build a spectacular new wooden stadium designed by world-renowned Zaha Hadid Architects called “Eco Park.” “For me, it’s an immoral thing to do, so we can’t. But when they try the food, they love it. Our fans love it. You can’t not love it. Because the bar of football food is low. And we put on great food, we really do.”
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