While football/soccer is the #1 sport in France, rugby is — surprisingly to some outside of that country — a strong #3¹.
Julien Pierre had a storied rugby career, for 17 years in the top professional league in France and in World Cup finals for the French National Team. He has was active at the intersection of Green & Sports for much of his career.
GSB was excited to talk to Pierre about his rugby career, his lifelong passion for the environment and what it was like to be an early leader of the Green-Sports movement in the rugby world.
GreenSportsBlog: When did you get involved with rugby?
Julien Pierre: I grew up in Sables d’Olonne on the west coast of France in the family zoo that my parents ran…
GSB: WOW! That sounds cool. Was it?
Julien: Well, my grandfather created the zoo in 1960. It was all that I knew growing up so it didn’t seem special. But, I know now it was unusual and also great. It was my world for 15 years.
No one in my family really plays sport. A British friend of my parents who played rugby got me involved when I was nine. He took me to he stadium and I never left.
GSB: And so while you stayed at the stadium, you ended up having a brilliant professional rugby career. What were some of the highlights?
Julien: First of all, I had this incredibly wonderful opportunity to live my passions, my dreams. I was lucky enough to have 17 years of big moments. But to pick two, it was of course amazing to wear the French national team jersey for the first time and then 27 times overall. Obviously getting to play in the Rugby World Cup Final in New Zealand in 2011 is a huge memory, even though we lost to our hosts, The All Blacks, 8-7.
And winning the title of the Top 14, the best league in France, in 2010 with ASM Clermont Auvergne was also a great moment because the club had lost 10 finals over the years and their fans had been waiting for that championship moment for so long.
GSB: Félicitations or Congratulations on your fantastic career. When did you get interested in the environment?
Julien: As I began by telling you, I grew up in a zoo living among animals. Above all, we always had the will through our zoos to participate in the conservation of endangered species and the protection of the environment.
With respect for the environment in mind, we were educated to turn off the lights when leaving a room, shut off the tap water when brushing your teeth, never throw garbage on the floor, things like that. Now, my uncle supports environmental protection projects around the world.
I decided I also wanted to get involved when I traveled with him in 2009 to Sumatra and saw the massive environmental degradation there. That led me to create a foundation for the protection of endangered species, La Passerelle Conservation.
GSB: …And when and how did climate change come into the picture?
Julien: My interest in human-caused climate change is both a personal conviction and a necessary commitment.
Should environmental protection and climate change be dissociated? I think that would be a mistake, because when you raze a forest in Brazil you endanger a fragile ecosystem and you participate in global warming: trade in rare wood sold around the world, consumption of palm oil and more.
Let’s be clear: I am not a specialist in climate change and I am not blameless on my behaviors when it comes to climate…
GreenSportsBlog: …No one is. But the great thing is, nobody has to be. We just have to do better…and faster.
Julien: …I agree. So, the more I watched, read about, and tried to understand it and the consequences it could have on the planet, animal life and on humanity, the more I knew that I had to take a stand. A bit like a rugby captain, I decided to lead on climate and motivate others to get involved.
GreenSportsBlog: Which is the best we can ask of ourselves. Did you talk about environment with your teammates? What was it like to bring that discussion into the locker room?
Julien: My teammates have always known about my commitment to the environment but I didn’t talk about it much during the early part of my career. But little by little I introduced climate change into the locker room.
Beyond the locker room, and knowing the power of sport to influence society, it was natural for me to involve Section Paloise, the Top 14 rugby club I played for at the end of my career, in a “Green Team” initiative that included establishing a corporate social responsibility (CSR) committee within the club. All the people who worked at the club — the managers, coaches, players and staff — seemed to like this approach.
GSB: What about involving the fans in the greening, CSR programs?
Julien: Section Paloise has worked to engage our supporters in a variety of greening actions at Le Stade du Hameau, the club’s 18,000 seat stadium. These include recycling, sourcing local food for the general public concession stands as well as in the VIP seating areas, elimination of all paper communications, partnerships for carpooling and more.
GSB: How did the fans react?
Julien: The club conducted a survey a short while ago which shows that our fans want a club that is more committed to environmental protection, even though all supporters are not yet aware of our efforts.
GSB: Have you and/or the club received any criticism for your environmental initiatives?
Julien: We have been criticized by some on social networks, in large part because the club’s the main sponsor is the energy company TOTAL.
GSB: What do you think of having TOTAL, which derives most of its revenue from fossil fuel extraction, as the chief sponsor of Section Paloise?
Julien: Without TOTAL, La Section Paloise would no longer be in the Top 14.
I believe that through sport we have the chance to influence these companies and potentially change their behavior. TOTAL is a major supporter of all of the club’s social and community programs so they are on the right path. And they recently committed to become Net Zero on carbon emissions by 2050 so they are headed in the right direction.
GSB: I am glad to see TOTAL’s commitment.
For me, the key line in the company’s May 5 Net-Zero statement is that they pledge to reduce the company’s carbon intensity by 15 percent by 2030 on the way to 60 percent by 2050. Problem is, per the IPCC in 2018, humanity needs to decarbonize by 45 percent by 2030 if we are to avoid the most calamitous effects of climate.
I hope Section Paloise will push TOTAL to go faster on decarbonization. If the company doesn’t pick up the pace, I think the club should look for another lead sponsor. But that is to discuss on another day.
So Julien, now that you are retired from rugby, how will you continue on your environmental, climate change-fighting journey?
Julien: Personally, I will continue to pay more and more attention to my impact on the environment: from travel — once we start traveling again — my food choices, and what I purchase. And I am about to launch a startup, Fair Play For Planet, that will encourage companies involved with rugby and other sports, to adopt more eco-friendly behaviors and to encourage their customers to do the same.
¹ Cycling is the second most popular sport in France