How an amateur football club is reshaping sustainability at the elite level

How an amateur football club is reshaping sustainability at the elite level

The Deutsche Fußball Liga’s (DFL) sustainability criteria represent one of sport’s first steps into making sustainability mandatory. Meanwhile, a small club from Berlin is paving the way forward

Thirty-six experts from across sport, society, politics and business sat down together and determined that the most effective way for Germany’s top football clubs to address climate change and other sustainability issues was to enshrine obligations within the Deutsche Fußball Liga’s (DFL) licensing regulations.

And so, in December 2021, teams from across the Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 voted to accept the recommendations of the ‘Task Force on the Future of Professional Football’, which included 117 minimum criteria within three broad topics: club management and organisation, environment and resources, and stakeholder groups.

Clubs, including FC Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Eintracht Frankfurt, will be required to provide evidence of having a sustainability and environmental strategy, as well as annual carbon footprint measurements and transport and traffic analysis. All clubs must also implement a code of conduct for all employees and commit to equality, diversity and inclusion. A pilot phase to gradually integrate the criteria began in the 2022/23 season. 

“Such a wide-ranging process with an influence on many aspects of the core business cannot be completed overnight and must account for the variety of economic and structural conditions between UEFA Champions League participants and those promoted from 3. Liga,” the DFL argued.

The licensing criteria will be implemented in two categories:

– Minimum Criteria I are requirements that clubs must fulfil from 2023.

– Minimum Criteria II are initially optional and only become mandatory from 2024. 

Over the next three seasons, DEKRA Assurance Services GmbH will audit the extent to which the sustainability criteria are implemented, but what happens subsequently is still not totally clear.

“For the first phase, there are 39 indicators that the clubs have to fulfil. If they [clubs] fulfil the criteria, nothing will happen,” says Anton Klischewski, content coordinator of ‘Sport is fair’, a campaign alliance by clubs, NGOs, associations and municipalities that is committed to sustainable procurement in German sport. “I wasn’t involved directly in the process [sustainability criteria licensing], but we looked very openly at the criteria they [DFL] put before us.”

Manuel Gaber, part of the fan-led group Zukunft Profifußball that was involved in some initial conversations with the DFL task force about the licensing criteria, shares similar sentiments: “Minimum Criteria I hardly go beyond German law or requirements long established in the private sector. Minimum Criteria II merely asks questions about the status quo (e.g. whether clubs have a climate target) and does not impose any additional requirements (e.g. setting a science-based climate target).”

Policy proposals developed by Zukunft Profifuβball and Unser Fuβball, another fan-driven group, submitted the following proposals to the DFL task force:

Upholding the 1.5 degrees Celsius target set out by the Paris Agreement through mandatory greenhouse gas accounting and disclosure, compensation for all non-avoidable emissions.

– Developing additional binding standards for environmental management. Clubs should not focus on what can be implemented with minimal effort but must act according to given planetary boundaries.

– Creating new concepts for climate-friendly mobility on matchdays

“There are many good approaches for climate-friendly mobility,” says Gaber. “At stadiums, the infrastructural conditions can be created with thousands of bicycle parking spaces (e.g. in Freiburg). By integrating the fare for public transport into the stadium ticket (e.g. in Dortmund), incentives can be created to avoid travelling by car. However, it is also important to take a critical look at the underlying framework: dates and kick-off times should be set in a way that allows fans to travel in a climate-friendly way. 

“At European competition level, it is problematic that the number of matches keeps increasing. More matches inevitably lead to more emissions. While this is an issue from an ecological point of view, it is also opposed by many fans. Football Supporters Europe, for example, took a clear stand against the reform of the European club competitions saying “most supporters do not want, nor can we afford, more football”.

While Gaber acknowledges that some clubs have been resistant to the Task Force’s recommendations, there was scope for them to be even more robust. Zukunft Profifuβball has called for a “transparent, comprehensible and recurring process” for successively raising the level of criteria in the coming years.

“A structured dialogue should produce results instead of being used as an alibi,” the group says. “Therefore, first of all, there needs to be a serious interest in involving fans and a common goal to work towards. At club level, plans to discuss sustainability issues with fans in dialogue formats already exist. However, successful cooperation also requires transparency. Unfortunately, there is no provision at present for all the clubs’ responses to the sustainability criteria to be reported publicly.” 

Gerd Thomas, chairman of FC Internationale Berlin 1980 e. V., where the men’s team plays in the seventh division and women’s team in the fourth division, argues that one of the most effective ways to strengthen the criteria is to oblige Bundesliga clubs to support amateur clubs with their sustainability efforts.

“Professionals and their clubs are also role models when it comes to sustainability, and in the best-case scenario several clubs on the doorstep are working together; not only when it comes to promoting talent, but as a benchmark for the region,” he says.

Without such support, Inter was forced to take matters into its own hands. Helped by Klischewski, the club established a sustainability working group in 2020 consisting of 15 women and men between the ages of 18-75, which meets every few weeks to discuss progress and give recommendations to the board.

“In Berlin, at least, maybe even in Germany, I think I could even be the only person in non-professional sports that works just in sustainability,” says Klischewski, a former Inter player and current club coordinator of sustainability.

Since its foundation in 1980, Inter has been a club that has married sport and social policy, promoting peace and fighting racism. The creation of the sustainability working group has expanded its focus to the climate crisis and environmental issues, allowing Inter to take action that belies its stature as a small amateur football club.

Recognition has followed. In February 2022, Inter won the Future Prize of Berlin Sports, before going on in September to prevail against professional VfL Wolfsburg and St. Pauli to win the SPONSORs ‘Award for Sustainability in Sport’. In January 2023, the club was awarded the ‘Great Star of Sport’ in Gold.

An extensive sustainability section of Inter’s website includes an eight-step guide on how to achieve a sustainability certificate according to the ZNU standard (administered by the Center for Sustainable Leadership in the Faculty of Economics, Management and Society at the Witten/Herdecke University). In April 2021, Inter became the first amateur sports club in Germany to receive the certification. With this certification and consequent data analysis, Inter were able to quantify and prioritise their sustainability goals for the next three-five years.

The guide is based on the club’s belief that sustainability awareness must be achieved through targeted communication. Inter also offers  workshops for other clubs.

“The clubs come to us. We’ve already had at least 10 evening events with clubs from all over Germany,” says Oliver Brendle, sustainability officer at Inter and another paid member of staff working solely on sustainability. We didn’t know it in the first place, but now you can see over the last two years that it was four steps that made our sustainability engagement successful.” 

The first three are the aforementioned working group, Klischewski’s position as coordinator of sustainability and inclusion at the club and certification. The fourth step is financial support. Many amateur clubs, like Inter, do not pay their players any wage, demonstrating the financial support they need. 

“Since 2022, we have the support of a foundation, which also gave us the financial means to organise a sustainability day in June, where we had over 200 people at the club facilities just for this topic,” Klischewski adds. “And I mean, such a day cost us between €7,000-€8,000. Of course, it’s not so easy to handle for a non-professional club, so this extra money that we got from the foundation is super helpful.

“So I think this four-step methodology helps us to build structure and know that the work can continue even if I leave or the sustainability working group changes from time to time; we have this as the cornerstone of all our activities.” 

Despite the successes, the club has experienced its fair share of setbacks. Logistics and cost issues means that switching catering options to more organic and regional produce has been problematic. And while the club is keen to create new partnerships in this area, opportunities are lacking.

Nevertheless, Klischewski suggests that pushing for collaboration to drive innovation remains crucial, which doesn’t always mean “reinventing the wheel all the time”. 

“When you look into a provider of fair merchandise, for example, why shouldn’t all clubs procure at the same spot? It makes everything much easier,” he suggests. “We have a study here in Germany about the fan shops. The clubs were ranked according to the sustainable textiles that they were already offering and it was made in a format to show what they could do better. You could actually see the progress made from the clubs that were helped by the organisation that made this study and the motivation to finish a bit higher in the table for the next year. Even if you’re a small club, you could move up the table. I like this coordinated approach together with the clubs.” 

As part of its vision for a more collaborative, joined-up approach to sustainability, Inter has initiated a network in Berlin for mutual sustainability support through the exchange of experiences and raising awareness. At the end of February 2023, more than 80 participants from sports, politics, civil society and business gathered on the EUREF campus in Berlin for this purpose. The club is also working on a calculation method for the carbon emissions of the club’s membership base, a tool that could prove invaluable for a vast number of organisations to measure their Scope 3 emissions.  

Looking further ahead, Inter wants to cement its sustainability efforts in the form of a foundation to finance sustainable projects in the club. This includes teaching about topics like anti-discrimination in local schools, but also extends all the way to the international level, as the club is contributing to the sustainable organisation of EURO 2024 in Berlin, an unprecedented level of engagement for an amateur club in any sport.

“Currently, DFB have a project regarding Euro 2024 where they want to reach out to as many non-professional clubs as possible, because we have 25,000 football clubs in Germany in the non-professional field, to help them in their sustainability efforts,” Klischewski explains. “I know this quite well because there was a digital networking event in October with these clubs and I was asked by the DFB to speak about Inter’s organisational structures, as we are quite known now in Germany for a non-professional club.”

The Sustainability Report would like to extend a special thank you to Jenny Amann for being extremely helpful in the research and networking required for this article.

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