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Sailing Legends Empowering Youth with Lessons in Climate Action

British Olympians Sir Ben Ainslie and Hannah Mills have created calls to action for young people, with a special focus on marine efforts, as part of a program to educate children ages 8-18 on the complexities of climate change and how to take meaningful action.

Although SailGP is a relatively new international sports league, it’s already making waves (every pun intended) as a leader in sensible ways in which sport can champion climate-positive action.

The Larry Ellison-founded league (whose first iteration was in 2019) includes an array of teams that sail on high-tech catamarans at various locations around the world. It’s grown from just six teams and five events in season one, to 10 teams and 13 global events in its fourth season. There are a variety of technical rules, and the feel of the competition is not unlike Formula 1 or Formula E.

While sailing is a niche sport overall, SailGP has used its growing platform to advocate for important marine- and climate-conservation causes — integrating environmental efforts into a sub-competition within SailGP called the Impact League. Teams are encouraged to figure out how to reduce their carbon footprint and increase inclusivity efforts as they compete. Categories include Clean Energy, DEI, Waste and Single-use Plastics, and more.

As in other leagues, a select group of individual athletes act as ambassadors for the sport, who also highlight the potential of a competition such as Impact League. In SailGP, British racers and former Olympians Hannah Mills OBE and Sir Ben Ainslie are two of the sport’s highest-profile athletes and have used the reach of the Great Britain team to help young people engage with climate action.

“Young people definitely resonate more when they see sustainability in action, especially by sportspeople they admire,” Ainslie — whose passion for sustainability kicked into higher gear after seeing the 2015 documentary, Racing Extinction — told Sustainable Brands®.

He and Mills recently partnered with Open Planet — an open source of footage of our changing planet — to call on other athletes to help empower and equip young people, educators and their schools with the knowledge to take climate action, with a special focus on marine efforts. The new resource, entitled “Use Your Voice,” provides educators with a four-part guide to help children ages 8-18 understand the complexities of climate change and how they can take meaningful action. Use Your Voice is part of a broader climate-education program called Protect Our Future, created by sport-inspired educational charity 1851 Trust.

“Use Your Voice’s aim is to empower young people with the knowledge and confidence to speak to their peers, family members and communities about climate action and how we can all make a difference,” Mills says.

Mills and Ainslie also deliver educational workshops at SailGP events, where they’ll tailor the programming to the region they’re in.

“The action can have different priorities, but the ethos remains the same,” Mills adds.

The lessons and footage are open to everyone at no charge. Ainslie says that the educational plans were built to focus on collaboration and to suit students no matter where they are.

What remains to be seen is how much this latest effort can move the needle for a sport that still has a relatively small reach. It’s great to see a sports entity with a sizable footprint try to mitigate its own impact and take broader action, but also create meaningful connections for the athletes whose voices stand tallest in this case.

For Mills, it’s an opportunity to make a difference based on her prior experience competing at the highest levels.

“What I saw competing in Rio 2016 really shocked me. It was one of the most pivotal points in my career, winning an Olympic Gold medal — but it really highlighted just how much damage had been done to the ocean through plastic pollution,” she says. “Each time we launched our boats into the water, we would have to wade through plastic pollution. It was overwhelming at the time, but it inspired me to take action.”