SailGP may only be five years old, but it has a clear goal of becoming the world’s most sustainable sports and entertainment platform. We sit down with Tom Verity, SailGP’s innovation and transition manager, to learn how the fledgling sport is embedding sustainability at its core and setting sail for a more sustainable future.
It is undeniable that many businesses today are caught in something of a bind. On the one hand, growth remains a necessity, whether you are keeping up with your competitors or reassuring shareholders. But growth often leads to increased emissions and an increased impact on the environment.
On the other hand, customers, governments, and other key stakeholders are now much more climate-conscious and want to see the businesses they support growing while at the same time taking steps to reduce their impact.
Tech giant Amazon presents a good example of this bind. Amazon’s carbon footprint increased by 18% in 2021 as its net sales grew by 22%. The company however claimed this figure was not the one to look at, instead directing readers to the fact that ‘carbon intensity’ had dropped by 1.9%, meaning it emits less carbon per customer.
Another business facing this challenge is SailGP, the global sailing competition often referred to as the ‘Formula 1 of the water’. This is not an idle comparison, either: in May, four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel announced he would be joining forces with entrepreneur and investor Thomas Riedel to create Germany’s own SailGP team.
According to the company’s most recent Purpose & Impact report, emissions increased by 67.7% year on year as a result of the growth of the league, increasing from eight events and eight teams in Season 2, to 11 events and nine teams in Season 3. Despite this, SailGP is rising to the challenge and remains committed to its goal of reducing emissions by 55% from a 2019 baseline by 2025.
The competition is currently part way through its fourth season, and more and more nations compete each year. Season four saw an all-time high of 10 teams, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Denmark, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland, and the United States – each country racing in a series of Grand Prix events around the world.
Unlike other competitions, races take place close to shore in iconic city locations such as Saint-Tropez, Sydney, and Taranto. This not only makes SailGP unique, but allows fans to watch the action up close, and among other things, it has helped in growing the sport’s popularity, tripling its broadcast audience in the last year to 117 million viewers.
Despite such growth, SailGP remains committed to decreasing its carbon footprint. Tom Verity, innovation and transition manager at SailGP, affirms that they have a clear goal “to become the world’s most sustainable sports and entertainment platform.”
Verity comes to SailGP with an engineering background, having previously worked at Formula E in a technology role supporting the motorsport’s sustainability strategy.”[At Formula E] I was looking at enabling technologies to increase the sustainability of events and improve fan engagement,” he says.
In his role at SailGP, Verity is responsible for a variety of sustainability initiatives, including the implementation of new technologies to reduce their carbon footprint, whilst also working to create a more sustainable future for the sport of sailing.
So what goes into being the most sustainable sports and entertainment platform? Here, we can start with SailGP’s most unique innovation, the Impact League.
Changing the face of success
Like most competitions, SailGP competitors compete to top the podium. Points are awarded for races and events, and are added up to determine the three boat line-up of the winner-takes-all Season Grand Final. But, SailGP adds an extra angle for competitors, the Impact League.
“The Impact League was a concept that we started in season two, it is essentially our second podium for the planet,” says Verity. “The whole concept is that teams are audited according to their sustainability credentials at events, that could be anything from waste reduction, energy use, the gender equity on the boats, it could be using their voice for good. There are loads of different criteria that we look at.”
The logic behind this decision seems clear, with the team asking themselves a simple question, “how do we take these highly competitive athletes, use behavioural science and actually get them competitive and for a greater good, and in terms of actually helping deliver the event in a more sustainable way.”
In season three, Denmark emerged victorious in the Impact League, beating defending champions New Zealand to secure the podium for the planet. The team’s commitment to sustainability was evident in their innovative ‘More Speed Less Plastic’ initiative to remove 10 kg of plastic litter for every 1km/h of speed clocked during each event. By the end of the season, they had cleared an impressive five tonnes of ocean-bound waste.
This year, in season four, the Impact League is evolving, “in the first two years of its delivery, we were finding its feet, and really what the Impact League is, as a concept, and within SailGP. And within season four, we’ve created a guest panel of judges, these are leaders across sustainability, and the sport industries. And they’ll be judging the teams across four main pillars.”
These pillars include the areas of waste reduction, accelerating inclusion, climate action, and breaking boundaries through the Women’s Pathway, “there’s a lot of competition in the Impact League, and it’s only creating competitive for good, really” adds Verity.
While the Impact League puts the onus on the teams to improve their sustainability efforts, SailGP is also taking steps to demonstrate its own commitment. As Verity puts it, “our general sustainability strategy is divided into two main aspects. We have the Better Sport pillar, and we have what we call the Better Planet pillar.
Creating a better sport
“Better sport means trying to make sailing a better sport itself,” adds Verity. “Typically, it has not been a sport that’s been particularly accessible for the masses, and not particularly inclusive for the masses either.”
Verity shared some of the initiatives that the team is implementing to help in this area. Firstly, the Women’s Pathway Programme seeks to increase the number of women in leadership positions on the boats. In season three, all teams in all races featured female athletes, with 26 women racing throughout the competition.
In order to develop a more inclusive environment for female athletes, SailGP offers training and opportunities across all positions on the boats, from helm to grinder. In season three, over 65 hours of training was provided to the athletes.
Next is the Inspire Programme, which is SailGP’s community, education, and outreach initiative; bringing SailGP team members to local schools to educate students about a variety of topics, including the transition to clean energy and, of course, sailing.
“When we initially started that programme back in 2019, the target was to engage 10,000 youth, by 2025. And we’ve actually already engaged over 14,000 already” says Verity.
The programme also has an added upshot for the business. “A lot of these Inspire candidates are now coming through as permanent employees, which is great,” adds Verity.
For those willing to travel, SailGP brings the action up close and personal, and for those watching remotely, they can enjoy the action via a graphical on-screen overlay called Live Line, which provides viewers with a more in-depth understanding of the race by explaining key features of the race, such as the different boats.
Creating a better planet
While the social element of the competition is a big focus for SailGP, the environmental pillar does come with significant hurdles.
SailGP has set the ambitious goal of reducing its emissions by 55% come 2025 based on its 2019 baseline. It is based on what Verity describes as an ‘absolute reduction… it’s not carbon intensity per event.’ While the team does track intensity, it is only as a measure to understand where they are.
However, in season three, emissions increased by 67.7% from the previous season due to a number of factors, including the addition of new teams and locations, as well as increased travel required for the teams and fans.
“As a global sports championship, you have to hold your hands up, and unfortunately, in this day and age, there is still a need to travel,” says Verity. But SailGP is not sitting on its hands either.
“What we’re doing, where possible, is reducing travel to site,” says Verity. “We’ve got a load of cool initiatives going on in this space. We’ve already rolled out our remote umpiring initiative, so our umpires are actually based in London. And all of our broadcast operations are remote too.”
Another way SailGP is aiming to reduce travel is working with local suppliers. “[It’s] a really easy thing to reduce travel,” says Verity. “So upskilling local teams, and making sure that when we build calendars, we’re returning to the same events in the same venue so that you have a local team built up that then you can go back next year and rely on to actually deliver that event.”
The bigger challenges ahead
Scope 3 emissions, defined as those occurring indirectly in a company’s value chain, are naturally the toughest to reach. A July study found only a third of scope 3 emissions were addressed by corporate decarbonisation measures.
SailGP’s impact report shows that scope 3 accounts for the vast majority of the company’s emissions at 93%. “I don’t think that’s uncommon to us as a league, that’s probably fairly common across most businesses,” Verity notes. Indeed, he is right. A recent study from the Carbon Disclosure Platform (CDP) found the overwhelming majority of emissions (92%) disclosed by European companies in 2022 were scope 3.
Aside from travel, these emissions primarily come from the supply chain (80%), the least controllable factor in the emission mix. So where does SailGP begin with these?
According to Verity, for SailGP, data is a key starting place. “First and foremost, what we are trying to do is also get better data,” he says. “So a key thing is that understanding your carbon footprint is only as good as the data you’ve got.”
The adage ‘If you can measure it, you can manage it’ is certainly true in the context of supply chain management. “A lot of our supply chain data is based on financial data, so there’s a lot of drilling down into that, and it’s not particularly exciting, but it is just getting better data from them helps us drill down into areas of their services that we can actually look to target and potentially decarbonise,” says Verity.
Getting suppliers onside is therefore a key part of the process. Verity notes that SailGP’s due diligence process picks up on their suppliers’ sustainability strategies early on in their engagement.
There is another trick up their sleeve though. “We are actually starting to write carbon intensity and sustainable delivery into the contracts, which is starting to really revolutionise the way that we do business, and it’s actually holding to account the suppliers in terms of the delivery of that service,” says Verity.
For most, disclosure is an important part of the process – SailGP is no different and in 2021, became the first sports organisation to submit a climate disclosure to CDP, receiving a B- in its first year. In addition to its own emissions, SailGP is also encouraging its host cities to submit their emission’s data to CDP for the first time.
While scope 3 often takes the headline, SailGP is also taking a number of ambitious steps to reduce its scope 1 and 2 emissions. By 2025, all events will be powered by 100% renewable energy, and in the 2022 Plymouth event, SailGP achieved a significant reduction in scope 1 emissions by using bio-methanol as a fuel source.
SailGP is also improving the efficiency of its on-water support fleet and trialling the replacement of fossil-fuelled boats with synthetic gasoline biofuels, a groundbreaking use of this technology in the maritime industry.
What’s next for SailGP?
Season four of the competition is currently underway, with the grand final taking place in San Francisco in July 2024. SailGP appears to be setting sail to a more sustainable future, and is pushing the boundaries of sustainability.
“We are growing as a sport, but the key focus is growing sustainably. It’s about embedding our sustainability strategy throughout our organisation, and that’s been a really key focus of ours” says Verity.
SailGP heads to Saint-Tropez for its next event on September 9-10. You can watch the action in a number of ways.
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