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Vermont Green FC is making environmental justice its mission

Vermont Green FC were included in FanSided’s Fandoms of the Year for 2022, selected as the Most Socially Conscious Fandom of 2022. Check out the rest of the list here.

Sports is a business. As much as we all try to stick our heads in the sand and focus on the emotion and the artistry, the comradery, competitiveness and strategy, any fan will grudgingly acknowledge this uncomfortable truth — when a favorite player gets traded, when a team leans into its long-term future at the expense of its short-term competitiveness, when organizations favor the status quo or their bottom line over responding vigorously and appropriately to racist, sexist or violent behavior by players, owners, coaches and staff members, or when the glossy veneer of a showcase event like the World Cup is pierced by reports of human rights abuses and enormous environmental costs.

Things are perhaps better than they used to be. The values of inclusion, anti-racism and environmental justice have begun to make their way into the highest levels of professional sports. But we’re still far from a tipping point and at some level, being a sports fan still feels like an act of willful cognitive dissonance, flipping awareness back and forth between the fun and the futility.

But Vermont Green FC is trying to show the sporting world a different way.

Vermont Green FC completed its inaugural season in 2022, playing in USL League Two. The club, based in Burlington, Vermont, was formed by a group of friends looking for ways to drive change, overlapping their shared passion for soccer and environmental justice. In their own words:

Vermont Green Football Club believes soccer can be a powerful catalyst for a more environmentally sustainable and socially just world. We’re on a mission to build a soccer club that reflects these values and embeds environmental justice into its competitive strategy, operational processes, and culture. We’re building a club that prioritizes the environment in all business decisions impacting our local and global communities.

Environmental justice isn’t just a cause supported by the soccer club, it’s the foundation of their organization. The club launched with a detailed plan, built around five elements:

  • Become a net zero club based on the standards set forth in the Science Based Targets (SBTi) initiative
  • Help fight systemic racism in soccer
  • Donate one percent of annual sales to environmental organizations
  • Produce purpose-driven merchandise
  • Promote education and awareness around environmental justice

Around each of those elements, the club shared measurable goals, detailed action steps and plans for transparent reporting of progress.

The club partnered with SunCommon, a certified B Corp that works on a variety of solar energy projects, as a title sponsor. They developed a program to build ties with the King Street Center — a non-profit that provides a variety of supports for children in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city, where over 80 percent of residents are immigrants or refugees from countries like Somalia, Congo, Nepal and Bhutan. The program was focused on building meaningful connections between players and the children served by the center, through soccer activities and welcoming the children to practices and games.

The club also partnered with organizations like the VT AFL-CIO, the Chittenden Area Transportation Management Authority, the Vermont Youth Lobby, and GreenSavingSmart on programs to promote responsible labor practices, deal with the carbon emissions of team and fan travel, and promote and encourage youth advocacy and action.

As co-founder Patrick Infurna told FanSided, this plan and these elements are inseparable from any goals and successes or failures that result on the field.

“For Vermont Green FC to exist in the way we always intended it,” said Infurna, “embedding environmental justice couldn’t be something that’s adopted later because it’s the lens through which we view all of our operations. Putting the mission first is a day-one commitment that of course brings with it challenges, (especially for a start-up operation like ours as opposed to massive Fortune 500 companies that have shifted strategy to be greener) but we’re building a club that isn’t just making environmental justice a part of who we are, it is who we are, and the sporting department exists to grow that mission.”

And Vermont Green did have plenty of success on the field too. Competing in the USL League Two Eastern Conference, Northeast Division, the club won their final three regular-season games to finish with a 9-4-1 record. They even won their first playoff game, 2-1, over Lionsbridge FC before falling to the league championship runner-up Long Island Rough Riders, 2-1.

As the founders hoped, competitive soccer was an effective vehicle for spreading their message of environmental justice. Attendance increased steadily throughout the season and a supporters’ group — The Green Mountain Bhoys — was born along the way.

“I went into it with zero expectations, having never been part of a supporters group or started one or really had a local team to follow since being in high school, said Tyler Littwin, founder of The Green Mountain Bhoys. “And it’s completely blown me away, in terms of what this meant for me and my family and my expanded friend group, and also just seeing what it’s meant for everybody else, just the level of sheer excitement and enjoyment that people get on a weekly basis.”

For the founders, that community buy-in and support is another essential element of the project.

“One of the principles that we really have is we want to build a community that is encouraging and gives people energy,” said Infurna. “Because there’s a lot of language around climate change, a lot of language about the state of the world that is debilitating, that saps your energy. We want to build a club and community that says, ‘yeah, there’s these really steep problems that we have to face. And they are going to be a massive challenge.’ But like there’s an informed optimism that we hope to build within our footballing community, within our local community. That says, ‘let’s have fun at these games. Let’s enjoy each other. Let’s inform each other and let’s move forward together.’”

Undertaking this mission in Vermont, and Burlington in particular has its advantages — a state and city with a progressive tilt to their politics and an appetite for an aggressive approach to environmental and social justice actions. But it comes with challenges too.

“There is not a playbook on how to build a business to tackle an environmental mission, much less a playbook for how to do this operating a summer league soccer team,” said Connor Tobin, another club co-founder. “This has meant we have had to approach building all aspects of our operation with intentionality. This can be difficult particularly given some of the geographic constraints of operating in VT. What does it look like to attract and house players in VT especially given that VT has a limited player pool? What does it look like in terms of traveling for matches? There are many questions that have had to be worked through.”

Photo Credit: Vermont Green FC

In the grand scheme of professional sports, the impact of Vermont Green FC has been modest to this point. It has been just one season for a team at the outer reaches of American professional soccer and in a city of just 45,000 people in one of the smallest states in the country. But the idea is to help change the world by starting with their own local community and providing both inspiration and a template for other businesses, organizations and individuals to follow.

And it’s working. Littwin shared how The Green Mountain Bhoys organized their own campaign, World Up 22, around the World Cup, trying to find even a small way for local soccer fans to offset some of the enormous social and environmental costs of the event. They hosted World Cup watch parties with a local cafe, Vivid Coffee, with a percentage of sales going to Migrant Justice, a local economic justice and human rights nonprofit. The campaign also featured merchandise, with all proceeds going to Migrant Justice and Pride Center VT.

“The way we can inspire and help other organizations to adopt this kind of model is to be open and transparent about our journey as a club,” said Tobin. “The biggest thing we can do is to normalize tackling issues like environmental justice through sport and to make it safe for other organizations to start their journey. There is a big misperception that to develop this kind of model you need to do everything perfectly the first time around. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Developing this kind of model is just about being intentional about what you are doing and committing the organization to continual improvement. We are not perfect as a club and there are many, many things we need to do so that we can better deliver on our mission of environmental justice. We are going to make mistakes while figuring this out, but we are committed to continuing to try and improve. We hope through our journey and the sharing of that, we can make developing this model not seem so daunting.”

Infurna said that the response the club has received from the USL has been fantastic and supportive and other clubs have already reached out, asking questions about what they can do in their own communities to make a difference. There are aspirations for growth, maybe someday moving up to the top tier of USL, but only when it feels like it can be done naturally and sustainably, when the founders are certain the mission of the club is firmly inseparable from its operation.

“For us,” said Infurna, “It’s really it’s got to come naturally. It’s got to come when we’re ready and when the community is ready. Because I think one of the biggest mistakes people make in a lot of clubs and businesses, they overextend themselves, and they look too far ahead before they’ve kind of really planted their roots. And for us, we want to be bursting at the seams where there’s no way but up, when we make that an option.”

“We do firmly believe that this sport, has that power. You can channel, you can harness the energy of people wanting to gather for watching the game into a greater good.”

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