When the English football club Reading F.C. takes to the field for its first home game of the season this weekend, the sleeves on its kits will look a bit different from years past. Instead of the club’s traditional blue and white bands, fans will see 150 narrow stripes in varying shades of red and blue. The change isn’t about aesthetics: The new sleeves are a data visualization of global warming known as climate stripes.
Each stripe represents a year, beginning at the club’s founding in 1871. Below-average annual temperatures are shown in blue and above-average in red, making the sleeves’ shift from cool blue at the neck to fire red at the arm a stark, time-lapse image of climate change. “The stripes are an easy-to-understand communication tool for people to grasp the emergency of the situation,” says Reading’s commercial director, Tim Kilpatrick.
That’s exactly why the stripes exist, says Ed Hawkins, a climate scientist with the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at the University of Reading. Hawkins developed the climate stripes in 2018 after seeing baby blankets knitted by a colleague that also used color coding to track global warming. Two years earlier, his spiral animation of rising global temperatures had become a sensation when it was used in the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. If there is such a thing as a climate change data visualization celebrity, Hawkins is it. Still, the Reading shirt unveiling was a surreal moment for him. I also never imagined doing a photoshoot for a new football kit!
In collaborating with Reading F.C., whose men’s team plays in the second tier of English professional football, Hawkins suggested using temperatures from the local historical record. “It highlights the fact that things are changing where we live,” he says. “We are experiencing this in our own backyard.” The collaboration arose by chance after Kilpatrick saw the stripes on the wall in the background during a video call with a counterpart at the University of Reading in 2020. Hawkins and the university provide free, open access to the climate stripes, which have shown up everywhere from flip-flops and leggings to wall art and city buses.
In addition to putting the stripes on its sleeves, Reading F.C. is using fabric made from recycled plastic bottles to produce its shirts. The change is part of a broader effort to make operations more sustainable, including by adding solar arrays and electric vehicle chargers on team grounds, as well as new labeling at concession stands to guide fans toward more climate-friendly choices.
The initiative also represents a new wrinkle in football’s “kit launch” custom. Every summer, in a ritual whose hype rivals an Apple product launch, football clubs release new versions of their uniforms for the upcoming season, accompanied by glitzy, over-the-top videos and relentless scrutiny of the slightest modifications in design. Apparel brands pay top clubs tens of millions of dollars per year for the rights to sell the shirts. Sponsors pay similar sums to splash their brands across the chest, and fans pay upwards of $100 each season to own the latest edition.
Initial feedback on the new Reading sleeves was mostly negative, says Kilpatrick, as fans were bewildered by the departure from tradition. But the response is shifting as people learn about the meaning behind the new design. So far, he says, online orders are about 35% above where they were last year for the club, which sells roughly 10,000 shirts per season. “People from all over the world have have already bought them on preorder,” says Kilpatrick.
The ultimate hope, says Hawkins, is to make climate change a more normal topic of conversation between fans. “It would be fantastic if we hear the fans talking about what they are doing to tackle this problem,” he says, “whether they’re cycling more or they’ve got a heat pump or they’re thinking about buying an electric car or eating less meat, whatever of the innumerable actions that we can all take.”
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Ira Boudway in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org
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