Greenwashing In The Marine Industry


We’re happy to be back this year and excited to talk with you all again!

To start off this year we want to address the more negative topic of greenwashing in the marine industry. This is a significant problem that is not only troublesome on its own but also hinders progress towards real eco-friendly industrial change.

In the marine industrial context, we want to highlight companies like Sunreef, and Windelo, who’ve launched recreational sailing boats branded as being Eco-friendly. Sadly, the impact to the environment over the lifetime of the vessel is just as, if not more damage to the environment than any other diesel-powered sailing vessel. In principle, the diesel-hybrid electric system is less efficient than the traditional setup with big alternators on a direct drive with a similar-sized battery pack. It’s important to note here that the batteries are sized for your domestic usage and not for optimal range.

On what basis do these companies claim to be Eco-friendly? And why is such branding allowed in the industry when it is so misleading?

In the Marine industry, a lot of customers are interested in exploring the natural environment, swimming in clean water, and otherwise having a lower carbon footprint. Owning a sailboat offers the opportunity to explore parts of the world that others cannot get to and really engage with the environment in a relatively benign way. It has always been a marketing prerogative of maritime companies to sell a vessel that encapsulates these ideals. Eco-branding occurs when a product is positioned in the market to appeal to customers who want to go green but it becomes greenwashing when there is a sleight of hand and the focus is shifted away from the main issue so…

…how can you tell if a yacht is actually ‘greener’ than all the rest?

One way to achieve this is to look at the yacht as a product from its birth to its grave.

This is called a life-cycle analysis (LCA). These current manufacturers choose to largely ignore the use phase and focus on only the part that involves them; the construction. They look at the manufacturing process and the materials that are used. They will choose materials with a lower perceived carbon footprint or environmental impact.  It is obvious that they take this approach, it is the only one in their control. How the boat is used is outside their scope of vision therefore they are not incentivised to affect change there.

In the case of Windelo, they have chosen a composite that has its origins in basalt rock or recycled plastics and claims that some 95% of that material is then recyclable and this has an overall lower environmental impact than standard composite GRP or carbon material. The problem with this approach is that the manufacturing process results in an actual product which is then used for say 50 years. The manufacturing is, in the end, only a small fraction of its overall environmental impact. The true environmental impact comes through the vessel’s actual use. Their system comes with one or two 18KVA Genset(s), (2or3 times what would be normal for house use) and consumes some 3 litres of diesel per hour motoring or recharging. The emissions of the vessel will equal the manufacturing savings in a surprisingly small number of hours. On top of this, a large amount of the emissions associated with manufacturing are often not affected by the choice of materials and can actually be negatively affected by a new material which may be more difficult to work with and require different chemistry, or a more custom and environmentally costly production train.

We would hope that the manufacturers of Eco-friendly vessels have done a full LCA of the materials, but this information is not published, and many of the claims are sales talk rather than an academic appraisal.

In the case of Sunreef, their ‘eco’ yacht that had recently won yacht of the year, has a fuel capacity of 8000l and a fuel savings average of 30%.  A current owner states during peak charter season several refuellings are necessary. This vessel would emit over 50 tonnes of CO2 per season We calculate eco-materials might save up to 5 tonnes per vessel or perhaps less than one week of charter. And therein lies the sleight of hand. Sailing vessels require that you consciously sail the vessel in lieu of motoring in order to use less fuel than an equivalent motor vessel. There are no discussions regarding the efficiencies gained from motorsailing in light conditions utilising apparent wind to lower consumption. In my discussions with some yacht designers, they questioned whether or not we would sail short distances and in their experience owners preferred simply to motor between some islands because they couldn’t be bothered putting up the sails. Our approach to solving this problem would be to make the sail systems as simple and easy to use as possible by centralising everything indoors, having motorized halyards and sheets. The constantly optimised sailing plan compliments lowering energy consumption while motorsailing in light winds. This enables us to make constant adjustments by a simple finger press rather than an exercise of stamina on the foredeck – and no excuse.

The Sunreef 80 Eco Power, with 2x6000L Diesel Tanks.

It is this holistic approach that really reduces your impact on the environment.

The ever popular S.V Uma demonstrates to us all how to have an exceedingly low impact on the environment and have managed to sail to some very remote locations with absolutely minimal environmental impact. However, they achieved this with an extreme deprivation of creature comforts onboard and a single-minded focus to sailing everywhere even if they spend several days simply drifting around.

This approach, as impressive as it is, is not a real solution for the common sailor.

An all-electric vessel must be able to get from A to B in an efficient manner, at a minimum cruising speed of 5 knots, and be able to supply enough energy for comfort, heat, water, and the motor without any exception, and in any location on Earth.

Over the last year, we have spoken to many manufacturers, leading electronics suppliers, and electric system OEM’s and have discovered that there is very little to no incentive to change the industry to zero-emission yachts. Many of these industry leaders believe it’s simply not possible and many are threatened by the reduced potential income that they might generate. A major semi-production yacht manufacturer stated that an electric hybrid system was a waste of 150,000 euros and over 1,000 man-hours of labour and simply stated point-blank that these systems do not work and were not reliable. At this point in time, there are more yachts having electric systems removed or upgraded with electric generators than there are all-electric boats. Currently, there are simply no zero-emission yachts that are not tethered to a home-based marina charging system.

What we want is a zero-emissions vessel with unlimited range that has all the creature comforts that a large generator would afford. Our system deals with all the issues. It is our mission to bring this philosophy and technology to the marine industry, to make it open-source, and as cheap as possible so that we can have the greatest environmental impact possible. We’re happy to be back this year and will be coming back with more information on our project, Whio II, CMG, and our journey to creating the first zero-emissions sailing vessel.

Stay tuned!