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Bristol City delivers partnerships with purpose through Project Whitebeam

July 27 2023

Environmental sustainability is a problem facing us all, and it is only through working together that we will be able to address the climate crisis.

Bristol City FC, a leader in sustainability in the EFL, understands the importance of partnerships. Since last year, the club has been working with other local sports clubs on Project Whitebeam, an innovative and collaborative sustainability strategy.

Over the past few years, the club has been celebrated for its work. But how exactly has it collaborated with partners—and where will the club go next?

Project Whitebeam

The city of Bristol is well-known for its environmental credentials. In 2015 it became the first British city to be named European Green Capital, and it has twice been named the UK’s most sustainable city.

By collaborating with other local clubs, Bristol City—the city’s biggest professional football club—has built on this impressive local track record to deliver environmental sustainability in its own operations. The club also delivers important social programmes through its Bristol City Robins Foundation.

While the club has been developing its sustainability work for some time, Bristol City launched its official sustainability initiative, Project Whitebeam, in August 2022. The initiative is a team effort between the Bristol Sport group, who heads the project at Ashton Gate Stadium, and their three sports clubs: Bristol City Football Club, Bristol Bears Rugby Club, and Bristol Flyers Basketball.

This unique structure means that Bristol City, unlike football clubs who develop their own sustainability programmes, has been able to learn and collaborate with colleagues across other sports.

‘We are very lucky to be part of a bigger group,’ says Sarah Shewan, HR Business Partner and Project Whitebeam Taskforce Lead at Bristol City. ‘We can find out what other clubs are doing, in rugby and basketball, and share our own work. It’s a collaborative thing—not a competition.’

The name of the sustainability initiative—Project Whitebeam—also has local roots. Whitebeams are a flower that are part of the rose family, and seven rare species of Whitebeam are unique to the nearby Avon Gorge and Leigh Woods. Choosing Whitebeam as a name seemed fitting for a local environmental initiative: the team behind the project explained the name is ‘uniquely Bristolian’, while ‘also highlighting that environmental issues—both cause and consequence—start at home.’

The aim of Project Whitebeam is to ‘provide environmentally sustainable sport, entertainment and events’, and the strategy focuses on five areas: climate change, waste, water, biodiversity, and air quality.

At the Project’s launch, the team laid out several aims. These included minimising water consumption; reducing, reusing, and recycling waste; promoting sustainable travel; sustainably sourcing all materials and supplies; using the power of sport to promote environmentally-friendly behaviour; and partnering with other organisations who shared in this vision.

Bristol City are also signatories to the UNFCCC’s Sports for Climate Action Framework and the UN’s Race to Zero. This means that they have set a public target of reducing GHG emissions by 50% by 2030 and reaching net zero emissions by 2040.

Planet: Environmental achievements to date

Almost a year on from the project’s official launch, how is Bristol City faring in its sustainability journey?

The club can already point to several major achievements, some of which had begun before the launch of Project Whitebeam.

Environmental measures that have already been implemented include the introduction of low-energy and LED lighting in Ashton Gate and the club’s Robins High Performance Centre; the installation of 750m2 of solar panels on the roof of the stadium’s Landsdown Stand, which generate over 100,000kWh of electricity; implementing water savings and waste management programmes; and the use of heat pump technology, which meets almost 92% of the energy demand at the HPC.

The club provides vegetarian and vegan catering options, while over 50% of products sold on matchdays travel fewer than 12 miles to the stadium. A policy is in place to reduce single-use plastic, while the club have also hosted a FareShare warehouse for over three years, diverting 2,143.5 tonnes of food from landfill and providing the equivalent of 5.1 million meals to those living with food insecurity.

Travel is also an area of focus for the club. It provides subsidised matchday shuttle buses for fans, and players and staff have access to electric car charging points at the training ground. The club promotes the use of public transport, as well as walking and cycling to the stadium.

Bristol City are constantly tracking and monitoring their progress as they work towards their net zero targets. ‘We want to move forward as quickly as possible,’ says Shewan. ‘We have targets to look at every single area within the club, and we’ve started on that journey.’

The club has been commended for its work in this area. Last November, the club won the Climate Action Award at the 2022 Football Supporters’ Association Awards. In March this year, they ranked top in the 2022 EFL Sport Positive League, and in April won the EFL Green Club of the Year Award.

On announcement of the club topping the table, Head of Change and Sustainability Peter Smith said that the honour “reflects hard work by a lot of people across the club to tackle the challenge holistically”. He emphasised, however, that “we all have a long way to go and we’re really keen that everyone – fans, players, staff, sponsors and suppliers – come on that journey with us.”

People and Participation: Social programmes align with sustainability goals

Beyond its environmental initiatives, Bristol City also works with the local community through its well-established foundation.

Social initiatives include Robins Talk, a mental wellbeing programme; disability football sessions; a free fitness project for women and girls; and a free public health programme to encourage active lifestyles, delivered in partnership with EFL Trust and Public Health England.

Work to encourage participation, engage with the local community, and promote diversity and inclusion is another big part of the club’s impact on the local area, and these initiatives are closely linked to the environmental work of Project Whitebeam.

‘Equality, diversity and inclusion and our sustainability programme go hand-in-hand,’ says Shewan.

Partnerships and Platform: Engaging football fans

Another important element of the club’s work is its approach to working in partnership with other organisations.

The club already works with its partners in Project Whitebeam, but it has also forged important links in the wider city of Bristol and beyond.

Bristol City was the first professional club to partner with Pledgeball, which engages sports fans to make pledges to reduce their carbon emissions. Supporters of both the men’s and women’s teams came top of the inaugural Pledgeball League in 2022, and recently made it two years in a row by securing the 2023 title at the last minute.

This means that fans of the club have pledged to save over 1,000,000kg of CO2 equivalent per year.

Fan engagement has always been central to the club’s approach to sustainability, and working with organisations like Pledgeball has helped to spread the message. ‘It starts that conversation,’ says Shewan. ‘It gets people thinking, and beginning their own journey.’

The club has also run local river and beach clean-ups with organisations such as the Big Tidy project.

Importantly, the club emphasises an open approach that encourages anyone to get involved, while those running the initiatives have a genuine interest and passion for the work. ‘One of the great things is that we have people who are passionate,’ says Shewan. ‘And everyone is welcome to join in.’

What lessons can football learn from Bristol City and Project Whitebeam?

Bristol City’s sustainability journey is unique in many respects.

By working with a group of partners to develop its sustainability initiative, rather than working alone, the club has been able to learn and apply lessons from across different sports. Meanwhile, it has drawn on an existing local culture of environmental sustainability while also making its own contribution to the city.

Crucially, the club is clear about the importance of engaging with its community and using the power of passionate football fans to make a difference.

‘Instead of focusing on doom and gloom, it’s about focusing on how all of us can play our part, even in the small things,’ says Shewan. ‘It gives power to the fans, and just gets that conversation started.’

Developing a culture of sustainability, as the wider city of Bristol has also done, is also important.

‘It’s taking sustainability into account, in every single decision,’ says Shewan. ‘It’s putting your green lenses on.’

Moving forward, the club has no plans to slow down, and will continue to work with its partners towards its goals in the lead up to 2030. ‘We’re constantly evolving, and will continue moving forward and doing what we can—and putting the issue to the fore of everyone’s minds,’ says Shewan.

Bristol City’s story is one more example of how effective sustainability strategies build on the power of collaboration and partnerships. As the need for action grows, hopefully more and more clubs will work together and follow their lead.

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