How World Sailing is fighting for sustainability

November 09 2023

With the ocean as its playground, sailing has always had a close connection to nature. And, in recent years, teams, events, and organisations from across the sailing industry have begun to address how their sport is impacting the natural environment. But how is World Sailing, the sport’s world governing body, one of the first international sports federations to publish their sustainability strategy, making the sport sustainable?

How World Sailing is fighting for sustainability

World Sailing

World Sailing, which was founded in Paris in 1907, is the world governing body for sailing and consists of 144 Member National Associations.

As the sport’s governing body, World Sailing has a range of responsibilities: managing sailing at the Olympic Games, developing international racing rules and regulations, training judges, umpires, and administrators, and developing and promoting the sport internationally.

This means that driving sustainability goes beyond simply reducing their own carbon emissions. World Sailing has the platform and responsibility to reach, educate, and support the global sailing industry as it attempts to become more sustainable.

As a sport, sailing has plenty of issues to consider when it comes to the environment.

As boats come in such close contact with the marine ecosystem, they run the risk of damaging or endangering marine life. Transporting boats, sailors, and fans to events drives emissions, while building the boat itself can be energy- and waste-intensive, often relying on materials that are non-sustainable.

These are just a handful of areas that the sport will need to address. So how is World Sailing leading the charge?

Credit: Sailing Energy / World Sailing

Credit: Sailing Energy / World Sailing

Agenda 2030

To set a strategy for their sustainability work, World Sailing first established a Sustainability Commission, made up of experts from within and outside the sport.

From the outset, the Commission’s aims included establishing a ‘robust approach’ to sustainability; sharing best practice; setting standards and targets; and focusing on operations, events, and venues.

Other goals included reducing World Sailing’s own carbon footprint, promoting diversity and accessibility, and ensuring ‘credibility and transparency’ through monitoring and reporting.

The result of this initial work was the launch of World Sailing’s sustainability strategy, Agenda 2030, in 2017.

Agenda 2030 includes 56 targets under six operational areas. The strategy is in line with the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s Sustainability Strategy, as well as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The strategy looks at sustainability in the broadest sense.

‘We include both social and environmental goals, because we look at sustainability holistically,’ says Alexandra Rickham, Head of Sustainability at World Sailing.

Rickham, a former Paralympic sailor, has been in the role since March last year and is responsible for owning Agenda 2030, working with departments and members across the organisation to make sure the organisation is meeting its goals.

As a world governing body, World Sailing has a number of roles, including setting technical standards and regulations and training administrators. Their responsibilities are reflected in the six main areas covered by the sustainability strategy: technical standards, events, venues, training, members, and participation.

The strategy lists 56 targets, which include creating a framework for measuring waste and recyclability for class manufacturers; sharing best practice resources and training programmes; abolishing the use of single-use plastics at events; developing sustainability and accessibility standards for clubs; and helping Member National Associations (MNAs) develop their own sustainability strategies.

In the past six years since the launch of the strategy, how much progress has World Sailing made?

Credit: Sailing Energy / World Sailing

Credit: Sailing Energy / World Sailing

Addressing World Sailing’s operational footprint

As signatories to the UNFCCC’s Sports for Climate Action framework, World Sailing have committed to reducing their own carbon emissions by 50% by 2030, from a 2019 baseline.

World Sailing haven’t yet published any data on their own operational carbon footprint, or any planned reductions.

Despite this, Rickham says the team are addressing their emissions and are still committed to the 2030 target.

‘We look first at reduction, and then at decarbonisation,’ says Rickham.

This approach means thinking first about how to reduce major sources of emissions, like travel. Cutting down first means not needing to rely on infrastructure, like electric charging points for low-carbon travel, or other elements beyond World Sailing’s control.

‘If we reduce first, we can decarbonise a lot faster, and it’s something we can control right now,’ says Rickham.

World Sailing were recently awarded a Climate Action x Sustainable Travel award by the IOC for their work at this year’s 2023 Allianz Sailing World Championships.

Reflecting their approach of reductions first, the team significantly cut down on the number of support boats and used robotic racing marks that avoid damaging sea beds.

The team also addressed business travel: World Sailing’s UK-based staff travelled to the Championships, which were held in The Hague, by train. The governing body also provided staff, officials, and members of the media with bicycles for getting around the host city.

Finally, World Sailing set up an Equipment Recycling Hub focusing on sailing equipment that is ‘common but difficult to recycle’.

The Hub acted as a test case for future events, and contributed to World Sailing’s goal of introducing regulations that will reduce boat-building waste by 2030.

Credit: Sailing Energy / World Sailing

Credit: Sailing Energy / World Sailing

Education and resources

Beyond their work to reduce emissions and waste through standards and events, World Sailing are also leading the charge when it comes to educating the sailing community.

Developing educational programmes, providing resources and guidelines, and raising awareness of sustainability aligns with World Sailing’s wider long-term goal of engagement.

‘We’ve always tried to engage with the community,’ says Rickham.

Major initiatives include the recently-announced Sustainability Sessions, which are held online and designed to ‘upskill’ the community. Over 50% of World Sailing’s Member National Associations had asked for support to develop a sustainability.

The Sustainability Sessions, which will run from October 2023 to March 2024, will provide expert-led webinars on topics including getting started with sustainability, lifecycle assessments, inclusive and accessible sailing, and megafauna strikes.

The team are clear about targeting the needs of the sailing community. ‘We’re getting feedback so that we can see what the community wants,’ says Rickham. ‘It’s been really good so far—the uptake has been strong, and people are really engaged.’

The sessions are an addition to an education and resource programme that focuses on both environmental and social aspects of sustainability.

World Sailing publish resources on their website, including a guide to sustainable sailing clubs, a sustainable yacht club self-assessment tool, an energy audit checklist, environmental guidelines for venues, and a carbon calculator.

The governing body also provide guidance on nature-related topics, including biosecurity and megafauna sightings and strikes, and have worked with Sailors for the Sea to align with their Clean Regattas Toolkit and Clean Class Guidebook.

Credit: Sailing Energy / World Sailing

Credit: Sailing Energy / World Sailing

Social sustainability

Beyond the environment, World Sailing’s sustainability strategy also focuses on gender equity, diversity and inclusion.

Its website states that ‘both as a federation and at World Sailing events we are on a journey to create a culture of belonging and sport for all’.

The body has a long focus on promoting wider access to sailing, and as part of this conducted a Women in Sailing review in 2019. The review provides a toolkit for clubs to consider the gender diversity of their own organisation.

Meanwhile, World Sailing’s Steering the Course initiative uses taster sessions, courses and events to highlight the achievements of women in sailing and to encourage more women and girls into the sport.

The organisation is currently hosting ‘conscious inclusion’ bias training sessions for staff and immediate stakeholders.

‘We want to make sure that, from a social perspective, as we try to be a more inclusive organisation, we’re also equipping our membership with information and understanding,’ says Rickham.

Credit: Sailing Energy

Credit: Sailing Energy

Collaboration and challenges 

Sailing and other marine sports are increasingly being seen as leaders in sport sustainability: organisations like The Ocean Race, SailGP, and the Sustainable Marine Alliance are all working on promoting ocean health and broader climate action, often through collaboration with each other.

In September this year, The Ocean Race presented a petition for a Universal Declaration of Ocean Rights to the UN General Assembly in New York, in a move supported by World Sailing.

As the world’s governing body, World Sailing have a huge task ahead when it comes to uniting the industry and ensuring that sailing’s events, venues, competitions, and standards become more sustainable.

Rickham agrees that sailing, and sport in general, has an important role to play.

‘I think sport is uniquely positioned—sport is powerful,’ she says. ‘Now, for us, it’s about thinking how we can take that power and use our platform as effectively as we can.’

Their focus on education and collaboration as well as reducing emissions is a positive step towards using their platform for good.

But since publishing Agenda 2030, the organisation has yet to publish any data or reports accounting for their progress to date. Without this, it’s difficult to fully measure just how much World Sailing is meeting its goals.

Going forward, more data and regular reporting would help World Sailing, and sailing industry, to better understand where it’s improving—and where it still needs to change.

Rickham is aware of the journey ahead, but is dedicated to making sure that the sailing community sticks to sustainability.

‘We have the ability to engage people and take them on an emotional journey—sport isn’t transactional, people are invested and committed,’ Rickham says. ‘We’re not perfect, but we’re pushing hard.’

As what’s set to be the world’s hottest year on record comes to a close, sailing and sport will need to keep up the momentum if we want to save the ocean—and the planet.

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