Best of 2022: Michael Doughty on quitting football to found ethical brand Hylo Athletics
In this interview first published in October 2022, former Premier League footballer Michael Doughty explains why he walked away from the game to set up sustainable sportswear brand Hylo Athletics.
The longer that Michael Doughty’s playing career went on, the harder he found it to ignore the effects of climate change.
“I saw way more games called off, way more training sessions impacted by crazy rain for a few weeks,” the former Queens Park Rangers, Swindon Town and Peterborough player tells City A.M. “Nobody was like ‘why is this happening more and more?’. To me, that connection is pretty obvious.”
That growing sense of urgency about the environment was a major factor in Doughty’s decision to create sustainable sportswear brand Hylo Athletics, which launched in 2020.
He and co-founder Jacob Green felt the industry lacked a mainstream company that catered to consumers who, like Doughty, drove a hybrid car and preferred to eat vegan foods.
“We coined it ‘Patagonising Nike’,” he says, referring to the US outdoor brand known for its ethical stances. “Taking that philosophy of environmental impact and applying it to a cool brand.”
Launching Hylo Athletics took Doughty to a crossroads in his life. The midfielder had just enjoyed one of his best ever seasons, playing a key role in helping Swindon Town win League Two.
But he was relishing football less while fans were shut out of matches during the pandemic, was about to become a father, and increasingly felt the pull of the business world.
On the eve of the 2020-21 campaign, with two years remaining on his contract, he did what very few footballers do: he walked away when he didn’t have to.
“I retired from football pretty much two days after the official launch [of Hylo]. Within 24 hours I knew I couldn’t do these two enormous things well together,” the 29-year-old says.
“I have feared throughout my life feeling redundant, or lacking an identity without football. And knowing that I had one, I was super passionate about it and it also enabled me to be with my family a bit more… I started to see this life for myself, and actually it was quite enjoyable.”
Doughty’s aim to make Hylo the world’s biggest
Doughty and Green recruited a third co-founder, industry veteran John Prescott, who designed shoes for Usain Bolt at Nike and helped create Hylo Athletics’ first trainer for launch. Since then they have expanded to sportswear, and a second shoe product is imminent.
They expect to hit £1m in sales for 2022, a 100 per cent increase on last year. Their one bricks-and-mortar store is a concession in Fenwick on New Bond Street, but most of their business is done online and originates from the US.
“I want to be the biggest sport brand in the world. That sounds stupid, obviously, but it doesn’t to me,” says Doughty, who is managing director.
“When I made the decision to stop [football], I knew that I was not going to be Messi or Ronaldo. Yeah, I might have got back to the Championship, but I was never going to make it back to the Premier League. I struggled with that, because mentally I really wanted to be.
“In business, as much as there are challenges and you need to ride your luck a bit, there isn’t a ceiling. For a competitor that is a very fun playground.”
Footballers can apply Rashford effect to climate
Doughty believes football can play a leading role in tackling climate change, citing the impact on social issues achieved by England and Manchester United star Marcus Rashford’s campaigning.
“There are some clubs and parts of the governance talking about it, but the moment we’ve seen a player or a group of players applied, we’ve seen the change overnight,” he says.
“That is the next step change for football: to have a person or group of people drive the agenda. The football stars are the people who really wield the power.”
One footballer actively supporting Doughty’s cause is England and Leeds forward Patrick Bamford, an old friend and early investor in Hylo Athletics who is an ambassador for the brand.
“He’s been great about taking that conversation to the mainstream media,” says Doughty. “He’s turned down other opportunities in reality, because while working with the brand his profile has gone from Championship striker to England player.”
Doughty also praises Forest Green Rovers, the small Gloucestershire club who have risen the ranks to the third tier while implementing a vegan and carbon-neutral policy.
“If we can make people understand that this is impacting the football side of things then I think that’s an interesting place to meet people,” he says. “Forest Green doing that is amazing because you can’t avoid that conversation.”
Hylo Athletics plans to enter football, at first by making kits, and have had talks with potential partner teams. Boots may be added to their range too, in time.
Doughty on Thunberg and learning from dad
The company has already gained industry recognition by being named on the inaugural Laureus Sport for Good Index, a list of pioneering ethical brands, last year.
Doughty believes that business can change the world and has set his sights high, reasoning that the more sustainable trainers Hylo can sell, the more the climate will benefit.
“As consumers we can shape the world we want to see by how we spend, that’s how the world connects. When I started to see that I thought it was cool,” he says.
“And then I started to think business probably is the most direct route to change. Because bureaucracy and government stuff takes a lot of time. If we can help shape that narrative through what we produce then that’s my contribution.
“I’m not Greta Thunberg by any respects. I’m not this perfect embodiment of sustainability. I’m just very passionate about nature and trying to do my bit in my lane to make it important.”
Doughty is also driven by a wish to emulate his late father Nigel, who advocated responsible business and used his self-made fortune to buy his beloved Nottingham Forest.
“I was so close with him. Loved him, adored him. And the way he carried himself and the things that were important to him, I really admire,” he says.
“There’s a part of a son that is always, not trying to beat your dad, but make him proud. I think that stays with me every day.”