Changing the rules: sustainability in football

February 11, 2022

Changing the rules: sustainability in football

Pieter Kuijpers, former footballer and alumnus of Johan Cruyff Academy Amsterdam, has launched the company Teamplayers Concepts, with which he aspires to make the football industry aware of the need for a change in its business model towards sustainability in football

Reducing CO2 to comply with the UN Paris Climate Agreement remains a great social challenge, including for sport. Solar panels on stadium roofs, LED lighting, sustainable heating systems for pitch maintenance, and water cooling in changing rooms and offices are all sustainable innovations that are increasingly being incorporated into smart stadiums, but there is still a long way to go in terms of sustainability in football.

Pieter Kuijpers, a former football player and alumnus of Johan Cruyff Academy Amsterdam, believes it is time to give priority to the subject. With the aim of contributing to a change in the business model of the football industry, Pieter has left Triple Double, the sport marketing company where he has worked for the past 10 years, to start Teamplayers Concepts, together with football player Siem de Jong of SC Heerenveen. The company is dedicated to promoting the Sustainable Development Goals in football, and they work together with the We Play Green foundation of Morten Thorsby (UC Sampdoria) and Maarten de Fockert (Excelsior), football players who are committed to the same cause. We Play Green came to the attention of Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the European Commission and responsible for the European Green Deal, with whom Pieter had a first meeting.

Changing the rules: sustainability in football

Pieter Kuijpers, working with his team at Teamplayers Concepts.

As a mass sport, football attracts the attention of billions of people in all spheres of society, is a showcase for sponsors and many commercial initiatives, has a direct impact on other business sectors and attracts a lot of media attention. But any change also has to come from within, because it makes no sense to promote something that you yourself do not comply with and it is already known that every journey requires a first step.

Pieter Kuijpers has decided to commit himself to a change within the sector that he knows well. In this interview, he explains how it is going and what challenges lie ahead.

To what extent do you notice that footballers are more concerned with sustainability?

Climate change affects everyone, and more and more footballers—more than most people think—are socially engaged and concerned about the climate.  We conducted research into footballers’ knowledge of climate change, and we found the results surprising: over 84% are familiar with the problem and recognize that it is human-made. The vast majority also indicate that they are concerned about it. You may conclude that football players are therefore ordinary people (laughs). The challenge is to get them moving. Some are hesitant, for example because they are afraid they will be accused of not being involved enough in football itself, or say the wrong thing because they are not experts. It’s time to change that! Footballers, as role models, have a huge reach and influence on fans. Moreover, they also reach all layers of society, often with a message that is much more accessible and understandable than that of, say, a politician. I am a firm believer in this. Nelson Mandela once said: “Sport has the power to change the world.” Football has nearly four billion fans around the world, in all levels of society, of all beliefs, cultures, ages… If footballers start using their voices, as well as clubs, federations and the media, we can play an immense role.

Morten Thorsby said, “If you’re a player today, you’d never play for a racist club. The same will happen with climate.” Do you think so too?

That’s a nice statement because of the telling comparison. I definitely think this is changing, but also that it will take some time, unfortunately. I don’t have any figures to back it up, but I think this is also because climate change is still a fairly new phenomenon. It will take some time before it becomes fully part of our daily lives. Racism, of course, has been around as an issue for much longer and even there is still a world to be won.

“Football can be much more of a platform for global issues, not just climate change, but also for example lack of exercise or opportunity inequality”

It is now almost a year since we launched our company Teamplayers Concepts, and in that year, it has sometimes felt like missionary work to convince people in football of the impact they can make, and that there are opportunities here for football as well. Football can be much more of a platform for global issues, not just climate change, but also for example lack of exercise or opportunity inequality.

Changing the rules: sustainability in football

Morten Thorsby founded We Play Green, a platform for professional football players who want to help the planet out of the climate crisis.

Fortunately, after a year, we can now work on a number of concrete assignments and there are some great initiatives underway. Our involvement with We Play Green—the players’ movement founded by Norwegian football international Morten Thorsby—is a good step, for example, and has opened doors, including to Frans Timmermans. In the background, there are a number of specific large sustainability projects underway in Dutch football, which in all likelihood will see the light of day next season.

What do you think should change in sport, and specifically in football?

When Cristiano Ronaldo removed a bottle of Coke during the European Championship, there was a huge commotion. Everyone thought all sorts of things about it, but the comments that struck me the most were along the lines of ‘he should be professional, because these loyal sponsors ensure that he gets paid his millions’. I understand that reasoning, of course, but it assumes entirely a frame of reference that the sport can only exist by the grace of the big sponsors —the likes of Coca Cola, McDonald’s and Gazprom.

Changing the rules: sustainability in football

Cristiano, in a Euro 2020 press conference.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not condemning anything; sport is a fantastic platform that exists because of the commitments of investors and sponsors, and we certainly shouldn’t disapprove of that. I do notice, however, that I am bothered by insignificant sponsorships and especially the interpretation of these, where slick commercials have become a kind of holy grail.

It is my desire to change this, or at least contribute to changing it. It is important that new revenue models are developed in football, which take into account the impact that occurs when we ‘do it right’. For example, consider the lack of exercise. If an average top division club gets involved and contributes to improving that in their own region, it would be worth millions to that region, and surely more than the value of any sponsorship. Who would dare to do it?

“It is important that new revenue models are developed in football, which take into account the impact that occurs when we ‘do it right'”

I, and fortunately more and more people with me, get more inspired by meaningful partnerships and initiatives, which in combination with sport really take off. I sincerely believe that as a company you have no future if you don’t contribute to our world. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are now widespread and leading this change. You can see that the world is moving towards this. More and more investment funds have a strict SDGs policy; they only invest in companies that comply with them. Banks are also becoming more demanding in providing loans, legislation is being adjusted and tightened, and finally consumers simply expect or demand it.

How can football make a contribution?

Fortunately, there are a lot of good examples to be mentioned. If you look at sport, I recommend everyone to check out The sustainability report. There, you will not only find very good articles and research, but also many case studies. You can learn a lot from the reasons and approaches of others.

In my sport—football—there is much to gain. The football industry is not known for its sustainable nature, but it is surprising how much is already happening right now. To me, the best example in football is Forest Green Rovers, a League Two club in England that is rightfully called the greenest club in the world. I also find Betis, in Sevilla, an inspiring example under the leadership of Ángel Haro. A year ago, they launched the Forever Green platform to give sustainability initiatives a stage, and now they have around 50 different sustainability projects.

“The football industry is not known for its sustainable nature, but it is surprising how much is already happening right now”

I also think German football is worth mentioning. Germany is at the forefront of sustainability. A sustainability league was created last year—which also applies to the Premier League—and they were the first country to announce a central mission: German football should become climate neutral. They are even going so far that there is a plan to include sustainability in the licensing requirements for becoming a professional club. In my opinion, these are mega steps forward. And, through everything we do with my company Teamplayers Concepts and We Play Green, we hope to inspire many more people to contribute to a more sustainable world.

How did the meeting with European politician Frans Timmermans go? And what should be done to further stimulate political awareness?

I find that very difficult and, in all honesty, I have a pessimistic view of it. I don’t want to sound too negative, but I see politics mainly as being about politics. I see little movement from politicians towards football, and specifically the We Play Green initiative. I think partly because they are much too busy with politics, but also because football has not really proven to be a reliable partner in recent decades.

Frans Timmermans is responsible for the European Green Deal and climate change has his full attention of course. He is also a big football fan, and the possible impact that football can have on all layers of society is something he sees immediately. That cooperation can be so powerful, but something has to happen from both sides.

Changing the rules: sustainability in football

An important meeting to inform Frans Timmermans about the We Play Green initiative.

I think it might be wiser to look outside the political arena for inspiring leaders and find well-known and influential people who can increase the pressure, and hopefully many more well-known sportspeople will speak out and get society moving. It all starts with awareness and unfortunately there is still a long way to go.

How are you involved in sustainability? What can we do as individuals to reduce CO2 emissions?

I am learning myself every day as well and I am far from perfect, but I did start consuming much less and I am more aware of the choices we make as a family, such as our choices in food, travel, energy consumption and waste (less plastic). I started driving an electric car and am getting solar panels on my roof. But it is quite complex to figure out how to do it right, so I can imagine that it is often difficult for people, because yes, we really need to make drastically different choices. Many companies are challenged as well, because ‘coping’ in business operations must not lead to ‘falling over’, and then you often see that change comes about at a much slower pace.

In society, we have basically four roles in which we can take action: as a friend/family member, as an employee or employer, as a consumer and as a citizen. In all four roles, you face choices that affect how to combat climate change and help save our Earth. This ranges from your own lifestyle at home and the influence of your family/friends, to choices at work, and, for example, how you travel, or questions like ‘does my business contribute to a better world?’ But also in the role of consumer, with what we spend our money on and in our voting behavior. If we were all to act as consciously and sustainably as we could in all four roles, that would seem like ‘responsible sustainable behavior’, wouldn’t it?

How can this change be achieved on the societal level?

It is important that we collectively recognize that climate change is a serious problem. A crisis even! In all discussions with experts, it is said that systematic change is necessary. This is often the result of legislation and/or regulations. For example, raising taxes on polluting activities, more heavily subsidizing tech/innovation in the energy transition or, on a slightly smaller scale and specifically for football, collectively agreeing that no more plastic is allowed in stadiums.

This so-called systematic change is necessary in order to accelerate faster, because we will not make it if we put full responsibility on the individual. As humanity, we haven’t really managed to regulate ourselves, but encouraging and embracing collective agreements like this has a major impact on all of us.

What are the plans of Teamplayers Concepts?

With Teamplayers Concepts we want to accelerate this change much more and tackle more themes, such as inequality of opportunity, lack of exercise, the negative influence of social media, etc. We also want to demonstrate that new business models can be developed in this area. If we want to embed this in sport in a sustainable way, it must become part of the revenue model of clubs, federations and other stakeholders.

We Play Green has only just started, and Morten Thorsby pretty much represents it alone at the moment. Siem de Jong is now speaking out more in the Netherlands. In the long term, we want to have a larger player movement with players of different nationalities, who are active in as many countries as possible. Then we will really be able to increase our impact.

“The inequality bothers me, and I would like to draw more attention to it through football”

I would also very much like to make a documentary with football players from poorer countries, sounding the alarm bells. If you delve into ‘climate justice’, you will see that often those countries are the ones hit hardest by climate change, by rising sea levels, extreme drought, etc. It is expected that millions of climate refugees will be forced to flee, due to the extreme weather conditions. These are also the countries that often have the lowest emissions and are therefore the least responsible. The inequality bothers me, and I would like to draw more attention to it through football. Perhaps it will also become more visible to other parts of the world.


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