environment & climate change

Interview with Anne-Cécile Turner, Sustainability Programme Leader, Volvo Ocean Race

Oct 17, 2020


“The Ocean Race proves that an event can also acquire the status of role-model, be inspiring to others, reach out to millions of people and give back to the communities involved. The race is conceived as an inspiration to create additional change, namely to accelerate ocean health restoration.”

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Founder of the sustainability consultancy Blueshift, Anne-Cécile Turner is helping sport event organisers, international brands and NGOs to motivate decision-makers and employees to integrate sustainability throughout the value chain. Anne-Cécile Turner joined The Ocean Race – formerly known as the Whitbread Round the World Race and then the Volvo Ocean Race – in 2016 and has been the Race’s Sustainability Director since 2016, with a mission to enshrine sustainability at its heart.

In 2022-2023, the 14th edition of The Ocean Race will take place and preparations are underway. Based on three main pillars – impact, footprint and legacy – the race to come is enriched with a new programme: “Racing with Purpose”. Sport is not only about physical effort and performance, but also a fantastic instrument for conveying meaningful messages and being a catalyst to help restore ocean health.

Could you explain the concept of Racing with purpose?

As an around-the-world sailing race, with the ocean as our racetrack and wind and currents to propel us, we are in an excellent position to shine a light on the incredibly urgent issue of the threats to the health of our ocean and consequently life on Earth for all of us. The ocean gives us the oxygen for every second breath we take, it feeds us, it controls the climate, and it is full of nature’s biodiversity.

We must protect it, and so our race is more than a sports event, we have a purpose that we are racing for and that is the health of our blue planet. We do this through our Sustainability Programme – Racing with Purpose, a key, core element of the Race, centred around promoting the restoration of ocean health, and built on the pillars of The Ocean Race Summits, the Education Programme and the Science Programme, along with key strategic partnerships, and outreach programmes.

What are the sustainability requirements imposed on the race and the whole project (in the all value-chain, from the sailing industry to the behaviour of each participant)?

We have several strategies to ensure that we produce The Ocean Race as sustainably as possible – our climate impact strategy, resource use and circularity, food, and of course diversity and inclusion. All the host cities, teams and partners are on this journey with us and are actively playing their part in minimising production footprint and maximising positive impact.

What are the main messages delivered during and around The Ocean Race?

During the last edition of the Race we focused primarily on plastic pollution. However, we covered many other topics too, including biodiversity protection, climate change, ocean acidification etc. As we move forwards with this next edition of the Race starting in October 2022 and in the lead up time to it, we will cover many issues related to ocean health. We are not yet focused on one specific topic, and also, we know that the teams, cities and partners will all come with their causes and purpose-based campaigns. We are very interested, however, in ocean conservation and marine protected areas, including how nations from around the world collectively protect the high seas, the ocean areas outside of the territory of any country. The high seas are our race track! We are also keen to explore how to help people understand the inextricable links between climate change, ocean health, and plastic pollution. That will be a tough one to simplify but we are up for the challenge.

How does The Ocean Race inspire others (event organisers, World Sailing, IUCN, etc.) and how much is your experience replicable/adaptable to other events?

We hope that we can lead by example. We work closely with the host cities to ensure that our Race Villages are produced to the highest standard of sustainable event production as possible. During the last edition of the Race, there were certainly some great legacies left, where new event management practices we instigated have now become standard. For example, in Cardiff it was
composting and collecting soft plastics for recycling, and in Itajaí (Brazil) we introduced reusable cups. As we progress towards the next edition, we have no doubt that every one of our host cities is already on the sustainable event management journey, and so it will be more a case of aligning our focus, and celebrating the excellence that each city can offer. Sharing best practices between the cities is also our hope. As a global event with a more accessible scale, which you break down to each of our host city Race Villages, we think we are more relatable and our systems are more replicable than the mega events which seem to get a lot of attention in terms of their production. World Sailing, the international sailing federation, already has a strong heritage of excellence in sustainable event management and their requirements meet global accepted best practices so it is not hard for us to meet their requirements either.

What do you bring to host cities and what do they bring to the race?

From its inception in 1973, host cities have been a major stakeholder of The Ocean Race. They welcome the event offering both a stage and a podium for the professional sailors to shine. We offer them the chance to encourage their population to visit the Race Village: a free, accessible, premium entertainment activation platform to meet the pro sailors, to better understand extreme offshore racing conditions and life on board, to participate in a youth sailing academy and to enjoy the show in our itinerant cinema. We also bring a sustainability education programme for primary schools, and a high-level hospitality platform.

How is the partnership with host cities built? How is the content (messages delivered, legacy prepared, sustainability actions) adapted to the host Cities?

We have a formal process of sustainability diagnosis that we go through with each of our host cities. The cities already have a very clear idea of how to bring sustainability into the hosting of the Race. We are looking for four things: firstly, areas of leadership that we can shine a light on; secondly, areas that the city has recognised as a target for improvement and we look for ways to help accelerate or amplify those efforts; thirdly, we look to challenge the host cities in areas where they may not be currently working. This three-prong approach is based around the city or the region and all three are enduring topics, which most likely have an opportunity to build a narrative to maximise the positive impact. Finally, it is a more operational approach about the race and the event production, so we go through quite a rigorous sustainable event management planning process.

Legacy is one of the three dimensions of the project. What kind of legacy do cities that host a race village benefit from? How do they build on it?

There are three components to this. The simplest is the sustainable event management processes which we have discussed earlier. The most impactful area though is increasing knowledge and empathy for the topics related to ocean health, and we can help to present that to the Race Village visitors and wider community in a fresh way. By having the Race as a staging platform, we give those working on various sustainability and ocean health related programmes excellent context for their messaging. The learning programme and schools’ outreach is a great example of ongoing legacy. The Race acts as a focus point to bring the topics around ocean health into the school educational curriculum and they can then continue with the learning programme across the various age groups and additional topics we continue to produce.

Do you see the Covid-19 pandemic as a hurdle or as an opportunity to innovate and progress towards sustainability? Would you say such situations can be a catalyst for change?

Without question, we are seeing the UN narrative of ‘Build Back Better’ being embraced. Cities and countries are committing to the green economy as a lifeline for economic security for the emerging workforce. This global crisis has crystallised four meta issues and cities and events alike can no longer ignore them: human health, safety and wellbeing; equality, diversity and inclusion; our changing climate; plastic pollution and ocean health.

How do you build on the experience acquired during this period to avoid going back to “business as usual”?

We did initiate a sustainability programme during the last edition of the race that was part of the organisation as a programme, and now most people understand what’s at stake. The sustainability theme is therefore totally integrated in the whole organisation, from the design of the new logo around the idea of circularity to all the operations on site, and across the company. Sustainability criteria are included in the Race rules, in the contracts with partners and host cities.

How does the current situation impact the preparation of the race, in all dimensions (logistics and industrial, educational, communication)?

On the one hand, the current situation impacts the planning of the race as we’ve had to postpone the event by one year. There is also an impact on all the agreements we have with partners and host cities. The sports calendar is also affected as the sailing teams need to reorganise their training and preparation programmes. On the other hand, it reinforces our programme allowing us more time to build sustainability programmes with all our stakeholders (sailing teams, partners, and host cities) and it’s a good way to maximise the potential of the Race as it gives everyone more time to prepare. Plus, it provides additional communication stories and new activation plans creating even more impact!

The situation has forced you to organise the Summit #2 online streaming from The Hague. What kind of take-aways do you have from this experience?

People were willing to be adaptable, flexible and resilient. The interest and eagerness to get involved in a new format event and to explore how to do it really well was clear from everyone involved – speakers, participants and the production and technical teams. Going virtual allowed us to reach more people authentically (previously we may have been tempted to just point a camera at the stage and live stream the onstage action). Some of the strongest assets needed when competing in The Ocean Race are teamwork, diversity, reliance and ingenuity, and we are very happy to see that these attributes allowed us to pivot so quickly and pull off this successful event. For our Ocean Race Summits, taking place in Newport, Rhode Island, on the 16th September, we followed a similar format.

How would you define sport and sport events as potential role-models, beyond the athletes themselves?

As Nelson Mandela said ‘’Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire and engage, it talks to youth in a language that they understand.’’ Sport provides universal values, the notion of excitement, excellence and innovation… Sport and sport events engage and interact with several layers of stakeholders, can represent a showcase of sustainable innovations and are a fantastic amplification platform for our messages. Sport and sports events have the capacity to inspire and unify, they can become catalysts to accelerate engagement and positive change across the world.

What are the objectives of the 2022-2023 Ocean Race ?

Together with our founding sustainability partner 11th Hour Racing, we have the ambition to ‘’Become the catalyst to accelerate ocean health restoration’’. Our new programme, ‘’Racing with Purpose’’, will engage with sailing teams, the private sector, scientists, institutions, academia, fans and followers in an ambitious and exciting journey to change habits, using the latest science of behavioural change to facilitate effective action. Through our series of Ocean Race Summits and Innovation workshops we will inspire, gather commitments and best practices to design concrete roadmaps for action. Our innovative science programme will pioneer data instrumentation and contribute to a better understanding of ocean health, in order to create strong advocacy platforms for policy makers, media and governments. And finally, our unique education programme for primary and secondary schools will inspire a global youth audience ‘in a language that they understand’’! We will lead by example, and engage all our stakeholders along the way.

2,5 millions visitors in Race Villages30 scientific drifter buoys deployed all over the ocean6 awards related to the power of sport in the area of sustainability86 water samples collected around the globe, 97% of these samples contained microplastic particles

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