Worcester's Net Zero fixture against Saracens is just the latest eco-friendly initiative from the Premiership club. RW meets the woman driving the agenda at Sixways

Worcester leading the fight for climate action

Is there more to a rugby club than rugby? You better believe it. Worcester might not be winning the Gallagher Premiership any time soon but their moral compass is in overdrive. As the first pro rugby club in Europe to sign up to the United Nations Sports for Climate Action, the Warriors are showing admirable leadership in an area that affects every man jack of us.

That initiative has been emphasised by news that Worcester will break new ground when staging a Net Zero game next month against Saracens, similar to the Game Zero played by Spurs and Chelsea this season. The Premiership match takes place on Saturday 30 April and any emissions from the day will be offset.

“We’re calling it #converttozero and the idea is to educate rugby fans on the role of sport in addressing climate change,” says Gené Willis, Head of Stadium Operations at Worcester.

“Small changes can have a big impact. If every visitor to the #converttozero match takes away at least one small, achievable idea to implement in their own lives then collectively we can make a difference.”

Willis is the driving force at Sixways, and a woman so ardent about climate action that they call her Greta (after Swedish activist Greta Thunberg). When Rugby World contacted her, she was presenting on the club’s sustainability initiative at a business summit in Manchester.

Worcester leading the fight for climate action

Gené Willis, Head of Stadium Operations at Sixways (JMP)

“I’m very passionate about it so I want to move it forward quickly. Our owners are exceptionally up for it, we have buy-in from board level, which is fantastic,” says Willis.

“We’re a very community-based club and we’re trying to do the right thing for our community. We want to make sure that not just as a rugby club but as a venue we can promote sustainability.”

To that end, Worcester have also signed up to BASIS (British Association for Sustainable Sport) and a local company, Go Green Experts, who are helping them reduce their carbon footprint. “PRL understand that this is something that everybody needs to do, so BASIS will be going to all 13 Premiership clubs,” Willis adds.

So what exactly are Worcester doing to help the environment? Where to start. They have LED floodlights and are moving towards motion-sensor LED throughout the stadium, so lights switch off when no one’s in the room. They’ve partnered with a company providing electric vehicles, with staff able to buy an electric car on salary sacrifice and charge it at work.

Worcester leading the fight for climate action floodlights

LED floodlights were installed at Sixways three years ago and a motion-sensor programme is next (JMP)

Office printers have swipe-card access to reduce waste paper – the club’s move to an electronic Docusign system saved 239kg of wood before the season even began. All old IT equipment is recycled, non-concussive taps have been installed in the toilets and the club is supporting Rugby Recycled, an initiative run by scrum-half Gareth Simpson to provide used rugby kit and equipment to underprivileged children.

On match days fans use recycled food trays and retail packaging and returnable cups, and can read signage about how Worcester work with energy. Food is one of the club’s ‘six pillars of sustainability’, along with energy, waste, transport, biodiversity and personal responsibility.

“They’re areas we can identify certain things to be part of. When we go out to our fans, we can educate them,” says Willis. “With regards to food, if we have something plant-based, we’ll have something explaining why it’s plant-based. If we have something that’s locally sourced, we’ll explain why it’s locally sourced.”

Worcester fans head to Sixways

Fans arrive at Sixways. “We’re trying to do the right thing for our community,” says Gené Willis (Getty)

All general waste from Sixways is used to generate energy instead of being taken to landfill sites. The club hope to make their new kit out of recycled material and are looking at harvesting rainwater to water the pitch.

Worcester work closely with Forest Green Rovers, described as the world’s greenest football club and handily located less than 50 miles away. Warriors run a six-week education programme in schools promoting sustainability from the perspective of rugby, a project that Rovers might adopt but with a football slant.

“We’re working as closely as we can with them because they’re leading the way as regards to this. Just because it’s a different sport doesn’t mean we can’t do these things together.”

Perhaps most significant of all, Warriors are drawing up plans for a large solar farm on their land, the timing of which could scarcely be better given the crisis facing energy companies.

Worcester are happy to go out on a limb with all this, to add the Eco to Warriors. Climate change threatens worsening droughts, a catastrophic rise in sea level and a mass extinction of species unless mankind can slow global warming.

Worcester Warriors women

Elizabeth Shermer scores for Warriors in an Allianz Premier 15s win against DMP Durham Sharks (Getty)

“With the UN, you sign up to say you will have reduced your carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2050,” says Willis. “That’s quite a daunting task. So it’s making sure you can do that, you’re not signing up to something you’re not going to be able to achieve.

“But we (all) need to do this. We need to be ambitious about our targets. We have a platform as sports clubs to shout about this. And people will listen because it is sport.”

As an expert in this field, would she be willing to go to other clubs and help them? “Definitely. I’d be more than happy to do that. And that was one of the questions somebody asked me after my presentation. ‘We’re a new club, we’re just starting up, what do we do?’

“My first answer was speak to somebody who’s already on that journey, somebody who’s already started it, because I know what things work and what don’t. I can say to somebody, be careful when you go along that line.” One tip is to measure your carbon footprint at the outset so that all subsequent reductions in emissions are accounted for.

Watering the pitch at Sixways

Harvesting rainwater is on the cards at Sixways, a stadium meeting its responsibilities square on (Getty)

We ask Willis whether the game of rugby is responding quickly enough to the climate crisis. “I don’t think anybody is responding quickly enough. Not just rugby, I think we all need to respond quickly,” she shoots back.

“I think rugby has realised now that they need to, I do think PRL are picking up on it now. Hopefully it’s not just going to be one of those tick-box exercises. I hope it’s going to be something that is fulfilling and we will put something together that we can all do.”

This article first appeared in the March edition of Rugby World.

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