Just an hour before we spoke, Reading Football Club had launched its eagerly awaited away kit. “The reaction seems to have been quite positive”, chimed Professor Ed Hawkins.
The away jersey for the 2022/23 Championship season features the climate stripes, created at the University of Reading, down the full length of the torso, in ‘Rose Quartz’ monochrome. The announcement follows the launch a couple of weeks earlier of the team’s home kit that features the traditional blue and red version of the climate stripes on its sleeves.
Devised by Professor Ed Hawkins, we were fortunate enough to speak to him about his world-renowned climate stripes, how the partnership with Reading FC came about, and why sport should be utilised further as a positive platform to promote climate change issues.
Let’s take it back to the start; when did discussions between Reading Football Club and the University of Reading first begin and who instigated that conversation?
The club initially came to us. They recognised that they needed to do more with their sustainability issues, whether it be energy use, water use, recycling, or everything in that context. The University of Reading has a lot of expertise in this area, so it’s a natural partnership, between a big local club, and a big local university. During one chat between the two parties, the club’s Head of Commercial, Tim Kilpatrick, saw the climate stripes, wondered what they’re all about, and the conversation built from there. The club took the brave decision that they wanted to integrate the stripes into the kit, which was probably almost a year ago, and the designs were agreed and finalised about six to nine months ago.
Your climate stripes have featured everywhere around the world from Glastonbury Festival through to the UN Climate Change Conference, but this move into a sports partnership is something very new. Was there any anxiety around stepping into the sports sector and the reaction it would get?
Absolutely. We certainly had lots of chats with the club about whether there would there be any negative reactions to all of this. And, as we’ve seen, there have been some negative responses, but we expected that. We have experience from building partnerships in many other industries such as the fashion or music sectors; areas which you never imagined getting involved with when you started out as a scientist! Going to London Fashion Week is just like doing a photo shoot for a football kit launch. I mean, just very different from what we in our day jobs. So yes, we’ve had to learn and build these partnerships. But the most successful uses we’ve had with the climate stripes have come from these partnerships. People have come to us and said “this is great, we’d like to use this concept”, and Reading Football Club is a great example of that.
Do you actually think looking at some of the negative comments further supports the whole purpose and reason behind why the partnership is needed – to start conversations about climate change?
Absolutely, this did start those conversations and people understand the issues. Funnily enough, when fans of other clubs were being negative about it, that almost made the Reading FC fans more protective and positive about the stripes! This is unique to the club, and so they are getting behind it and supporting it. The passion behind climate conversations is what we need to have. Those passionate conversations today about the issues and what we can all do to tackle it are important because it’s going to take all of us to make the necessary changes.
Greenwashing is a hot topic of conversation in the sports sector right now. What makes the partnership with Reading FC different, and how can it achieve a true purposeful impact?
The club has been very open and transparent in its communications from the very beginning, openly admitting that it is at the start of its sustainability journey. They can’t do everything, but they can’t do nothing. I think that’s a great concept; there’s a lot of work to do. It’s not going to happen overnight. They can’t be perfect straight away. But they can improve.
The club is looking to install electric vehicle charging points at the stadium, and hopefully at their training ground as well. They want to encourage more people to walk or cycle to the stadium on match days, improve recycling infrastructure, and look at implementing solar panels on the stadium roof. They’re looking at the whole thing. They recognise they haven’t got all of the answers right now, and often, it’ll be asking questions of their suppliers saying, what can you do to support the changes we want to make? It will motivate other companies who are the suppliers to make changes themselves and recognises a market for doing things differently. That’s how these conversations filter upwards.
If you take yourself forward five years, what does success look like in the form of this partnership and achieving its main objectives?
I think more generally it would be great to see more clubs, from football and other sports as well, taking on the message and making real changes to how they operate. Hopefully, Reading FC can act as a benchmark for what other clubs can do, alongside Forest Green Rovers who have been doing an excellent job for a few years now. We want to see the fans getting on board as well, and thinking about how they travel to games, but we also want the players to talk about it more. Talk about what they are doing personally, if they buy an electric car, or they change to a heat pump at home or adopt a slightly different diet or whatever they might do. That will help to spread awareness too.
One important aspect to note is this is not just for the men’s team, but the stripes will also be worn by the women’s team. Given the success of the Lionesses this summer, how important is it to be talking to a new and younger fan base via the women’s game?
Yeah, that was a very key point that we were all stressing throughout the whole process, that the men’s and women’s teams were going to be wearing the same kit. That was a really important part of it. The amazing success recently for the women’s national team is going to see more fans at grounds for women’s club games from now on, so that’s really important in spreading the message and starting the climate conversation.
Finally, looking at sport more generally, this partnership showcases how it can be used as a positive platform for change, but considering its more direct impact, do you believe there needs to be a big shift in how global sport currently operates?
I think every sport must take a good look at itself and consider what contributions it is making to the current issues that we face. It’s not just climate change either, there are many other issues involved. So yes, for every sport, the solutions will be different; every sport has unique challenges and unique issues. If we are to succeed in stabilising the climate, then everyone and every industry, and that include sports, needs to make some pretty big changes. The more we can start those conversations, then the sooner every sport can start looking at itself and making changes for the better.