Sailing the World's Cup into San Francisco's sustainable waters

Sailing the World's Cup into San Francisco's sustainable waters

Editor's note: Jill Savery will be speaking at the GreenBiz Forum in San Francisco (Feb. 26 to 28). Get more information about the event here.

The America's Cup has not sailed smoothly into San Francisco Bay. The America's Cup Event Authority, the organization established to manage the event operations, paid a $225,000 settlement last summer after a group that included the Sierra Club filed suit, alleging the sailing races and required infrastructure would harm the waterfront. Race officials have also received the ire of some city lawmakers who argued the event would not adequately benefit the city.

But the organization appears to have made it through those rough waters  and gearing up for the America's Cup Finals in September, local team Oracle is back on the water with a repaired boat following a calamitous capsize during training.

As the event authority's head of sustainability, Jill Savery is charged with keeping the environmental impacts related to the event  from facilities to catering to transportation  minimal. But a big part of her job is to also use the events, which began last summer with two weeklong America's Cup World Series races, as a platform for turning fans of racing into fans of ocean health.

We spoke to Savery, who will join Mike Lynch, managing director of green innovation at NASCAR, and Jennifer Regan, global sustainability director of AEG, on a panel about sustainability and sport at the GreenBiz Forum in San Francisco on Feb. 28, about why sporting events are a great platform for talking about sustainability, what America's Cup racing has achieved thus far and its plans for this summer's big races.

GreenBiz: You're an Olympian turned sustainability professional. Can you give us the quick version of how you ended up heading sustainability for the America's Cup in San Francisco?

Jill Savery: In 1996 I earned a gold medal in synchronized swimming in Atlanta. I grew up in Walnut Creek, so I'm from the Bay Area. Halfway through my career I decided to pursue a master's degree in environmental management, because I wanted to combine my passion for sport with my passion for the environment. Virtually all of the same types of things you'd do to make sports more sustainable you'd also do for big events, so there is a big movement right now around sustainability and events on a global basis. I was living in London and was supporting the London [Olympics] 2012 sustainability efforts and when I came back I just happened to be introduced to someone from the America's Cup.

GB: How does your experience in London inform your work here?

JS: Sustainability in sporting events is relatively new. Vancouver [Olympics] was the first Games to embrace sustainability and have real strategies and commitments, then London took it to a whole other level. I worked with the [Olympic] organizers with everything from sitting in on technical venue meetings to developing sustainability plans to reporting and being on the Commission for Sustainability London 2012, that group was the first of its kind and was set up to audit London against its commitments. These things are new and these challenges are very real, and working through those challenges gave me great experiences.

GB: It seems like the progressive nature of San Francisco  its efforts to become a zero waste city, specifically  could make your job easier, or harder, depending on where America's Cup sets the bar. I'm thinking specifically about the Port Department's event policies, which bans single-use plastic water bottles and noncompostable plastic food ware for events exceeding 5,000 participants.

JS: I'm getting a lot of support from the Department of the Environment and it's been really nice to have them as a partner. Things like the port's zero waste policy are completely in line with our sustainability plan, so it's not that we're doing something extra because we're in San Francisco. These are things that you'd want to do anywhere.

GB: But the port has set the bar pretty high. Do you think you'd have the leverage, on your own, to get vendors to do things like eliminate single-use plastic bottles on your own?

JS: I do find the vendors we work with are used to these very high criteria because they do business here in San Francisco, so that has made it easier. They already have their own sustainability guidelines that they follow as a business and they're used to composting and recycling in this city because they know that's how things operate. London, on the other hand, doesn't have composting so they had to figure it out for the Olympics. Here, all I have to do is order a bin. Plus, the public is more used to separate waste bins here  though we will have visitors from out of town, so I'll need to do a job of educating people [on how to separate wastes].

GB: One of the key business indicators mentioned in your sustainability plan is engagement and that's an integral part of any event  whether or not it's a sporting event. But how will you go about tracking engagement for the America's Cup? How will you know if it's working?

JS: It's interesting that you brought that up. Something that is really unique about sport is that it touches so many people in a peaceful manner. You reach so many people and you have an opportunity to reach them with messages. Hundreds of thousands of people: what an opportunity, whether it's at the event or online. These America's Cup events are so accessible to so many people, that's an opportunity to message about protecting the ocean. That is unique about all major sporting events, and sponsors are realizing that, too.

So first you figure out what messages are important to your event and the best way to get the messages out. In the end, I'd argue the goal is promote sustainable lifestyles. You can build a Platinum LEED-certified building but if the occupants don't live sustainably we're not going to reach goals.

We've kicked off a pledge campaign, where we ask people to take one act to protect the marine environment. Almost everything we do, from taking shorter showers to buying local, will protect the marine environment in some way. That's a very recognized strategy for raising people's awareness and getting them to change. If you're really sophisticated, you can follow up with those people who have given you contact information and ask them if they did it.

So there are all levels of engaging people at an event and measuring how many people you touch, how many pledges they made and whether they followed up.

GB: What did you learn from the America's Cup World Series races last summer that will help you deal with the much larger crowds expected this summer?

JS: It was a test event really, especially because it was during Fleet Week [and therefore very busy in the city]. From a sustainability perspective, one thing we learned is that whenever you host an event you have to think about temporary materials. Much of this is rented things but at end of event there is always material you have to deal with. The August [2012] event gave us a good sense of what we were going to be left with and need to keep out of the landfill.

In later events, in October, we did more training with vendors. Sometimes things get damaged. There was a wooden structure that was damaged after the October event and because we already had set up a relationship with SCRAP (Scrounger's Center for Reusable Art Parts), so all we had to do was deliver there.

GB: These America's Cup boats are beautiful, but so fast. What about mitigating against harm to sea life  what if a seal is in the wrong place at the wrong time?

JS: We went through a yearlong CEQA process and as a result we have mitigation measures and part of those are directed at protected wildlife. We also train our boat drivers to identify and avoid wildlife. We also did a study during the America's Cup World Series events last summer that found there were no collisions or near-collisions with marine mammals.

GB: Any final thoughts?

JS: It's been a really good process I think in terms of the sustainability process. I've met with the S.F. Environmental Commission. There have been multiple public meetings where people have spoken out about their concerns and so far we've been able to achieve quite a bit. So for me, it's about how do we keep the bar high, meet or beat what we've done already?

In October [during the World Series races] we reported a 98 percent diversion from landfills. Now, how do we keep that up for three months during the 2013 racing season? These are the kinds of things we really have to work on, and there is no silver bullet. It just takes a lot of work by a lot of people and it's becoming the new way to do business.

World's Cup photo by Pete Niesen / Shutterstock.com