How RS21 Italian Class set sailing’s ‘most sustainable’ standard
Since its beginnings in 2021, RS21 Italian Class has always focused on sustainability.
From designing and building a boat to running events and working with partners, the team behind RS21 Italian Class have made sure that sustainability – in its fullest sense – underpins all of their decisions.
But what does it take to run a sailing class with “a sustainable soul”? And what are some of the challenges and opportunities facing other classes that want to follow suit?
The origins of RS21 Italian Class
RS21 Italian Class was founded in Italy in May 2021. The class was born from President Davide Casetti’s conviction that with materials for boat builds and technologies like electric engines, a class could be conceived as entirely sustainable from the very beginning.
The team, which now includes a staff of around 10 people, spent the first year considering boat design, testing technologies around events, and drafting a Sustainability Manifesto, which would be used as a roadmap to ‘impact zero’.
When they drafted the manifesto, the team were clear that they wanted to address sustainability in as broad a way as possible.
“In our view, sustainability is not just about materials and electric engines,” Casetti tells Global Sustainable Sport. “It’s a more holistic view – we also talk about fair play, selection of partners, inclusivity. The protocol gives us the rules for how to manage the class today, and how to improve our activities every year.”
The class was clear about its intentions early on, setting the tone for its sustainability work.
The team began working with Up2You, an Italian company specialising in calculating and reducing CO2 emissions. Casetti and the team also signed the One Ocean Foundation’s Charta Smeralda, which commits signatories to reducing the environmental impact of their sporting activities.
Addressing boat design and the impact of races
Another priority in the first year was boat design, as well as considering how to reduce the impact of races and events.
RS21, designed by RS Sailing, was designed specifically to be “eco-friendly from the beginning”.
The team focused on establishing an eco-friendly production process, using materials including recycled PET foam and bio-resins, and ensuring eco-friendly use through features such as an onboard electric engine and a design that allows three boats to be stacked in the same frame.
When it came to addressing events, the team thought carefully about all of the possible environmental impacts that are involved with holding a race. In fact, some of the biggest impacts of sailing races are not always immediately obvious.
“Our main target is to reduce the impact of sailing races on the environment,” says Casetti. “People don’t imagine the impact on the sea – we want to cut this kind of activity.”
While plastic pollution and waste can be big problems, other issues include the use of fuel in boats used to place the marks; the construction materials used to lock the marks, which are often left behind in the ocean; and the use of chemicals that are used to treat ropes and structures.
To address this, the team tested a selection of electric marks, which avoid some of the biggest issues associated with traditional buoys.
RS21 Italian Class have also removed the use of plastic bottles at events, and instead provide microfilter water dispensers on the pier.
During RS21 Worlds in Porto Rotondo last year, the three available water dispensers distributed 6,500 litres of water, saving an estimated 13,000 plastic bottles.
In all of these decisions, Casetti and the team have been careful to weigh up the concrete impact of their actions without falling into the trap of greenwashing, or even demonising, particular solutions. The problem with plastic, for example, is not that plastic bottles will always be inherently bad, but that the events did not have the capacity to handle and recycle the waste properly.
“The problem is that the infrastructure around our event is not ready for that volume of bottles, so we decided to avoid the use of plastic bottles completely,” says Casetti.
This approach means the team can select the least impactful solution for their specific context, which ultimately reduces emissions.
Developing more sustainable events
After laying the groundwork for sustainable boats and races, RS21 Italian Class took up another challenge.
“In 2022, the CEO of World Sailing suggested that classes should look at ISO 20121 certification,” says Casetti. “And I took that as a commitment for the class – I said, OK, we have to be the first ones to do that.”
In August 2023, the class was formally awarded ISO 20121 certification, which ensures best practices in running sustainable events.
The team have also continued to develop their programme of sustainable talks and events during each of their races.
Earlier events had hosted sustainability meetings, all of which covered different topics. These included a food upcycling masterclass in Alassio, a lesson on best practices on board in Rimini, and a conference on sustainability and inclusivity in Riva del Garda.
In Porto Rotondo last year, the team launched the Blue Village, which Casetti says is the “natural development” of these single sessions and will now continue at each event.
The Blue Village is both a physical and virtual space where speakers and partners can talk about their sustainable activities. The team record the talks, as well as individual interviews, and plan to launch a docufilm based on the first Blue Village that they hope will reach wider audiences.
Another part of the class’s work has been to rethink their relationship with their partners – emphasising the ‘Power’ and ‘Profit’ pillars of sustainability.
In 2022, the team changed their language: ‘sponsors’ became ‘partners’. This was an important distinction that helped to redefine their working relationship.
“Partners share our same goals, and work with us to achieve them,” says Casetti. “All our partners are selected according to our sustainability protocol.”
Current partners include Yamamay, an Italian fashion company focused on swimwear, and Biova, a company that produces beer from unsold bread. Last year, the class worked with Yamamay to release a capsule collection of swimwear made of 100% recycled materials. Royalties from the use of the RS21 brand were donated to charity.
This kind of collaborative approach, underpinned by reimagining the traditional sponsorship model, is increasingly viewed by the industry at large as an essential step in acting on sustainability in the fullest sense. For instance, at last year’s Sport Positive Summit, over 80% of attendees agreed that sport should disengage from fossil fuel sponsorship.
Setting an example
Almost three years on from their founding, RS21 Italian Class are now sharing their journey with others. In November, Casetti hosted one of World Sailing’s Sustainability Sessions.
Casetti is clear that he wants the class to be an example for others.
“I would like to be an example that says, it’s possible,” he says. “It’s not easy, maybe, but it’s not impossible.”
This is another part of embedding sustainability in an organisation: making sure that others feel emboldened to make their own changes.
“We shouldn’t be the only one doing this, because if we’re the only one, we won’t survive,” Casseti says. “We have no alternative.”
Sailing has a strong track record of addressing environmental issues, perhaps because of its close connection to the natural environment. RS21 Italian Class’s work is further testament to the sport’s growing commitment to reducing its impacts – but Casetti believes that all sports, not just sailing, have a big role to play.
“Sport is a part of the life of everybody,” he says. “People can take these ideas home, and they can spread. I want our activities to be seen by as many people as possible – so we can all get big results.”