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  • Anita Abayomi

My Interview with Tottenham Executive Director - Donna Maria Cullen

Spurs the sustainability champions: How the Lilywhites turned green

As you walk on the concourses at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, you will notice a commemorative plaque in honour of the north London club’s former home White Hart Lane. What fans may have overlooked is that the crockery bronze walkway that they are passing through is formed from the crushed remains of the old ground. While the memories of White Hart Lane remain within the new stadium, the future lies just outside the south stand, where the football club will team up with Nike Grind (recycled materials developed by the sportswear company) to create future opportunities for those in the community.

Donna-Maria Cullen, the executive director of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, is keen to discuss the journey of Spurs’ sustainability efforts and why the future lies within the Nike Grind initiative.

The quest for the current Tottenham Hotspur owners began in 2001, and their pledge to invest into the environment came to fruition by 2007 with the club constructing the training centre Hotspur Way. Located in Enfield, it has been commended for its environmentally friendly facilities, including the energy efficient main building. As early adapters in becoming an eco-friendly club, Cullen stresses how important it was for the club to adhere to a sustainability regime.

“When you have a clean sheet of paper in front of you and you are going to design a new building, which you know will have an impact on your business, you then also realise that it’s going to have an impact on the environment in a number of ways,” Cullen tells The Athletic.

“Not just the build of it but also the operations of it. You should then use this and be able to impact the individuals that will use it and their lifestyles going forward. You have an absolute obligation to make sure that (the new facility) is as environmentally sustainable as possible.”

Being able to take a new concept and bring it to life in your image comes with difficulties in itself but it is an opportunity to tailor it and highlight what matters to you most. For Tottenham, they were able to use this to their advantage and build in conjunction with what they see as one of their core values: to create a sustainable environment. Cullen explains that the “drive” to create a sustainable training centre needed to come from “the top” and that has been reflected in the construction of their brand-new stadium.

The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is one to be admired. Now the second-largest Premier League ground, the glorious views of the club’s new home have been built upon solid, eco-friendly foundations. The billion-pound investment is more than just a pretty face. “Having seen what we could do with the training centre – heat source air pumps and green roofs – we took that same philosophy across to the new stadium. It’s one of the only stadiums in the world whose front door is right on the high street. The impact of it is huge and significant. We know that we’ve got to measure the carbon footprint of all of our operations there as well going forward. So, we started that thinking very early on. Right down to the fact that we recycled materials on site, so that we reduced the truck movements. When you look to do something positive for the environment, it ends up better for your business as well.”

Then came the grey concourses. You have some stadiums that have been built several decades ago and maintain a vintage, old, rustic look. To avoid replicating a dull look for the stadium, the club decided it wanted to “jazz them up a bit” and this is why Tottenham fans can see the plaque indicating that: “The floor you are standing on is embedded with aggregate from White Hart Lane, 1899-2017.”

“So, we didn’t like the grey concourses. The [construction workers] started mixing aggregate in and now we have a lovely crockery bronze look with stones in it on our concourses that the general admission fans use. That aggregate is actually the crushed foundations of White Hart Lane. So, when our fans walk on our concourses, they are actually walking on White Hart Lane. We have built the fans’ history and former stadium into our current new one and it has been one of the most sustainable things we have done.”

The success of Tottenham’s sustainable stadium has not come without its struggles. Determined to do the absolute best to retain an environmentally friendly base, changes had to be made, meaning new advanced technology, cashless transactions and difficult conversations with suppliers, including catering and equipment suppliers. The message from Cullen was clear: “If we’re going to do this, let’s do this properly.”

Changes were made right down to the cutlery being made from bamboo as opposed to plastic. All of their food serving material is now recyclable and they now have a glass crushing machine. With all these changes, it’s crazy to believe that their biggest challenge of all was plastic bottles.

Everybody needs a bottle of water, hence the item is the easiest product to sell. Using cardboard-based bottled water seems like an efficient alternative to plastic bottles, right? Wrong. Cullen informs me that there are very few recycling plants in the country that can actually recycle the cardboard bottles as they still have foil products in them.

“Everybody thinks they’re doing the right thing but by the time you have done the transports of vehicle movements in and out, when you add it all together, it’s not feasible. That is one of the biggest challenges. A simple item like that.”

Having previously been level on rankings with Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United, in 2020, Tottenham became the Premier League’s most sustainable club after acquiring maximum points. An achievement to be proud of, of course, but what’s next for Spurs? They have achieved maximum sustainability, but Cullen believes that the job is not yet done. While their competitors maintain a high level of sustainability, Tottenham have looked to the future and turned to their Nike partners with regard to pushing boundaries.

In order to stay ahead of the curve, Cullen explains there are two aspects that the club will need to focus on: their partnership with Vivo to increase their solar power and turning their new Nike Grind Court concept into a reality.

“It’s about pushing boundaries and the Nike Grind Court is a perfect example of that. We walked around the stadium and we saw we had space there and one of the things that we work on with Nike is embracing the community.”

Nike Grind materials consist of manufactured scrap, unused manufactured materials and end-of-life footwear. In joining the fight to protect the environment, Nike has pledged to protect the future of sport. To do this, their belief is that they need to change what they think about waste and instead turn waste into opportunities to create. Using recycled materials such as rubber, foam and plastics, Nike have found an exciting way to create eco-friendly areas of interest. So far with this initiative, they have created Lyft bikeshare e-stations, walkways, playgrounds and more using their Nike Grind rubber. Staying true to their core, Tottenham have partnered with Nike to create a Nike Grind Court where the community can come together and participate in outdoor sports, especially football, by the stadium. The court will have markings for football with the flexibility to also form markings for basketball and other activities promoting general fitness.

The urban, edgy culture of the Tottenham borough inspired the idea of making the new Nike Grind Court completely out of old unused trainers. Roughly 18,000 trainers will contribute to the superb sports playing surface. Cullen appreciates the culture that surrounds Tottenham Hotspur Football Club and embraces trainers as a fundamental part of life in the local community, hence the appeal.

Using the community’s culture to build a new Nike Grind Court is impressive, however, the sentiment lies within the purpose of the idea. Cullen gives The Athletic a deeper insight as to what this court represents and how it could potentially be “life changing”. “We’re turning it into a five-a-side court and there will be programmed community use. It will be programmed through different times of the day. For example, after school, the kids will be scheduled to use it and in the evening, we will have the teens using it. This can contribute to bringing kids off the streets.”

The scheduled timeline plans to share benefits for parents, adults and also schoolchildren but this is not the most exciting aspect. The willingness to bring the community together and give equal opportunities to those less privileged has driven Spurs to go that extra step further to provide.

“The one thing I am really excited about is that our academy is going to use it for talent ID. Premier League clubs have great training centres and they’re beautiful, but they are out in leafy suburbs. Kids would need to have parents that would be able to drive them a few miles away to take part in a trial. Few clubs have an inner-city academy trial area and that’s where our Nike Grind Courts come in. Our academy employees will be coming down and kids who live by our doorsteps will be scouted. We’re not only providing social inclusion, notably giving kids a safe place for them to have fun, not only driving fitness, we’re actually creating what could potentially be future life-changing opportunities for young boys and girls.”

As the competition increases between Premier League clubs with regard to creating a sustainable environment, the achievements by Spurs have set the benchmark. The fact that they focused on their energy use and are now 100% green energy is not what placed them ahead as leaders of the 2020 sustainability table. It was their endless efforts to promote the cause and the importance of being environmentally friendly. Their participation in the Count Us In campaign and being a signatory of the UN Climate Change framework are just some of the steps taken by the club to express their desire to make a change, but their most effective step was using their platform.

“We have a platform that can reach millions of people. We have to use that. It’s about not asking people to make dramatic life changes but simple life changes. It’s also about impressing the environmental message on to the kids, too. One of the other campaigns that we want to do is: “Don’t mess with Tottenham.” It’ll be about tidying up Tottenham. This, coupled with the Nike Grind, will send a very clear message of sustainability to everyone who comes and uses it and lives within the vicinity.”

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