Insight: Sustainability training with Water Revolution Foundation

The superyacht industry is sometimes prone to ‘greenwashing’, or exaggerating how environmentally sound its products really are, and yachting journalists are often complicit in this. Part of the problem is the word ‘green’ itself, which is a handy but vague moniker. In the SuperYacht Times Webinar on the subject of green yachts, I suggested it is better to talk about levels of efficiency or sustainability. Galileo G yacht cruising in Porto CervoPhoto: Charl van Rooy / SuperYacht TimesOn the webinar panel was Robert van Tol, executive director of Water Revolution Foundation, a non-profit organisation that is pioneering efforts to neutralise the ecological footprint of the superyacht industry and preserve the world’s oceans. A few days later I was invited to attend an online version of its course entitled Sustainability Training for the Superyacht Industry, which is organised in partnership with the Center for Sustainability & Excellence (CSE), an international advisory organisation that includes corporations such as Coca-Cola, Nestlé and HSBC as clients. 

Other attendees on the course included an American professor of naval architecture, a Dutch engineering manager, a German senior project manager, a Taiwanese research manager, an Italian technical director, a French naval engineer and a British business development manager for a well-known design studio, which just goes to show that the sustainability subject is of interest across the entire industry.Atlantic dolphinsPhoto: Justin Ratcliffe / SuperYacht TimesThe first item on the agenda was definitions and key concepts. Understanding what sustainability really means, how it can create value and for whom, can be confusing as a whole new vocabulary and business culture have grown up around it. Lack of understanding among decision-makers is often why we see a corresponding lack of real action or true commitment.

The first and most fundamental lesson I learned was that sustainability nowadays is defined within the wider concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), the evolving practice of incorporating sustainable development into a company's business model from a social and economic as well as environmental perspective. This means achieving sustainability at industry level goes beyond merely complying with legislative norms or eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. We have to also take into account wider issues such as equal opportunities in the workplace, ethical procurement practices and local sourcing in the supply chain. These issues can be summed up as responsibility in the workplace, the environment, the marketplace and society, which our instructor referred to as the ‘four pillars’ of CSR. Ambrosia yacht at sunsetPhoto: Justin Ratcliffe / SuperYacht TimesAdopting this holistic attitude to sustainability brings with it various benefits, such as enhancing brand value and stakeholder confidence, as well as boosting employee satisfaction and a company’s ESG (environmental, social and governance) rating – a common way for investors to evaluate companies in which they might want to invest. Ignoring it, on the other hand, can impact negatively on all these factors and more.

Creating a sustainability strategy is not a simple process. It requires commitment and investment to create common understanding among staff, suppliers and stakeholders; it means integration in terms of identifying strengths, weaknesses and establishing an action plan; and it involves creating an effective communication programme. The superyacht industry has generally been quick to comply with mandatory measures such as the IMO’s pollution prevention treaty (MARPOL), because it has no choice. Some companies have also accounted for the social and economic aspects. But few have brought all the pillars of sustainability together in the form of an officially sanctioned sustainability report. Octopus yacht by Lürssen in MonacoPhoto: Charl van Rooy / SuperYacht TimesThree sustainability reports (from Grand Banks, Bénéteau and Akzo Nobel) presented during the course highlighted why this might be so. The three reports are included as a chapter in each company’s annual financial statements and make for very dry and dense reading. Making sense of all the data is hugely challenging, especially as there is no single reporting system or set of criteria. Pulling out the highlights, putting them in context and publishing them on the corporate website or issuing a press release would be a simple and effective way of communicating CSR to a wider audience.  

Sustainability reporting, like CSR in general, is not mandatory. Instead it is motivated by a desire to increase competitiveness, ensure efficient management and maximise the use of company resources. But it is also a useful tool for increasing transparency, rating a company in comparison with competitors and measuring the attitude of stakeholders towards it. To be most effective it would have to be adopted more widely in the industry, but consumers are taking a growing interest in the social responsibility of companies and this trend that will only increase in the uncertain environment created by the coronavirus pandemic. The superyacht industry cannot afford to take this expectation of accountability lightly.Maltese Falcon yacht by Perini Navi in MonacoPhoto: Charl van Rooy / SuperYacht Times