Liverpool FC's Red Way Shows How Soccer Clubs Can Operate Sustainably – Forbes

Liverpool FC continue to lead on and off the field. Their Red Way sustainability strategy is pushing … [+] emissions reductions in the soccer industry.
Liverpool Football Club is not only one of England’s most successful and storied soccer clubs, it is a leader at the burgeoning nexus of sports and sustainability. Having launched The Red Way, its sustainability strategy, in 2021, the club continues to find ways to decrease carbon emissions and improve diversity, equality and inclusion among fans and staff.
Liverpool FC boasts 19 English league titles, 6 European Cups, hundreds of millions of global fans, and is the fourth most valuable soccer club in the world, with a valuation of $5.37 billion. This season, the club added several more awards to its trophy cabinet. Jurgen Klopp’s last trophy with the club was the EFL Cup victory over Chelsea in February. Two months later, the Reds won the Environmental Sustainability Award at the FEVO Sports Industry Awards, in recognition of their continued commitment to sustainability.
According to its annual Red Way sustainability report, Liverpool FC’s total emissions for the 2022-23 season were 75,142 tCO2 e, roughly 12,000 of which came from fan travel. The Reds have reduced their emissions by 29% since the 2020-21 season. Moreover, Liverpool FC has eliminated non sustainable packaging and materials in 35% of its retail products and is working to implement farm to table programs, and improve biodiversity in its local community.
These efforts have seen the club retain top spot in the Sport Positive Leagues, an annual ranking of Premier League clubs according to their sustainability performance. Liverpool FC also secured the title of most sustainable soccer club according to Brand Finance and won first place at the Football Business Awards and the Sports Business Awards.
However, the club is not doing this work for the accolades. It recognizes the responsibility that comes with being one of the most celebrated clubs in the world and is shifting towards more sustainable practices. According to Rishi Jain, Director of Impact at Liverpool FC, the club is incredibly proud of the progress it has made since forming the Red Way back in 2021 — reducing emissions and reducing impact on the environment play a central role in this.
Jain notes that one of the most impressive elements of the club’s progress is that the business continues to grow — he cites the expansion of Anfield from 45,000 to 61,000 capacity — while carbon intensity is still reducing.
Liverpool also remains the only club in the Premier League with three ISO certifications: ISO 20121 for sustainability, ISO 45001 for health and safety, and ISO 50001 for energy. To receive these the club had to undergo what Jain called “a stringent audit process.” However, the benefit of undergoing this audit is that the club now has a standardized framework that allows it to implement short and long-term objectives. In other words, the audit showed Liverpool FC the areas of potential improvement and provided it with an action plan to make those improvements a reality.
Jain says the ISO certifications also help every department within the club further internalize The Red Way, putting environmental and social sustainability front of mind for each employee. But the club’s mission goes beyond getting its own house in order, Liverpool FC is seeking to engage with and mobilize its global fanbase.
There are 360 official Liverpool FC supporters groups across the globe, and Jain says “we want them to know that they are heard.” As such, the club meets with the official supporters board on a quarterly basis and maintains open lines of communication with fans. It is this way that the club can try to live up to its supporters high standards, and also help generate positive behavior change.
The club has embraced the city’s traditional progressive political identity. Liverpool FC was the first club to be involved in the U.K. Pride March (back in 2012), and was the first U.K. sports team to take the knee in support of racial justice. It has also helped tell stories that celebrate the diversity of its supporters and just last season used its foundation to support over 123,000 people in the local community. Jain says, that“ At Liverpool we are held to a higher standard than most by our supporters. It is an opportunity.” An opportunity that the club is taking everyday.
By tackling the social issues that fans care about, the club extends its influence beyond the field and can help create greater awareness about environmental sustainability. Awareness of The Red Way continues to build, up from 5% among fans to 13% this season. This has helped create a shift in recycling of plastic bottles on matchdays, with fans recycling 90% compared to 25% during the 2021-22 season. Jain says this improvement is thanks to impactul storytelling that is underpinned by tangible action and empirical evidence.
Liverpool’s demanding global fanbase means that the club is kept in check when it makes a perceived misstep. When the Reds attempted to break away and form part of the European Super League, fans responded with furor, causing the owners to reconsider. But Jain thinks having such a demanding fanbase is part of what makes Liverpool FC special. He says, “Having fan voices to keep us on track, challenge and amplify is really important.”
At the time of writing, Liverpool FC runs 94% of its club operations on clean energy. 90% of its retail packaging and materials are now sustinaable and it is shifting away from diesel to Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO) in its team buses, creating a 90% reduction in carbon emissions. But in order to make further improvements the club is now surveying its supply chain’s sustainability ambitions and commitments.
Liverpool FC has around 4000 suppliers, all of whom they have sent a sustainability survey. Jain says that refreshingly, there is a strong appetite from suppliers to learn about The Red Way and understand the why behind Liverpool’s sustainability commitments. Jain feels suppliers must be taken along the club’s sustainability journey, rather than being told they need to immediately change their way of doing business. He also admits this may be the club’s “biggest challenge, but also the most exciting.” It is here, and through fan engagement, that the Reds can create what Jain calls “a massive domino effect.”
Long-Term Objectives
Liverpool’s stated ambition is to reach net-zero by 2040. Jain says this means reducing emission by 90% compared to the club’s 2019/20 baseline. A tall order for any business, let alone a soccer club that routinely travels long distances for domestic and international competitions. For now, offsetting remains a temporary solution for the Reds. Liverpool is offsetting 100% of the football emissions that it cannot eliminate. While these are carbon neutral certified by PAS 2060 standard, there remains skepticism around the legitimacy of offsetting.
Jain says the club is looking to improve everywhere and is coming to the more difficult areas. They are looking at removing vehicles, tools and ground equipment and are doing their best to limit personnel travel for business purposes to an as needed basis. He admits that he is “not sure if offsets are the answer,” and says the club continues to work with its commercial sponsors to seek better alignment with its sustainability values. According to The Red Way report for last season, 46% of partners are aligned, although Jain says that number is expected to increase in next year’s report.
Despite all the good work being done at Liverpool and across the soccer industry, there remain two large elephants in the room. On the one hand, there is still no perfect solution to reduce fan travel. Jain says its “the one topic that is on every agenda in every external meeting with other clubs.” Improving transport links and raising awareness can help decrease fan-related emissions, and Liverpool has offered bus schemes to shuttle fans from to and from the train station. However, moving thousands of fans will always be energy intensive, and as Jain points out, the more successful a club is, the more games it has and the more fans travel to see those games.
The other major issue in soccer is sponsorship. Fossil fuel sponsorship remains pervasive at the elite levels of the sport. Despite clear science showing that the burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause of climate change, clubs continue to accept money from organizations that pump and sell fossil fuels or fund the wider oil and gas industry.
According to New Market Forces, in 2021 Liverpool FC’s main shirt sponsor, Standard Chartered “funded fossil fuel expansion projects that will emit five times the entire U.K.’s annual carbon emissions across their project lifetimes.” The club also just signed a new multi-year partnership with Japan Airlines.
Liverpool FC’s status as a pioneer at the intersection of soccer and sustainability supersedes its commercial deals, but it could be catapulted to a new level if the Reds use their sizeable influence to successfully align their partners with their own sustainability objectives, something which Jain says Liverpool FC continues to work towards.
Liverpool FC remains one of soccer’s bright lights in the industry’s shift towards environmental sustainability, although it recognizes the journey is just beginning. As Ben Latty, Commercial Director and Executive Sponsor of The Red Way, says, “The journey to becoming a truly sustainable organisation is a long one, and we still have much work to do. But we know that society is facing some significant challenges, many of which are reflected in our industry.”

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