Anne-Cecile Turner, sustainability director for The Ocean Race, the world’s toughest round-the-world sailing event, is both an ideas person and a strategic executor. That combination has helped make the organization a true Green-Sports leader.
GreenSportsBlog spoke to Turner about her journey in sailing and the sports business, and how she and her team plan to use The Ocean Race to raise awareness of the connections between climate change and the ocean.
GreenSportsBlog: Anne-Cecile, I’ve been looking forward to talking with you for a long time as I’ve been a fan of The Ocean Race’s environmental efforts. How did you get to the organization — was it sailing or the environment that first drew you in?
Anne-Cecile Turner: Well, Lew I grew up in South Brittany, France very near to the sea. But it wasn’t until I left to go to university in Nantes to study languages that I first fell in love with sailing and the sport followed me wherever I went.
I sailed Hobie Cats in competitions while in university, and then when I went to business school in Bordeaux, I bought my first boat. Next, I moved to Brittany, where I worked in communications for a boat-building company…
GSB: How come I’m not surprised?
Anne-Cecile: I know! And I was sailing every weekend! Then I moved over to the media business, working for Hachette Filipacchi in advertising sales for a sailing magazine.
And it was in that role that I found myself at a press conference in 1996 in Paris announcing a global professional sailing event called The Race — an around-the-world, multi-hull catamaran race for the new millennium — to see who could go fastest around the world.
So, I quit what I was doing and joined The Race, in a role managing partners and media relationships.
GSB: You were hooked!
Anne-Cecile: With sailing and sports marketing, which was exploding in Europe in the early 2000s. I had a number of roles in the latter and media, eventually working with Carat Sport, an innovative sports marketing agency in sponsorship and experiential marketing from 2002-08.
It was there that I saw the green light.
GSB: Where did that light come from?
Anne-Cecile: The light came in 2000 when I attended an event called La Cité de la Réussite, in La Sorbonne University in Paris. Then with a few colleagues I launched an internal engagement program called AEKO, with the A standing for Aegis, Carat’s corporate parent, and the E standing for “eco”. The idea of establishing sustainable practices at the office and to encourage sustainability among our clients struck a chord deep in me almost immediately…
GSB: …I’m guessing that spending so much time on the water gave you an appreciation for the environment…
Anne-Cecile: Even when I was living in Paris, I managed to escape pretty much every weekend to sail around every coast of France! I got hooked on ocean beauty and sailing competitions. Then I moved to London, and I apologize but I had an American boss who was not into it, who said ‘sustainability was a fad’…
GSB: …You don’t need to apologize to me, Anne-Cecile. It is I who need to apologize to you on behalf of the United States of America for producing such a myopic boss!
Anne-Cecile: He just didn’t understand what sustainability meant at the time…
GSB: So, what did you do, working for such a disinterested boss?
Anne-Cecile: Then I created my own company: Blueshift, a sustainability consulting agency which, among other things, provided executives at companies and nonprofits advice to bring sustainability into the organization from the top down. I also followed specific sustainability education:”WWF One Planet Leader Training”, for example. Then we moved to Chamonix as most of my clients were in Switzerland, so I ended up moving the company to Lausanne in Switzerland in 2011.
GSB: Who were some of Blueshift’s clients?
Anne-Cecile: We worked with Nespresso to develop their employee engagement programs around sustainability, using their sports sponsorship as a way to inspire and engage employees. We also developed employee engagement programs and a sustainability app for Procter & Gamble.
And we ran strategy, sustainability and more, for the Race for Water Foundation, an organization devoted to the preservation of water and oceans. We developed programs around Learn, Share, Act to advocate, educate and create a circular economy model around social plastic — the idea of monetizing plastic waste and recycling it. Collecting it can be a source of income for people in poverty. It is recycled and bought by companies to use in their supply chain. Eventually it became almost like a full-time job, in addition to our other clients.
So, I was fortunate to be able to take a sabbatical in 2014-15 to follow the Volvo Ocean Race, the predecessor to The Ocean Race. My husband Mark was managing the Chinese team in the race, so it was just an incredible experience, 12 countries in nine months. In fact, my son was born while we were in New Zealand.
Still, I couldn’t stop thinking about sustainability. So, when I was seven months pregnant, I pushed The Ocean Race to have the race boats carry scientific devices that could map the southern ocean currents, temperatures, salinity and more.
My husband eventually became CEO of The Volvo Ocean Race and I went back to the Race for Water Foundation. At the same time, I just had to get back to sailing. So, I submitted a proposal to create a robust sustainability program for The Volvo Ocean Race. A program that had a sense of adventure and that reflected the organization’s values.
GSB: What did that mean specifically?
Anne-Cecile: I recommended that they needed to go beyond greening the event, that they needed to use the race as a platform to engage fans on how they could make sustainable choices in their lives, how they can go the extra mile.
I came on board as the sustainability director and set to work deploying sustainability initiatives that would improve morale of the teams and staff while exciting and engaging fans.
So, we scaled up “Clean Seas, Turn The Tide On Plastic”, an ocean plastic pollution program developed by U.N. Environment with suggested actions for institutions, the private sector and individuals, and we implemented it across the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race, promoting the campaign and engaging fans, followers, guests, even cities and countries to sign the pledge, gathering more than 20,000 signatures. 11th Hour Racing, which sponsored a team in that race and also provided sustainable operations expertise, also played a key role as founding partner of the sustainability program, allowing us to develop its impact, scale and outreach.
GSB: How do you think the sustainability efforts went for that 2017-18 race?
Anne-Cecile: It went very well — we won six awards from BT Sports Industry Awards, Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, Beyond Sport, for science and education programs as well as for communications around sustainability.
It felt like we were creating a movement for ocean health and environmental education among host cities, partners…and then the teams took things to another level…
GSB: …Especially the Vestas 11th Hour Racing team, led by Americans Mark Towill and Charlie Enright. They seemed to me to be the leaders among all the teams in terms of embedding environmental sustainability, ocean health and climate change into almost everything they and the crew did in that race.
There are four years between Races in normal cycles, now four due to COVID-19 — the next one will start in October 2022. How do you keep things moving with such a long time between events?
Anne-Cecile: We see the time between races as a plus for us as sustainability can be a high-profile bridge that will keep The Ocean Race top-of-mind among all stakeholders, from media to educators to the teams and fans.
This time, we are elevating all our programs a step further in order to integrate sustainability across the whole organization with The Ocean Race Summits series, our Learning program, our Science program and new Innovation Workshops series that convene industry leaders and decision makers who work to find solutions to the issues affecting ocean health. The reaction of the sailing community has been very positive.
And we are introducing The Ocean Race Europe — our first around-Europe race — this June to keep fan interest and also to test some of our advances around sustainability.
GSB: What are some of those advances?
Anne-Cecile: We will be providing some of the boats with scientific monitoring devices. Some boats have on-board solar, others have hydro generators and still others have a hybrid.
Then, once we get to the global Race, where we are hoping to have fans on site — this won’t be possible for The Ocean Race Europe — we plan to expand the sustainability component of the race villages, making them super interactive, focused on behavior change around ocean health, rather than just plastic pollution.
Climate change will be a big focus of what we communicate in the race villages and in everything we do. We are measuring our carbon impact with a target to reduce our Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions by 50 percent vs. the 2017-18 race. Our goal for 2022-23 is to have a net positive impact on emissions by reducing as much as possible, offsetting what we cannot eliminate and then restoring where we can.
GSB: What do you mean by ‘restore’?
Anne-Cecile: An example would be a project to restore ocean mangroves, which are very efficient in absorbing CO2.
GSB: A net positive round-the-world sailing race! Hard to imagine something like that five, ten years ago. Now, sailing is not net-positive when it comes to environmental justice and racial diversity. How is The Ocean Race dealing with this issue?
Anne-Cecile: Well Lew, this is something which we are very aware of. There are cultural and racial biases in sailing. We’ve partnered with World Sailing to expand the sport to youth by creating an education program, allowing them to get engaged, and learn about their environment and how to protect the ocean and hopefully give access to other groups who have not been able to participate. Accessibility is a hard problem to solve since sailing costs a lot of money. We are putting energy and resources behind diversity and inclusion, integrating it across our own organization and beyond.
While we have lots of work to do on race, our efforts are starting to bear fruit when it comes to increasing female participation. We’ve even changed the rules of the game during the last edition so there must now be at least one woman sailor on board each Ocean Race boat this time around.
It’s a step in the right direction, which we will be continuing to build upon.
Photo at top: Competitors jockey for position on the Lisbon to Cape Town leg of 2017 Volvo Ocean Race — now The Ocean Race (Photo credit: Jesus Renedo/Volvo AB)