This year, EarthHero teamed up with Lauren Barnes, a professional soccer player who currently plays as a defender for OL Reign of the National Women’s Soccer League, to chat about sustainability in women’s soccer – and the MAD Travel Kits she has pioneered. Join us as we interview her below!
Please note, this interview has been slightly modified for readability and length.
Q: How did you get involved in soccer? Tell us a bit about yourself and your professional journey up to this point!
A lot of people call me Lu. I’ve been called Lu in sports since I can remember! I grew up in Southern California, about 45 minutes inland of LA, so I kind of grew up in the valley, but we were very close to the mountains and the ocean which I am very grateful for. I think that is kind of where my love for the ocean and the Earth started. I have a brother who is 4 years older than me, who I was basically just a shadow to growing up. He played every sport – and so naturally so did I! That is where my love for soccer started. I played AYSO at about 4, joined a serious club at 9, and stuck with that same club team until about 19 – called Arsenal Club Team. I was just coached by one coach my entire club career, which is kind of different nowadays, so it was a very special club experience. I got involved with youth national teams at a young age, around 14, started playing with US then – and that journey continued into looking at colleges. I committed pretty early to UCLA to play soccer with them! The [soccer] draft is unique – you don’t really have a say in where you are going. My first year I was drafted to Philadelphia, so I played my first year in the WPS and then the league folded and so I went back to California to be an assistant coach for UC Riverside. The NWSL evolved a year later, the league came back, I put my name back in the draft and was drafted to Seattle! The last 9 years I’ve been up here in the Pacific Northwest… I love it here, I’ve been so fortunate to be in the Pacific Northwest in particular because they are so progessive when it comes to environmentalism and they take positive actions towards protecting the planet as well. I think all their professional sports, Seahawks, Sounders, Mariners, and then ourselves, have eco-conscious initiatives. “Strawless in Seattle”, no plastic utensils sold at the stadiums – obviously with the pandemic it’s all been on hold, but we’re slowly getting people back into the stadiums.
Q: What inspired you to bring sustainability into the NWSL?
I’ve always had a passion for it – I always try to be a conscious consumer as much as I can. I realize our sport does leave behind a lot of plastic waste, and sometimes it is hard to avoid, but that is kind of where it started for me. We were one of the first sports to come back after the pandemic, and we were in “bubbles”, and due to COVID protocols there was a lot of plastic being used – of course for health and safety reasons…. The pandemic highlighted the plastic usage more than usual. Most seasons our girls would bring in their own utensils and bowls, our team is very conscious in that sense, but with the new protocols we were like “how can we change this?” Within the bubble I reached out to 3 companies: Crazy Cap, reusable water bottles with a UV cap on it, Albatross Take-Back Ware, reusable utensils, and Eco Plates, stainless steel plates. So we eliminated all of that waste within the bubble within a week and a half or so! What motivated me after that was the response from the team, the girls loved learning about it and wanted to be better in their day to day life about plastic and waste. I realized there was space for this within our sport! I was able to record my carbon footprint with our GM Santi [Santiago Gallo Villamizar], who has a background in sustainability, which has been huge over this last year. We were able to see how much footprint we were creating, and find ways to offset that. I spoke to my friends and teammates and they would say, “the best thing this has done for me has made me more aware!”, and they would go and tell their friends and families after the seasons – it kind of had a trickle down effect. I realized that this could catch fire and be more present within sport – and that was really the driving factor for me.
Q: What are some of your goals, both in the short and long term, for the NWSL around sustainability?
Within our locker room, we plan to take small steps towards sustainability. We’ve eliminated single use plastic water bottles with help from the brand Everybody Water, a recyclable water carton. We try to do reusable water first with the filtered water in our locker room, but if you forget that, you can grab something more sustainable. We also have the same kind of carton with a protein shake. We’ve been using a company called Good On Ya, a hydration packet you can pour into your water, the packaging is biodegradable and the ingredients are clean and incredible. We’ve got reusable bowls and utensils for when lunch comes. Hand towels instead of paper towels, which the girls have been responding to well. We’re looking for a more sustainable detergent for the wash. We’re also educating the girls around what can be recycled – the rules from state to state are different, and we have girls from around the world in our locker room! Education has been a big part, followed by reducing plastic and food waste. We have also been partnering with local companies in our community. We’ve done A Drop in The Ocean – they sent big refillable shampoos and conditioners, and we take those to a place to refill them instead of buying new products every time.
For the MAD Travel Kits, I hope to eventually bring them to all the teams in the NWSL. We have things like the player union, and I would like to see us have eco-reps. Someone who can talk to the girls and clubs about ways to be more sustainable! I would love for these initiatives to get into major cups and tournaments as well. With the kits, we’ve had so many teams reach out and say they want to get involved. You can already see there has been a shift with other teams – and the OL Reign will be a driving force in that.
Q: Tell us a bit about the MAD Travel Kits! What are they and how will they create impact?
The Challenge Cup was coming up, and I thought it would be a good idea to have a travel kit – a lot of the waste we create comes from travel. I polled the team to see what items we used most for travel, and wanted to replace them with the most sustainable alternatives we could find. We have bandaids, lunch bags, hydration, sunscreen, water bottles, mouthwaste, deodorant, toothbrushes, hand sanitizer, laundry bags, Q-tips – a little bit of everything is in the MAD Travel Kits! I wanted to introduce the idea there are better alternatives to things we use to travel. The soccer community and sports community is so small, and the sustainability world is somewhat small – so being able to create and collaborate on these kits had been great to connect people together. These kits are then able to reach platforms all over the world and spread the message of being more conscious with the planet! Sometimes when people hear about zero-waste or plastic-free it can be intimidating, but hopefully these kits show that it can be easy, and that investing in reusable products can make an impact.
Q: If there is one thing you could say to someone looking to start their sustainability journey, what would it be?
Just start! There are things I am still trying to get better at, but you don’t have to be perfect to start. Being imperfect is okay! The little steps and the little things that you change will make an impact down the line. Just starting, educating yourself, and being more aware is a good starting point. Don’t just go out and buy a bunch of products – use what you already have at home! It’s not just about getting rid of all of your plastic, you want to create less waste as well. Use what you have, and when you’ve used that, look at what you can replace. It is okay to not be perfect! As much as we can continue to be imperfect, that passion and love spreads really fast. As you do these things in your life, you’ll see change, and you’ll want to continue to live this kind of life.
Thanks for chatting with us, Lauren! We look forward to watching your journey, and seeing sustainability in women’s soccer – and other sports – grow and adapt.