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Richard Eckersley is saving the planet one meal at a time

How the former Red Bulls fullback’s new career in his native England might be even more interesting than his first

SOCCER: NOV 23 MLS - Eastern Conference Final - Revolution at Red Bulls Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Once a Metro editor emeritus Austin Fido once observed that joining the Red Bulls forces many to experience an existential crisis and reexamine their life trajectory, a notion supported by a noticeable amount of players ending their sporting careers shortly after their tenure at the club.

In 2014, Toronto FC traded Richard Eckersley to New York in exchange for a 2017 fourth-round SuperDraft selection. The English fullback made 17 appearances across all competitions. At the end of the season, the club opted to not exercise his contract option. His time stateside away from the glitz and glamor of the Premier League and Championship led to a crisis of confidence, causing the death of his passion for the sport.

“It was only when I went to North America and saw how those footballers were living that it changed,” the former Manchester United player told the BBC in 2017. “They were being careful with their money – it didn’t matter what clothes or shoes they wore, and that awakened me. I was really annoyed at football when I was in New York and I just started watching lots of documentaries, reading lots of books and it just completely opened my eyes to it all, to be honest.”

Although he claims his time in New York ended with the club wanting to “pay him minimum wage,” the American journey helped him to discover veganism and become a more relaxed person. Eckersley admits he “chilled out a bit” in Major League Soccer and “became less aggressive.” This new outlook “impacted his game,” perhaps signaling the premature end to his footballing days.

New York Red Bulls Vs Toronto FC. Major League Soccer. New York. USA.
Richard Eckersley (right) defends fellow Englishman Jermain Defoe of Toronto FC during his single season with the Red Bulls in 2014
Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

After leaving MLS, Eckersley stepped away from the sport in 2016, unable to revive his career during an injury-filled stint with Oldham Athletic in League One. At 26 years old, “having fallen out with football” and his entire life ahead, there was only one path to follow. He entered the sustainable food industry, hoping to create a better future by “looking to the past, where eating real food with minimal packaging was a normal practice.”

Inspired by American recycling initiatives and reading about Unverpackt Kiel in Berlin, the former Manchester United Reserve Team Player of the Year and his wife Nicola opened a zero-waste shop in the Devonshire town of Totnes by the name of Earth.Food.Love. The store offers over 200 “vegan, organic, and packaging-free products,” with customers “encouraged to bring their own containers” to buy in bulk and reduce plastic waste usage. In addition to the expended foodstuffs, there are also various household and beauty products such as bamboo toothbrushes. At first, he kept a low profile to avoid the stereotypes ascribed to the business endeavors of athletes, quietly building a solid local reputation until ready to welcome wider media attention.

According to Positive.News, the most popular attraction at England’s first zero waste shop is the nut grinding machines. “It’s peanut and almond every day, and we swap the almond and cashew on Tuesdays,” said Eckersley. “It tastes better because it’s fresh and hasn’t been sitting in a jar for six months. It’s cheaper too, so it’s a win-win.”

While the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the economy, Earth.Food.Love has continued to thrive in the “forward-thinking” community of Totnes. The store provides a “calm and supportive atmosphere within the shop and throughout [its] delivery service” for those attempting an ethical lifestyle. Precautions have been taken to allow for “essential food shopping” in a way “that everyone can feel comfortable doing.”

Eckersley delved further into his interesting journey in a TED talk, delivered at the 2019 TEDxYouth Manchester conference. “Environmentalism and football go together like… well, they don’t really,” said the man who had five cars by the age of 20. “When I was in the footballing world, I was a pawn in the consumerism game, buying and accumulating not for need but for greed. The guy who stands before you today owns only three pairs of shoes and shops in charity shops.”

He was envious of his American and Canadian teammates’ multidisciplinary interests, having developed more balanced lives outside of the sport. By exploring beyond the soccer world and freeing himself from the wasteful excess of non-stop spending, Eckersley was able to “breathe and grow” for the first time in his life. Once a student that “teachers gave up on,” his transition to becoming an eco-warrior has allowed him to create change in the world and succeed with mathematics-based tasks previously believed to be impossible, although he acknowledges his path was eased by his earnings as an athlete.

His work has inspired others to limit waste and open similar eco-friendly businesses, from New Zealand to Cape Town. The husband-and-wife team wrote the how-to guide Setting Up a Zero Waste Shop, available for free online. Ever the busy man, Eckersley has also created a start-up called ReRooted. The company offers “home delivery” for dairy milk alternatives – such as almond coconut, and oat – with shipping about to become available across England. “[ReRooted] has been an interesting road and not an easy one but also so exciting,” he told Devon Life. “There is no such thing as leaving no impact on this Earth, but you can make a promise to always give back and we try this in as many areas as possible.”

The growth of eco-friendly industries and companies is of little surprise when many are trying to make any positive impact in a world that often strips people of their agency and social mobility. No longer focused on stardom, Eckersley admitted to The Great British High Street that his green endeavor “works as a business.” It won’t provide enough money to live the high life, but, more importantly, he’s “happy where he is” and “100%” feels more satisfaction than in his dormant footballing career.

Then again, if Eckersley ever wanted to resume playing, the Red Bulls would probably be willing to sign yet another fullback.