The GSB Interview

Lauren ‘Lu’ Barnes, Greening the OL Reign and the NWSL

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Lauren “Lu” Barnes is a very busy woman.

She is the captain of the Tacoma, Washington-based Olympique Lyonnais (OL) Reign of the NWSL and also plays in the Swedish League.

And, working with former OL Reign staffer Santi Gallo, she became an internal greening consultant, helping to turn the team into one of the greenest squads in American sports. In only about a year’s time.

Oh yeah, Barnes and Gallo also helped bring green sponsors into the OL Reign fold.

Clearly, GreenSportsBlog had to talk to Lu Barnes and Santi Gallo. Thanks to the miracle of Zoom, Barnes joined us from Sweden and Santi signed in from a tropical forest in his home country of Colombia. Advantage, Gallo.

 

 

GreenSportsBlog: Lu, first of all I have to say you have a great nickname, but the spelling is a bit funky. We will get to the great work you are doing in terms of Greening the OL Reign, but as a start, talk about how you got into soccer-football?

Lauren “Lu” Barnes: Yeah, Lew, I grew up in Upland, California about 40 miles east of Los Angeles. My older brother played soccer so I followed him into it, starting when I was four years old.

I worked hard at a young age, was able to make it to the youth national team and then played for UCLA as a left back. I went pro, playing for the Philadelphia Independence of the WPS, a precursor to the NWSL.

When the league dissolved, I moved back in with my parents and got a job as an assistant coach with the UC Riverside women’s team. I loved coaching the girls, so I had a big internal debate when the NWSL launched in 2012. Do I want to go back to being an active player, with all that entails. I mean, maybe it was not meant to be?

In the end, I decided to go back into the draft, to give it one more shot. The Seattle team picked me and, nine years later, I’m still with the OL Reign.

 

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Lauren 'Lu' Barnes of the OL Reign (Photo credit: Nils Clauson/Wildly)

 

GSB: Not only are you still with the club, you’re the captain! What does OL stand for?

Lu: Olympique Lyonnais. The first division French club — their women’s team is the most dominant club in Europe — bought control of the Reign, hence the OL.

GSB: Got it. And you also play in the Swedish League?

Lu: Due to COVID our 2020 season was cut short which gave us all the opportunity to play in Europe, since the transfer windows finally suited the NWSL.  I typically would play two seasons in one year. I played in Australia for Melbourne City for many years; this year I found a Swedish club, Kristianstads DFF, near Malmö, during the transfer window and so that’s where I am now.

GSB: And I saw that you were “Woman of the Match” for Kristianstads not that long ago. Congratulations! Let’s pivot to your environmental activism. How did that begin?

Lu: Well, I’ve been a vegetarian since college and have been fully plant-based since 2014. That year, I went to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah with my best friend and former Reign player — and vegan — Elli Reed and saw the premier of “Racing Extinction,” the documentary about the mass extinction humans are causing. I met Leilani Münter there…

GSB: …the “Eco, vegan, hippie chick with a race car” and a GSB fave!

Lu: That’s her! She really inspired me to educate myself about the environmental and climate impacts of the meat industry. By doing so, the connection between healthy lifestyle and the environment became clearer and clearer to me.

GSB: So, what did you do?

Lu: I wanted to figure out how to use my platform to model a healthy, environmentally friendly lifestyle among my teammates and fans. I’ve been captain of the Reign for the four years, so I had the respect of my teammates and decided to start my greening efforts with them.

But I knew I couldn’t do it on my own, so I asked Santi Gallo, who basically did  everything at the Reign, including sustainability, to help me two years ago. He said, “let’s GO!”

GSB: That’s a great segue to welcome in Santi Gallo. Lu says you did just about everything with the Reign. What does that actually mean?

Santi Gallo: Well Lew, I had been with the Reign for two and a half years before COVID hit. I worked in team administration, community relations, as an operations coordinator and partnership services…

GSB: Is that all? I mean couldn’t you also handle scouting and contract negotiations? Seriously, how did you get from Colombia to the Seattle Reign?

Santi: Great question.

My background is in sustainability consulting, working for Ernst & Young (EY) in Colombia. I got tired of it and eventually went to Seattle University for a masters in sports business leadership and a certificate in Sports-Sustainability.

And then when I joined the Reign in 2017 I met Lu, found out in a nanosecond that she was passionate about sustainability and we started working together almost immediately, figuring out ways to green the Reign in ways that would have the most impact with the limited resources we had.

In the end, our goal was to convince management to let me make the team more sustainable. We put a Power Point together for management about the sustainability changes we could make as soon as possible

 

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Santi Gallo, 5th from the left, just to Megan Rapinoe's left, with the OL Reign (Photo credit: OL Reign)

 

GSB: How did management react?

Santi: Team owners Bill and Teresa Predmore and the rest of the management team have been great. And Seattle is super progressive on environment and climate so that helps.

Lu: We’re a small organization, relatively speaking but we wanted to do what we could. The owner said, ‘go for it’.

GSB: Lu, how have your teammates reacted to your involvement in the team’s greening initiatives?

Lu: That’s a good question, Lew.

I started sharing my passion for vegan foods and also for limiting trash with my teammates. Some were really into it from the beginning — Dani Weatherholt, Roise White, Rebecca Quinn, Jassy Spencer and Sophia Huerta to name a few — and those who were not were at least open to talking about it. We have a really good group.

GSB: So, you got management buy-in and found out your teammates were either into greening or were open to considering it. With that kind of support, what did you guys do out of the gate?

Santi: Well, Lew we started out in 2019  by understanding the different ways our team had an impact with the environment.

We focused on the locker room because of the passion of players and because we had much more control over things. This meant putting posters in the bins to start a conversation about waste management. We donated all food leftovers to a homeless shelter in Tacoma and we started plastic usage and carbon footprint conversations.

Then, for 2020, we refined our sustainability plan to measure  those footprints and also added measuring emissions from player commuting, using Lu’s measurements as a pilot…

GSB: …And then COVID hit…

Santi: Coincidentally, my visa expired at around that time so I had to go to Colombia in late January, five days before the Seattle area, which, as you might recall, was hit early, began closing. So that’s why I’m talking to you from the tropical forest in Ricuarte, Colombia.

GSB: I’m so sorry to hear about your visa expiration.

Santi: Thanks Lew. I want to let your readers know that the OL Reign helped me with all of the necessary paperwork to renew my visa. But the roadblocks that the U.S. government has put in place make it incredibly difficult for people with paperwork and of course those without it. This is especially true for people of color. Basically, this is a clear example of systemic racism..

GSB: Amen, Santi, AMEN. I’m sorry you had to go through this. I hope that, someday soon, you can come back to Seattle and the Reign.

Lu: Me too! If..WHEN Santi comes back, he’ll return to Tacoma as the team moved our operations 45 minutes south of Seattle. We’re building a new stadium in Tacoma. The move have been great, although I do miss Seattle.

GSB: Wow! Actually, it sounds like a good move as it gives the Reign a chance to establish its own identity as a big fish in a smaller pond. Back to the greening efforts. Are they on hold?

Santi: You clearly don’t know Lu Barnes very well!

I got a call from her in April, saying ‘I want to continue but I’m not sure when the regular season will resume.’ But then the NWSL set up the summer Challenge Cup tournament in a bubble set up in Utah and we thought, ‘hey, this can be a test drive for a proper season.’ It gave us an opportunity for trial, error and improvement.

For example, and back to Lu’s transportation emissions, her carbon footprint during the bubble was about 0.795 CO2e, the equivalent to planting 13.1 trees or charging your phone 101 times, or 1.8 consumed petroleum barrels. We could assume that the rest of the team had a similar number on their CO2e footprint since they were so controlled by the bubble.

Lu: Santi wasn’t there but, as you can see, he was great about helping remotely.

GSB: Before we get into your sustainability efforts in the bubble, what was it like to be in it for you and your teammates to live in it?

Lu: We actually had two bubbles. Because the Seattle area got hit early, we went to Missoula, Montana for a month training camp before we headed to Utah.

The team stayed in a hotel; we could control things like waste, could wash our clothes in cold water, things like that.

But when we got to the bubble in Utah, I called Santi, saying ‘it’s terrible here, environmentally!’ The NWSL controlled everything and safety, understandably, was Number 1. Environmental sustainability was not a priority.

GSB: So, what did you do?

Lu: I reached out to three companies that could help us limit plastic and water usage as well as reduce waste.

GSB: Who are they?

Lu: CrazyCap, which makes environmentally-friendly reusable bottles that are also COVID-safe.

 

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Lu Barnes, with OL Reign teammates Rosie White and Dani Weatherholt and their CrazyCap bottles (Photo credit: Nils Clauson/Wildly)

 

GSB: How so?

Lu: The science behind it is amazing:  The bottle has an ultraviolet light in the cap that purifies the water. The team really loves them; in fact, all the girls still have them. And they showed the bottles during our matches in the bubble on the CBS All Access TV coverage.

EcoLunchBox, which is all-female owned, provided each of us with stainless steel plates.

And I can’t leave out Albatross Take Back Ware — I LOVE their business model. They sell stainless steel razors. And then they take them back when they’re past their useful lives, melt them down and convert them into utensils.

My description of these amazing companies does not do them justice; I encourage everyone to check them out and see what incredible things they are doing for the environment.

 

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Lu Barnes eats a plant-based meal using EcoLunchBox and Albatross Take Back Ware (Photo credit: Dani Weatherholt)

 

GSB: That. Is. So. COOL!

Lu: I know!!! We were the only team in the bubble not to have any plastic.

GSB: What would it take to expand these relationships beyond the Reign to include other NWSL teams, or even the rest of the league? Do these companies have budgets for bigger sponsorship?

Lu: I have focused mostly on OL Reign but the companies I’ve reached out to have been so excited to bring their sustainable businesses to sports. Once Santi, myself and others on the team have built a stable foundation with the Reign, we can then present to NWSL. That is certainly a goal!

GSB: And a worthy one. Are you engaging fans on your greening efforts and if so, how?

Lu: We have community gardens at our current stadium and so we teach the girls from our academy about growing produce…

Santi: And Lu and her teammates will teach the all-girl academy students a course that combines soccer skills and how to be a pro with sustainability education.

GSB: So I know things are still in flux for the 2021 season in terms of if/when fans will be allowed back to the stadium. With that said, what are your plans going forward?

Lu: We will have EcoLunchBoxes for our pre-season training. Same thing with CrazyCaps and Albatross. We’re also looking at bringing in bulk shampoo and conditioner from a Tacoma company into the locker room — they use mason jars and more sustainable packaging compared to your traditional plastic shampoo and conditioner bottles.

Santi: Anther thing that I would love the team to have is aluminum canned water. We are working with Open Water on this. People don’t even imagine how many plastic bottles are used by teams, and that is something that has to change.

Longer term, we are looking beyond the NWSL to bring our approach to sustainability to the international stage, including to the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

GSB: I like that you guys think big! Finally, where and how does communicating on climate change fit into your plans, with your teammates and your fans?  

Santi: Climate change, communications in a place like Seattle-Tacoma is much more of a responsibility than anything else. The world is changing and so are we.

If we in the sports community, especially athletes, use their platforms to educate, engage and show that climate change goes further than ideology, then we will be making a difference. At the same time, by creating partnerships that enhance sustainability, and helping people change behaviors through education and communication is something that will lead us to create a meaningful impact.

Photo at top: Lauren ‘Lu’ Barnes lines up a shot for the OL Reign (Photo credit: NWSL)

 


 

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