Disclaimer: This version is a www.DeepL.com machine translation of the original German text and is intended to give the reader an overview of the contents. Only the German version is authoritative; the translated form of this text may not be quoted.
Suggested citation for the original German text: Nico Decurtins, Nachhaltigkeit im Wassersport, in: Anne Mirjam Schneuwly (Hrsg.), Wassersportkommentar, https://wassersportkommentar.ch/nachhaltigkeit, 1. Aufl., publiziert am 3. Juni 2022
- An Approach to the Concept of Sustainability
- Why water sports should deal with sustainability
- Opportunities for water sports enthusiasts to exert influence
- Water sports role models in sustainability
- What is the state of Swiss water sports?
- Summary statements
The term "sustainability" is present everywhere in the media and in literature, and its meaning can be interpreted very differently depending on the background. From a business perspective, the question arises for example as to how a company can be managed sustainably. Politically, the number of policies related to environmental topics are a sign for an increased importance of sustainability matters in society. In the financial world, the importance of sustainable investing and the use of the term ESG (Environment, Social, Governance) is rapidly increasing - as is a resulting misuse of the term. And even in sports, sustainability issues are becoming more common. Either directly, when it comes to how athletes or clubs themselves can act sustainably. Or indirectly, for example, when a sponsor approaches a club and wants to introduce sustainability topics into the partnership.
The issue of sustainability, however, is not new: as early as 1987, the Brundtland Commission - also known as the World Commission on Environment and Development - defined sustainability as development "that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs and choose their own lifestyles."
Sustainability is often divided into three core topics: Environment, Social and Governance, or ESG for short. In simple terms, the aim is to assume ecological, social and economic responsibility and to create structures in which a company can operate over a certain time horizon without creating an imbalance between resource extraction and resource return to safeguard its own existence.
In 2015, in the context of the Paris Climate Conference COP21, a very helpful orientation was created by the United Nations with the formulation of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (United Nations. The Sustainable Development Goals. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2015, visited Nov. 13, 2021). They cover issues such as water conservation or renewable energy as well as education issues, gender equality concerns or famine. The mere fact that 169 sub-goals are linked to them shows how diverse sustainability can be. Originally created to help countries provide focus points and guard rails for their sustainability efforts, the SDGs are now also frequently used in the private sector or in sports. Just as important as the term "sustainability" is the aspect of "development"; because the SDGs are not necessarily about quantifiable sustainability goals, but about development goals and the process behind achieving them.
Figure 1: The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (Source: United Nations)
In water sports, sustainability is primarily associated with environmental topics, but social sustainability is just as important. Water sports and their associations offer opportunities to promote mental and physical health, which serves the SDG goal "health and well-being" (SDG 3). In the various clubs, members must be trained in their sport or pass theoretical exams, which promotes SDG 4, "education". Also, water sports should be accessible to everyone, regardless of people’s backgrounds, their skin color, gender or income situation (SDG 5 and 10). Furthermore, only financially healthy associations and clubs should be able to survive in the future, which underpins the importance of economic sustainability.
All water sports that will be discussed in this publication take place in the great outdoors. Therefore, the focus of this sustainability assessment is especially on the topics related to the environmental component of sustainability. Following the SDGs, this means that we focus on "life under water" (SDG 14) and "life on land" (SDG 15). These are the areas where the interaction between water sports enthusiasts and the environment is greatest.
The slogan "No Planet, no Play" is especially true in water sports. This is because the interactions between sports and the environment, are particularly pronounced in the field of water sports (Orr Madeleine. How Climate Change affects the sports industry, webinar as part of the Sustainability Leadership Series, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F3Fw2r_T3Pw, visited on March 22, 2021).
Without water there can be no water sports, but water alone does not guarantee to play a sport. On the one hand, clean waters, which are not polluted by waste or chemical substances, are a prerequisite for the safe practice of water sports. On the other hand, climate change negatively affects the weather, especially for outdoor sports - and thus most water sports. If the waves are too strong, the water pollution too great, the water too warm or too cold, the wind too strong or the rain too persistent, this affects the possibilities of practicing water sports. It is now considered proven that we will see stronger, longer, and more frequent weather phenomena in the coming decades (IPCC, Sixth IPCC Assessment Report [AR6], 2021). This is due in particular to global warming, which is caused not least by an increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Even if at first glance the question of greenhouse emissions in non-motorized water sports such as rowing or sailing seems irrelevant, it should be borne in mind that CO2 is also emitted in these sports. Either directly through transportation, e.g. the journey to the place of exercise, or indirectly through the materials used, as the following chapters indicate.
1. Travels and transports
Until athletes reach the waters needed for their sport, often hundreds, sometimes thousands of kilometers of travel lie behind them. Kilometers which they either drive or fly. Even without international air traffic, transport causes almost a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions on Swiss territory. Of these, more than two-thirds are attributable to passenger cars (WWF, Verkehr - kürzere Wege, ökologischer unterwegs, https://www.wwf.ch/de/unsere-ziele/verkehr-kuerzere-wege-oekologischer-unterwegs, visited on February 1, 2022). With travel-intensive hobbies, this number can increase accordingly very quickly. But it's not just people who travel. All the equipment - and in certain water sports that's no small amount - has to be transported from point A to point B, as well. In the process, tons of CO2 are emitted. Tons that can quickly be forgotten.
2. A material question
Which brings us to a second important source of greenhouse gases: the equipment, materials and resources. Most products used in water sports cause either direct or indirect greenhouse gases. Either through the energy required for their production or through the processed components themselves. Moreover, the transport of the goods to their destination causes emissions, too. Especially in water sports, the equipment is of great importance. Just think of boats, sails, textiles for water sports enthusiasts, surfboards or ropes. Closely related to the equipment issue is the role played by the weight of the materials required to build the equipment. In order to reduce this, much use is made of plastic or carbon fiber. Carbon fiber is a material that has a very large environmental footprint (Citizen sustainable, Is Carbon Sustainable?, https://citizensustainable.com/de/carbon-nachhaltig/ visited Nov. 16, 2021). And plastic is and oil-based product. This is particularly problematic because the disposal of these materials can often only be done by environmentally damaging and CO2-generating methods such as incineration. It is no coincidence that one of the World Sailing Trust’s most important environmental initiatives is a project looking into the circularity of carbon fibre (Carbon fiber circular demonstration project, https://worldsailingtrust.org/planet/carbon-fibre-circular-demonstration-project, visited May 23, 2022).
Last but not least, the area of equipment and materials also includes sports-specific clothing. Most of the sportswear currently in use consists largely of polyester and elastane, two materials that are also oil-based. In this context, the topic of neoprene must also be mentioned. Wetsuits used in surfing or kayaking are made of chloroprene rubber, a synthetic rubber obtained through a chemical reaction of chloroprene and polymers. This process consumes not only resources such as oil and metal oxides, but also enormous amounts of energy and water (Til Hofmann, Neoprene Sustainable: Don't Buy Sustainable Neoprene Until You Know These 17 Tips, https://ozon-io.de/2021/11/neopren-nachhaltig-umweltreundlich-biopren/, visited Jan. 15, 2022).
In terms of sustainability, the textile industry is one of the most discussed - and largest - problem areas. If the trend of recent years continues, it is likely to be responsible for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (Chris Remington, Reducing the carbon footprint in textile manufacturing, https://www.ecotextile.com/sponsored-content/reducing-the-carbon-footprint-in-textile-manufacturing.html, visited on January 15, 2022). Especially since production conditions and safety precautions in factories, child labor, labor laws or wages are also a constant cause for concern in this industry.
In addition to the issue of climate and greenhouse gases, protecting aquatic and terrestrial life is also of great relevance in water sports. Biodiversity has suffered massively in recent years from human-induced developments such as urban sprawl, agriculture, road construction and, not least, climate change (Razan Al Mubarak, Can the twin crisis of biodiversity loss and mitigating climate change be tackled together?, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/05/twin-crises-biodiversity-loss-and-mitigating-climate-change-tackled-together/, visited 16 November 2021). If biodiversity is thrown out of balance, be it through species extinction, monocultures or displacement, there is a risk of unforeseeable consequences for the climate.
This makes it all the more important for people to exercise caution, especially where they come into contact with other species. And that is the case with water sports, both on land and in the water. Noise, litter, or intrusion into animal and plant habitats can have a devastating impact on biodiversity. Water sports enthusiasts should always be aware of this and take appropriate precautions. This starts with the habit of leaving a place as one found it and ends with checking with local authorities in advance if there are any special features or circumstances that need to be taken into account that prevail on site.
Just how great the human impact on biodiversity can be was impressively demonstrated by Sir David Attenborough's documentary "The Year Earth Changed" in 2021. Made during the lock-down in connection with the Corona pandemic, it illustrated what happens when humans are no longer the dominant species in an ecosystem; turtles were once again able to hatch their eggs undisturbed, penguins came to have an additional meal and thus rebuilt their own immune system, whale calves were able to communicate with their offspring over much greater distances than usual, and urban deer reconquered stretches of land that had previously been off-limits to them.
Against this backdrop, and given the equipment and mobolity issues already mentioned, it is worth taking a look at the measures water sports practitioners can take to reduce their ecological footprint and at the same time increase their positive handprint. Based on the statement that the most sustainable product is the one that is never produced, it could be argued that the most positive impact water sports enthusiasts can have is to simply stop doing the sport. This is a perfectly legitimate claim, as there is fundamentally neither a right nor a justifiable need for water sports. However, this attitude can be applied to many areas in our lives; there is also no right to consume meat, or a right to drive a car, or a right to take a weekend city trip to New York. And yet it is part of everyday reality. That's why it's all about making people more aware of the downsides of our activities, so that their own behavior can be adjusted accordingly and decisions will be made more consciously in the future - in the spirit of a more sustainable and viable society. For water sports enthusiasts, the decision areas revolve around the following topics in particular:
25% of global CO2 emissions are attributable to mobility. Over ¾ of these emissions are caused by road traffic, including both commuter and leisure traffic. Today, individual mobility accounts for 20% of the CO2 emissions of an average citizen (Federal Environment Agency, CO2-Fussabruck im Alltagsverkehr 2020. Data analysis based on the study “Mobility in Germany”). Questions related to "how one travels" are therefore of central importance. Can one get to the destination on foot or by bicycle? Is there public transportation or is one dependent on a car? If so, is there a possibility of traveling together with others? If a plane has to be boarded, the question of compensation arises. These are not bad in principle but should be chosen in a way that they have an immediate effect. The most sustainable solution, however, is to avoid flying.
If you have to fly, you should make sure that the length of your stay is in reasonable proportion to the length of your trip. It is better to fly to the sea once a year for four weeks instead of two times for two weeks. This halves the travel impact for the same length of stay. Simple math.
Traveling environmentally conscious by train is only of limited use if one’s sustainability resolutions are thrown out of the window upon arrival. This means: buy local, consume regional, seasonal products (as plant-based as possible), use public transport or the bicycle, avoid waste, choose your accommodation consciously. On the last point: it makes a big difference whether you stay in a 3- or 5-star hotel with regards to the CO2 footprint (Bio Hotels, The CO2 footprint of hotels. https://biohotels.de/CO2-Fussabdruck, visited on November 30, 2021).
Litter near or in the water can be dangerous for nature, its inhabitants and the athletes themselves. The goal must therefore be to reduce waste and to separate, recycle and compost whenever possible. If you want to do good locally, you can participate in an organized "beach clean-up" event, for example. These are also interesting from a social perspective, as out-of-towners meet locals. This promotes understanding for each other and constructive dialogue, which in turn has a positive impact on social sustainability.
As already mentioned, water sports can be very material-intensive. That's why it's very crucial to address the procurement question. What material does the equipment need to be made of and are there sustainable and less sustainable options for it? How were these materials produced, by whom and where? An important criterion for the sustainability of materials is their lifespan. The goal must be to be able to use materials as long as possible. They should be easily repairable and reusable. If not by the athletes themselves, then by a third person or organization.
Anyone who is active in a club or association can raise the question of whether and who is responsible for the topic of sustainability. And if no one is responsible yet, this is the ideal opportunity to make a positive contribution. It is important that there is a person in the organization who takes on the topic, can act across departments and finds a pragmatic approach to sustainability. Initiating measures is relatively easy. Implementing them is less so, depending on the organizational structure. In addition to a proven instinct for the concerns of the various stakeholder groups, this also requires a great deal of empathy and good communication skills and, last but not least, budgets with which planned measures can also be financed.
A list of measures and tips on how everyone can behave more sustainably helps to raise awareness of the issue among all club members or members of a federation. And many of these tips can also be easily transferred to one's own four walls. Many such sustainability tips and guides can be found on the Internet. Those from conservation organizations such as WWF or Greenpeace are particularly recommended. Tips can also be collected well in a group discussion or through a member questionnaire. In this way, the knowledge of the association's members can be utilized in a kind of "crowd-sourcing".
Similar to the topic of materials, it is also important to pay attention to where the apparel one wears comes from and how, by whom and from what it was produced. Most of the time, it's worth investing a little more money because you get higher quality and more durable products for it. In addition to extending their lifespan, you're usually more likely to take care of them and have a better chance of being able to pass them on second-hand via swap meets if you no longer require them.
Be it in rowing or sailing regattas, but especially in sports such as water skiing or wakeboarding; boats with combustion engines are still a part of the water sports world. However, today's possibilities in the field of electric mobility offer alternatives. To reduce emissions but also to reduce noise and to increase the quality of the sport. An electric boat, for example, can produce better natural waves than classic motorboats due to its center of gravity located a little further back (Yacht Review, Super Air Nautic 210 Electric Driving Report, 2016, https://www.yachtrevue.at/yachten/motorboottests/super-air-nautique-electric-test-6500636, visited Nov. 26, 2021).
It is important that water sports enthusiasts make conscious decisions as individuals. But it is just as important that clubs, associations or individual teams set a good example and show a path that others can follow. In the following, three international examples are presented that can definitely be used as lighthouse projects with regard to sustainable water sports. They show how the topics of sustainability, water protection and climate change can be taken up and treated as part of one's own world of values.
The U.S.-based organization 11th Hour Racing works with the sailing community and maritime industry to promote solutions and practices that protect and restore the health of our oceans (11th Hour Racing, Official Website, https://11thhourracing.org/, visited Oct. 21, 2021). The name "11th Hour" draws attention to the urgency of their cause.
11th Hour Racing includes sponsors, grantees and ambassadors who integrate sustainability into their values and activities while educating, innovating and inspiring people with the important message of ocean stewardship. One of the ways they do this is through their own sailing team, which also participates in the Ocean Race, one of the toughest sailing regattas in the world. Sustainability is at the heart of all team activities, inspiring positive action from sailing and coastal communities and sports fans worldwide.
World Sailing, the global sailing federation, has already received several awards for its sustainability efforts. It launched the World Sailing Sustainability Education Programme in 2020 and was one of the first signatories to the UNFCCC Sports for Climate Action Framework. Referencing the SDGs, the federation published six informational brochures addressing sailing's biggest impact areas. Although "only" about the sport of sailing, many of the topics covered are applicable to other water sports. The brochures are informative, available in several languages, and a wonderful resource for people with no prior knowledge to address sustainability challenges in water sports.
The World Surf League has been an association of professional surfers and host of the World Surfing Championships since 2015 (World Surf League, Official website, visited 21 October 2021). It has committed to carbon neutrality in 2019, eliminating single-use plastic from its events and working with communities and regions to preserve the coastal areas where its athletes compete. "Our mission as an organization is to make the world a better place through the transformative power of surfing. A big part of that is making sure we embrace our responsibility for the environment," says their Senior Vice President of Ocean Protection, Reece Pacheco of their own ambitions.
"11th hour Racing", "World Surf League", "World Sailing Sustainability Education Programme"; these are examples of how sustainability issues are addressed in the international water sports world. But what about the efforts of the Swiss water sports associations in this area? A look at some of their websites provides initial conclusions. It was examined whether information can be found on keywords such as "sustainability", "nature", "environmental protection", "responsibility" or "commitment" and whether there are people in the management or in the association who specifically address these topics.
Swiss Canoe is the umbrella organization of Swiss canoe clubs and is committed, among other things, to preserving the free navigability of waterways in their most natural form and to ensuring an attractive range of canoe rivers for all levels of difficulty. Since 2009, the Swiss Canoe Federation, in cooperation with the WWF, has been carrying out the "Watermark". During this canoe trip with paddlers from all over Switzerland, Swiss Canoe draws attention to the importance of free-flowing waters. It must be mentioned, however, that according to the website, no "Watermark" has been organized since 2015.
As of January 1, 2022, Swiss sport has received an effective instrument for the investigation, punishment and prevention of ethical incidents with the new Ethics Statute. Swiss Canoe is unconditionally committed to this and thus to a safe, fair and doping-free sport. The mission statement of the association shows that topics such as sustainability or water protection are of great importance. Here is an excerpt from it:
Consideration and sustainability
"In practicing our sport, we show consideration for nature, the environment and fellow human beings. We strive to behave in an ecologically compatible manner, whether this is in the use of the waters and the banks, in our travel to and from an event, or in the procurement and disposal of our equipment. We respect the residents of the waters, their private property and their real estate."
Preservation of waters
"We are committed to the preservation of our waters and especially to their use for canoeing. Even in the case of waters that are no longer navigable today, we strive to find ways to make them usable again. To this end, we seek constructive cooperation with the relevant authorities, utility companies and other stakeholders."
With Julian Schäfer, the Canoe Association has a person who officially takes care of the department "Waters and Environment".
The Swiss Rowing Federation (SRV-FSSA-FSSC) is the umbrella organization of rowing clubs, regional rowing associations and regatta organizers in Switzerland. According to the association's statutes, it is committed to a healthy, respectful, fair and successful sport. It exemplifies fair play by treating the other parties - as well as its bodies and members - with respect, and by acting and communicating transparently. SWISS ROWING recognizes the current "Ethics Charter" of Swiss sport and disseminates the ethical principles in its member clubs. In the area of social sustainability, it is thus comparably far.
What is striking, however, is that no information on environmental sustainability issues can be found on the website. There are driving and behavioral rules on waterways, but these relate more to technical aspects or weather conditions than to water protection. It is therefore not surprising that, according to the structure of the association, no person seems to be responsible for the topic of the environment or sustainability.
Since its foundation in 1939, Swiss Sailing has represented the interests of the Swiss sport of sailing in all its forms and has performed all tasks that serve to promote the sport of sailing. Under the heading “Ethics and Values”, it lists the recognition of the Ethics Charter of Swiss Sport. But it also lists priority topics for its 2021-2024 ethical plan. In doing so, it points out that anchoring environmental responsibility in the "sailing community" continues to be a priority topic and will thus remain of central importance to Swiss Sailing for the coming years.
There is a separate sub-page on the topic of "Sustainability in Sailing". On this page, it is pointed out that climate protection and an intact environment and water landscape are important to Swiss Sailing. The association would like to sensitize its members for a plastic-free environment and a careful handling of nature and supports, among other things, the "Sustainability Education Programme", the sustainability program of World Sailing. With concrete indications of what one can do as a sailing club to set an example, especially against plastic pollution of all kinds, Swiss Sailing recommends three measures that could well be of interest to other associations:
- Plastic-free clubhouses and events: no PET bottles (only glass or participants' fillable bottles for water) and no plastic bags for lunch, etc.
- No stickers of any kind made of plastic (start numbers, class numbers, advertising) on boats and cars, but replacements made of reusable flags and tarpaulins on the railing on yachts. Swiss Sailing will no longer produce plastic stickers.
- Use of eMotors wherever possible for escort boats, buoy layers, etc.
By focusing on plastic pollution, the association shows that it has carried out a materiality assessment. In other words, it has looked at where it has the greatest negative impact. This is an important step for the implementation of a sustainability strategy.
Ultimately, the sailing federation proves that one can also benefit from a strong global federation. The fact that the Swiss federation knows how to use the resources made available by the global umbrella organization World Sailing is a strong signal and one that will hopefully radiate across all sports. However, from a governance point of view, the fact that it is not clear who in the federation is responsible for the topic of sustainability is a drawback.
The common website for Swiss windsurfing organizations primarily informs about the possibilities to perform windsurfing sports in Switzerland. It points out the various associations, schools and clubs that offer windsurfing sports. Swiss Windsurfing is a recognized partner of Swiss Sailing. The windsurfing clubs and classes are members of Swiss Sailing. However, there is no direct information about environmental protection or sustainability on the website. On the sport's own pages of Swiss Windsurfing or Foilmania there are also no references to the topic. But these are clubs, not associations. And due to the connection to Swiss Sailing, it can be argued that sustainability information can certainly be found via the "parent site" if one is looking for it.
The Swiss Underwater Sports Association (SUSV) is the association of all divers in the country. It maintains two environmental commissions and promotes the awareness and understanding of divers and underwater atheletes for nature and the cultural heritage under water.
The environmental commission is responsible for the implementation of courses, seminars, lectures, participation in trade fairs and other measures and maintains contact with other organizations in Switzerland and abroad that pursue the same or similar goals. The commission of "Underwater Archaeology" receives reports of finds from divers, takes care of the correct forwarding and organizes further education courses, lectures and excursions several times a year.
The Commission "Underwater Biology" is committed to the protection of the underwater world and is the contact point for inquiries related to biological, chemical and physical topics in and around Swiss waters. It also plans and organizes education and training events on biological topics mainly in local waters. Both the Underwater Archaeology Commission and the Underwater Biology Commission have respective contact persons for queries and further information.
The Swiss Swimming Federation is the national umbrella organization for “movement in water” and the driving force in the Swiss swimming sport and in the water education of children and adults. With approximately 80,000 members and 200 clubs, it is one of the largest Swiss sports federations. The focus is on the promotion of top-level, popular and recreational sports in various water sports affiliated with it.
While no references to ecological issues can be found on the site and no person with related issues can be identified, the site provides detailed information on "Swiss Sport Integrity", the reporting and investigating body for ethical violations in Swiss sport.
The extent to which sustainability issues are addressed in the various associations varies greatly. Swiss Sailing can benefit from the preparatory work of the international sailing federation, but also sets important priorities on its own agenda and provides its clubs with concrete tips on how they can act more sustainably. Underwater sports enthusiasts receive support from their federation, particularly in the area of education and training. In contrast, there are neither mentions of sustainability nor responsible persons in other associations at the moment. This may have to do with the degree of professionalism of the associations or with a different focus. What is striking is that all of the associations surveyed are behind the Ethics Charter of Swiss Sport and some already refer to the newly created "Swiss Sport Integrity" reporting office. So, in terms of social sustainability, at least one important stage victory can be recorded. However, there is still a lot of room for improvement when it comes to raising awareness of environmental issues. Particularly in view of the fact that most water sports have such a strong connection with nature, consideration should be given to what can be done to educate association and club members in order to have a positive impact.
Sustainability is about not putting the needs of future generations at risk with our current actions. However, the way humans are acting at the moment is anything but sustainable. This also applies to water sports. To ensure that water sports can still be practiced in their present form in 30 to 50 years' time, better care must be taken of the environment in which they are embedded. This requires, first and foremost, education about what is caused by our own actions. Both negatively and positively. In the end, however, it will hardly be possible without renunciation. This is also evident in other areas of life that have to do with leisure or consumer behavior. And in the most drastic case, even bans are conceivable if the intrinsically motivated behavioral changes do not bring the desired results.
Functioning structures, associations and clubs are needed, especially for the education part. They have the opportunity to influence their members, in our case the water sports enthusiasts, and to sensitize them to sustainability issues.
As the above explanations have shown, the practice of water sports requires, above all, an intact natural environment. The very fact that one is dependent on the element of water makes this clear. Nature is intact when it is exposed to few or better no disturbances. It should therefore be in the interest of all water sports enthusiasts to take care of nature and especially everything that has to do with water. This can be controlled primarily by one's own behavior, but also by the choice and handling of materials and equipment needed for the practice of the sport. With small and large decisions, every individual can make an important contribution to sustainability in water sports. And if ways can be found to multiply and scale these individual decisions through larger institutions such as clubs or associations, visible, measurable and tangible changes can be brought about. Here, however, the corresponding organizations have an obligation to do more and assume their responsibility toward socially relevant issues. It is a matter of being a role model, setting a good example, defining and clearly communicating responsibilities and objectives, raising awareness and anchoring the three-pillar model of sustainable development in future strategies. So that social, ecological and economic issues are in harmony. For the good of tomorrow's water sports.