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Are we sports-washing our football shirts?

Row of football shirts
Green & Good (ESG and Impact)

Footballers often grab the headlines – with both the good and the bad. They are amongst the most followed personalities on social media, with journalists following their every move to fill up the back (and sometimes front) pages of newspapers, and, of course, their sport is broadcast live across the world every single week. Players and clubs are massive entities, with vast reaches and instantly recognisable brands.

In days past it was said that players should do their talking on the pitch, but it seems that nowadays what happens off the pitch matters just as much as the game itself. Players and teams have become so high profile and have such followings that their influence is enormous. And some are putting this privileged position to good use…

Social and environmental causes are the current ‘fashionable’ issues for footballers and clubs to be involved with and take a stand on. Think Black Lives Matter or Rainbow Laces – campaigns for good, that have been brought to the attention of the masses through their association with football. Clubs and players lend their weight to the campaigns, clearly identifying with the issues that are raised. However, are these things that they believe in, a clever marketing ploy, or something they simply can’t afford not to do? Or a bit of each?

There are some who certainly stand by what they preach. Take Gary Lineker, who recently grabbed headlines for tweeting his position on the UK’s asylum policy; Marcus Rashford, who became a household name during the pandemic for his campaign to end child hunger (something for which he was later awarded an MBE); and Harry Kane, who has begun reading books on children’s television to encourage literacy amongst younger audiences. No one is forcing them to do these acts – they are doing it of their own volition, using their profile for the greater good.

And clubs themselves are getting in on the action too, whether that be through planting trees at training grounds, attempting Net Zero Games, powering stadiums via renewable energy or providing vegan only menus. There is now a new trend too, demonstrating their colours through the kits that are being worn. Kits are so synonymous with the teams that they are worn by, with instantly recognisable brands, logos and colour schemes. When there is such an established kit and brand, tweaks to that brand get people talking, therefore becoming very visual campaigns in their own right.

Arsenal was one of the first to change its kit for campaign purposes with its “No More Red” campaign – targeted at reducing knife crime and youth violence in the capital. Arsenal, who usually don their famous bright red kit, played in a completely white kit, creating a splash amongst conventional and social media, even amongst non-footballing audiences.

Mind – the mental health charity – has for several years partnered with the Football League, with the charity’s iconic squiggly logo featuring on the back of every shirt worn in the Championship, League One and League Two – 72 clubs in total.

Announced today, Premier League clubs have collectively agreed to withdraw gambling sponsorship from the front of their shirts within the next three years, making it the first sports body in the UK to take such a measure voluntarily. This marks a major change from current rules and one that will impact clubs financially with eight top-flight clubs currently featuring gambling companies on the front of their shirts, worth an estimated £60m per year.

Recently, a new campaign has been launched, this time focusing on highlighting climate change. Kyle Harman-Turner, who founded Climate Clubs, wanted to demonstrate how rising water levels could affect football grounds in an attempt to raise awareness of the impact of climate change. Harman-Turner redesigned kits with emotive edits – be that with waves on the front of kits worn by Norwich City, Chelsea and Ipswich (all clubs that realistically could be underwater by 2050), changing Nottingham Forest’s badge to represent wild forest fires, or tweaking Brentford’s crest to raise awareness of declining bee populations. As communications methods go, these are very visually impactful, and although they won’t actually go on sale, the social media storm they have conjured up had the desired impact. And who knows, perhaps a team may incorporate one of the designs into their kit in the future.

Some people will point out that clubs changing their strips each year, having three (or sometimes even four) different matchday kits means that old or unfashionable kits are often wasted, scrapped or binned. There has been a calling for clubs and kit manufactures to keep them as uniform for longer periods of time – but given the value attached to shirt sales, and the constant desire for refreshing kits, this is unlikely to happen – as is the juxtaposition of the sustainable fashion industry.

Still, these various kits demonstrate attempts being made by football clubs, and their players, to support causes they believe in – utilising their brand and identity for good (and, hey, they may sell a few shirts while they are at it…!).


On the subject of apparel, SEC Newgate is hosting a thought-leadership panel and networking event “Reengineering the Future of Fashion” (6-9pm) on Thursday 20th April to kick off the debate in advance of Fashion Revolution Week. Our panel of experts will dive into the highly innovative world of eco textiles, circular garment production and new human-centred manufacturing approaches that are providing material solutions to many of fashion’s environmental and ethical disaster areas.

In Panel 1: “Working with nature, not against it” we will hear from Heinz Zeller, principal sustainability at HUGO BOSS in conversation with Carlo Centonze, CEO of HeiQ Aeoniq, the retailer’s strategic partner and makers of “the world’s first truly climate-positive yarn” that claims to be carbon net negative. Also on the panel, Paul Alger MBE, director of international affairs at the UK Fashion and Textiles Association, and Anna Ellis, head of business development at Making for Change @London College of Fashion, will also consider how the UK can transition towards a circular fashion economy.

In Panel 2, “Turning the wheels of change,” our experts will talk about putting the human element firmly back centre-stage in the sustainability debate. Delphine Williot, policy & campaigns manager of Fashion Revolution UK, Gavin Miller, national officer & head of light industries at Community trade union, and Susanna Wen, co-founder of Birdsong, will consider ever-critical issues such as a living wage for garment producers, brand transparency and breaking the fast fashion cycle. While Donald Browne will talk about why, after 30 years at the top of the industry, he quit to set up a more human-centred manufacturing model in THE-CØDED.

If you care about the future of sustainable fashion production, this is one event you don’t want to miss! In-person places are limited – please RSVP to to secure a seat. The panels will also be livestreamed on LinkedIn and YouTube.