Earth Day 2021: The environmental impact of football shirts

April 22nd is Earth Day, an annual event which has run for over half a century with the aim of promoting a more sustainable way of living for individuals across the world. Issues such as climate change, habitat destruction and water shortages are raised annually, with the hope that more people will make the changes necessary in day-to-day life.

Unfortunately, these issues addressed in annual Earth Day events are now commonplace in almost every part of our lives, and football shirts are no exception. Whether it is the carbon footprint used in gaining the raw materials to create a shirt, the airplane and car miles racked-up when transporting those jerseys across the world, or the energy used when washing and drying your kits, these processes all add-up to negative impact on the environment. 

But don’t worry, the point of this article is not to make you feel bad for securing that beautiful Minneapolis Dazzle Camo shirt. We are just here to give you the facts, and hopefully some useful advice as well, all with the aim of helping to create a better and more sustainable world.

So let’s look at the environmental impact of football shirts, and what we can do about it.

What is the impact of football shirts? 

As we have already mentioned, pretty much everything we do in our day-to-day lives will have some impact – positive or negative – on the environment. When it comes to the creation, buying and selling of football shirts, though, the impacts tend to be negative.

Let’s start at the beginning of a football shirt’s journey, when a team of designers and engineers from adidas and Nike are taking their initial ideas for a new shirt and realising them in physical form for the first time. They do this by creating the shirt out of synthetic materials, most often using polyester (the shirt I am wearing right now, a 2021/22 Everton away shirt in case anyone is interested, is made 100% of polyester.)

The environmental issue here comes from the fact that polyester is a plastic, and so the raw material used to create these shirts is oil. The impact on the environment is made through the process of extracting and depleting this natural resource, and then refining it into the polyester material we need in our new shirts. 

Each step of this process requires massive amounts of energy, which in turn releases massive amounts of damaging CO2 into the atmosphere – this release of CO2 is what contributes to an individual’s or brand’s carbon footprint. This is a hugely damaging process, but what is truly difficult to comprehend is the scale on which this occurs.

Brands are now regularly designing at least three – and in Napoli’s case five – new shirts each season for the top clubs in Europe, and with each new shirt design comes the production process of millions of replica jerseys which each require all of those damaging processes to start again. This is repeated throughout the clothing industry, and is one reason why 10% of global CO2 emissions come from the fashion industry

But despite the millions of replica shirts sold, millions are also wasted every year. As much as we love a limited edition shirt, when it comes to the standard home, away and third shirt releases, brands will not want to be caught short on their stocks, and so will regularly over-produce to ensure needs are met. At the end of a season or yearly fashion cycle, this can result in huge amounts of extra stock that is no longer needed, and most of this will end up in landfill, where the non-biodegradable polyester material will never decompose. 

Some of you in the collecting community might be reading this and thinking “But I don’t buy new shirts, I just collect vintage shirts.” Unfortunately, that is not quite the case. By not buying more newly produced shirts you are in some ways ‘rejecting’ the modern form of shirt manufacturing, and an alternative material used in vintage shirts such as cotton produces roughly half the amount of CO2 as polyester, but you still have to factor in the impact made by the logistics in getting the shirt from buyer to seller. 

Much like the energy required to source and refine raw materials, transporting football shirts – vintage or modern – is a major polluter thanks to the use of cars, planes and ships. 

And perhaps worst of all, the environmental impact of your football shirt might not even end after the creation and delivery processes. Now even though we have all had at least one washing machine-football shirt disaster, those shirts need a freshen-up every now and then. But the use of a washing machine further adds to the already massive amounts of energy used in the shirt’s lifecycle. 

Just to add insult to injury, the washing polyester-based clothes has been attributed to the rising levels of plastic in oceans. Per wash, it is estimated that 496,030 fibres of polyester are released into the ocean, damaging the ecosystems of marine life, which can have negative consequences for animals on dry land too. 

So from start to finish, the football shirt world appears to have quite an undesirable impact on the environment. But there are steps that we can take to counteract, or even end these impacts. 

What can be done to help?

Let’s start with what we can all do on an individual basis. Given the impact of each football shirt shown above, from it’s initial creation to it landing at your doorstep, the simplest solution would be to buy fewer football shirts. The reason so many shirts are produced by the big brands each year is due to the fact that they know that – regardless of how sick you might be of a brand new, expensive third shirt every season – someone out there will buy it. So if we take away some of that demand, then supply, and as a result carbon emissions, should fall. 

Admittedly, there is some hypocrisy in us (FSC) telling you to buy less while we have most likely tweeted several times today encouraging you to buy both modern classics and vintage shirts. And for many, decreasing their turnover of shirts might simply not be possible because it is something that brings them so many good things, from the thrill of getting that confirmation email, to the joy that comes from being part of a community, and that is okay. 

So instead, other steps can be taken. Do some research and find out which clubs and brands are actually focusing on these issues in regards to football shirt manufacturing, and grow your own ‘eco-collection’ of shirts. Forest Green made headlines earlier this year for releasing a new shirt made partly from coffee beans, which drastically reduced the amount of polyester used in the shirt. Elsewhere, Real Betis are leading the charge in Spain, with similar carbon neutral goals.

Once you have your eco-friendly shirts, you can also reduce the long-term impact by washing them less regularly, not tumble drying them – although we would highly recommend you pretty much never do that anyway – and if you ever want to get rid of it for any reason, then don’t throw it away, just take it down to a local charity shop and help start someone else’s eco-collection.

So now that you have done your bit, it is time to turn our attention to the brands themselves. For too long, the processes of recycling and living more sustainably have fallen directly on the consumer – we are the ones who have to separate the different plastics in our recycling, or pay more for water saving appliances. Meanwhile, the brands selling us the products generally avoid making any great changes on their end, barring some high profile, headline grabbing initiatives.

adidas’ Parley collection – which creates clothing and footwear from up-cycled marine plastic – was incorporated into the third shirts of Real Madrid, Juventus and Manchester United in the 2018/19 season, and several adidas clubs also wore one-off versions of their home shirt made from Parley up-cycled plastics in 2016.

These are obviously positives in the fight to make football and it’s apparel more sustainable, and at least adidas are taking steps where other brands are not. But it does raise the argument as to why Parley and similar alternative materials are not used on a wider scale in football shirt production. 

As with so many things in the game, it comes down to a simple issue of cost, with the efforts of sourcing and creating with alternative materials almost always being more expensive than using the cheap polyester. Forest Green’s 2019/20 bamboo-based jersey had “about a 10-15% difference in terms of [higher production] cost.” In the current climate, those sort of overheads are simply not on the agenda for football’s biggest manufacturers.

But soon, this investment might not be a choice for the brands. In one study, a majority (54%) of the highly lucrative gen-z market surveyed were found to be willing to pay 10% more for sustainable items, rather than making non-sustainable purchases. 

In a week where we have seen fan pressure, aided by player intervention and government threat, see the biggest football clubs in Europe spectacularly and embarrassingly change course, it might now be time to turn our attention to other matters, and the issue of sustainability in the game is absolutely at the top of that list. 

So, if you can, make those small changes to your collecting habits, wash your shirts a little less, and continue to ensure that your club and its manufacturing partners are doing all they can to make a difference in this fight, because if you thought the Super League was bad, an environmental crisis will be much, much worse. 

Matt Leslie

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