Walk the Walk: VfL Bochum - How sustainability and football can work together By Vaishali Baid

‘Walk the Walk’ discusses the various trends and developments from the world of sustainability with seasoned professionals. The series aims to share the journey that organisations take in sustainability, discussing their views, the lessons they learned and opportunities created. Most organisations can talk the talk when it comes to sustainability, but we prefer to interview ones that walk the walk.

There’s been an increased focus about the relationship of sustainability and sports, football in particular, in recent years. The biggest example is the World Cup in Qatar, with huge concerns about how migrants have been trapped in modern slavery to build the stadiums, and the treatment of women and LGBTQ+ people in Qatar, whilst football hosts it’s biggest prize and such concerns are brushed aside.

There’s also been the failed Super League project, which saw huge cultural institutions such as Manchester United, Arsenal, Barcelona, try to form a closed-shop breakaway league, with the sole intent of generating more revenue. The idea of football clubs as social pillars of their communities feels further away than ever, with clubs more interested in revenue than their local, and wider-social commitments.

Senior consultant Vaishali Baid talks to Matthias Mühlen, Head of the Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility department at VfL Bochum 1848, about how sustainability and sports can work together.

1. Sustainability in Sports – what does it mean to you and how can the two work together?

Sustainability in sports is a very exciting topic. On the one hand, sports and football clubs are not classic business enterprises. On the other hand, they still have to constantly develop their business structures, and sustainable business success is only possible through a sustainable business model.

2. How should football clubs go about identifying where best to invest their resources in becoming more sustainable? What are the steps VfL Bochum has taken to address these?

First of all, it is important to start with the core business and the brand. As a rule, clubs already have a lot in place in these areas. Health and nutrition, for example, are topics that every club automatically deals with. The challenges are also similar (e.g., mobility or waste on match days).

However, to approach the whole thing systematically, it is advisable to develop a sustainability strategy and implement the corresponding resources in the club itself,

In our process, we started with a market and materiality analysis to identify which topics are relevant in the context of “sustainability and football”. Naturally, we did not only look at football but also at the sustainability strategies of large companies, some of which are listed on the stock exchange. Based on this, we went into several stakeholder dialogues (internal and external) with a preliminary selection of fields of action and topics so that we could check and sharpen our assumptions.

In the final step, we created a materiality matrix – also in the context of stakeholder interviews – from which we then derived our focus topics. We were able to identify a total of five fields of action and 31 sub-themes as well as almost 400 indicators for more specific measures.
From the matrix, a total of four focus topics emerged:

Our focus topics

  • Good and sustainable corporate governance in line with the tradition and values of the association as well as exemplary behaviour.
  • Standing up for diversity, especially equal opportunities, inclusion and anti-discrimination.
  • Environmental sustainability with a focus on energy and waste.
  • Upholding social responsibility, especially in relation to a healthy society.

In addition, to work on these topics and objectives, we have further developed our internal teams and also set up cross-departmental project teams to work on and pursue goals and measures for the sustainability strategy. The sustainability strategy process is participatory and not classically “top-down “approach.

We are working with the Bochum University of Applied Sciences as an important strategic partner for our major milestones (materiality analysis, life cycle assessment, sustainability reporting, etc.).

Matthias Mühlen, Head of the Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility department at VfL Bochum 1848.

3. To what extent are football clubs considering the triple bottom line (social, financial, environmental) when devising their sustainability strategies? 

The triple bottom line is still an important guideline. CSR or ESG is more about the reporting side of sustainability but in terms of implementation our five fields of action are; “Club orientation and organisation”, “Fans and members”, “Society and commitment”, “Employees”, and “Environment and climate”. In practice, however, we do not want to think in too ‘siloed’ way, but rather interlink the topics with each other. Because for sustainable transformation, holistic development is crucial.

4. I’m really interested in the idea of football as a platform for advocacy. There’s been a positive progress recently on the topic of football and sustainability. What impact would it have if big brands, clubs, and names in the overall sporting industry got behind sustainability in sport?

That would certainly have a big impact. In any case, I am convinced that partnerships of any kind can no longer function without sustainability. The risk of damage to the brand image because of greenwashing projects is becoming ever greater. But if we think positively, we can see that partnerships and collaborations can achieve a lot in terms of sustainability.

Sport – especially football – has enormous charisma. With many material topics, the impact is not as great as with a manufacturing business. But football has a far greater reach in media and can be a force for good. Through meaningful and effective partnerships, football can be a very strong platform for sustainability.

5. The most greenhouse gas emissions are generated in merchandising (37%) as per your materiality analysis – to what extent will sustainability be now part of the due diligence process when rights holders and brands assess who to partner with?

Due diligence is becoming more and more important in football. In the future, you have to deal even more with (potential) partners and the supply chains. But that is based on reciprocity in the partnership. In this respect, communication and dialogue is very important. Not every partner has to be 100% sustainable. Neither are we clubs. But you can set common goals and develop together. From my point of view, this is a great opportunity.

6. Congratulations! VfL Bochum forward Takuma Asano was selected and even scored for the Japanese national team in Qatar.. What’s your position on the world cup?

First of all, thank you very much. We have also reported on the role of Takuma Asano through our media. We have a clear position on the issue, but it does not stem from a classic boycott mindset.

With our four focus topics, we aim to develop further in the areas of corporate governance (including transparency), social responsibility, diversity and environment & climate. Comparing these themes with the current World Cup, it becomes clear why we cannot support them. I would like to pick out three points:

1. Transparency: We are aware that the awarding of the World Cup cannot be reversed. However, we criticise the award procedure and demand that it be made more transparent in the future, thus excluding countries that do not meet the criteria.

2. Tolerance and discrimination: Football unites people and is often called the “cement of society”. However, the recent statements of the World Cup ambassador clearly show once again that these values do not play a role in the host country. We demand that respect for human rights be a mandatory prerequisite for the awarding of the World Cup in the future.

3. Environmental and climate protection: Not only the construction and dismantling of stadiums and infrastructure, but also the air-conditioning of stadiums and the mobility solutions on site are not compatible with today’s world. In the future, we believe that only countries that can present a robust sustainability concept should host a major sporting event.

This is exactly how we have published our position.


This conversation has been translated from German into English for this blog.

For more information

Vaishali Baid
Senior Consultant

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