Interview with Hannah Mills : Sailing icon and Sustainability ambassador

  • Champion's Corner: Interviews with Inspiring Sport Professionals
  • By Romain Bonnaud
  • Published on October 5, 2023

As the most successful female sailor in Olympic history, Hannah Mills is a two-time Olympic Gold Medalist and one-time Olympic Silver Medalist. She currently holds the position of strategist for the Emirates Great Britain SailGP Team.

Hannah was acclaimed as the World Sailor of the Year and she is Officer of the Order of the British Empire. She is also a Women's Pathway ambassador and dedicates herself to environmental causes as the founder of the Big Plastic Pledge and an IOC sustainability ambassador.

Having had the opportunity to coach Hannah before the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, I am well aware of her commitment to sustainability. 

In an open conversation, Hannah talks about the environmental challenges facing our oceans, her role with the International Olympic Committee, and her strong dedication to promoting sustainability in sailing.

Discovering Environmental Challenges Through Sailing

Romain Bonnaud: How has your experience as a sailor made you aware of the environmental challenges facing our oceans? 

Hannah Mills: As a sailor, you are always aware of your environment. Checking the weather forecast and weather patterns, tidal models, and if it’s going to rain when you are rigging or de-rigging your boat!

On the water, you are out in the elements and the vastness of the ocean, the power of nature, and how vulnerable we are as humans to Mother Nature. Having an awareness of all these things, the changes I’ve seen over the last 25 years sailing in different parts of the world has opened my eyes to the challenges our oceans and our planet are facing and empowered me to want to try and do something to help.

Minimizing Sailors' Environmental Impact

Romain: What are some of the things that sailors can do to reduce their environmental impact? 

Hannah : As sailors, we have a responsibility to operate in the most sustainable way that we can, leaving as small a footprint as possible and hopefully having a positive impact on the environment and places we get to visit.

Removing single-use plastic where you can is a big one, especially on the water. Finding new solutions for your boat such as reusing old neoprene and making covers for bits on the boat, rather than electrical tape is a good one.

If you have a sailing kit you aren’t using anymore, finding a local club that might appreciate it as a donation as well as old sails that can be repurposed. Thinking about how you get to the venue, cycling, walking, and public transport are all good options if you can make it work. Leaving the boat park cleaner than you found it is a simple mantra - if you see old rope or electrical tape on the floor, then pick it up.

Organize a cleanup with fellow sailors.

Thinking about what sailing clothing options there are out there and finding the most sustainable brands and pieces of clothing if you possibly can, asking for any kit you buy to come without a plastic bag or packaging if not needed. 

Addressing the Plastic Problem in Sailing

Romain: What are your thoughts on the use of plastics in sailing? What can be done better? 

Hannah : Single-use plastic is definitely something we need to try and phase out of our sport where we can and as fast as possible. Packaging is a big one, and often very unnecessary, so pushing companies and suppliers to remove or change how they operate would be really positive.

Manufacturing of boats is clearly a huge impact not just plastic-wise, but ensuring any new boat that comes to market is designed with the circular economy principles would be massive.

There’s a lot of work going on in recycling carbon fiber from equipment which would also have a big impact if that could be achieved.  

A Voice for Sustainability in the Olympics

Romain: Could you describe your responsibilities as an Ambassador for the International Olympic Committee? 

Hannah : I work with the IOC as an athlete sustainability ambassador as well as being on their Sustainability and Legacy Commission to try and ensure the Olympic movement is working towards being as sustainable as possible and understanding the power of sport and athletes in the climate conversations.

Helping athletes look at how they work with their partners and sponsors to have a positive impact and push their sphere of influence to change behaviors to be more sustainable.

Inspiration Behind the 'Big Plastic Pledge'

Romain: What inspired you to create the Big Plastic Pledge? 

Hannah : Spending time in Rio before the 2016 Olympic Games and seeing the scale of the plastic pollution problem firsthand empowered me to want to take action and use my platform as an athlete to try and make a change.

Addressing Challenges in Plastic Pollution Awareness

Romain: What are some of the challenges you have faced in trying to raise awareness of plastic pollution? 

Hannah : The solutions aren’t always there yet, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and test new ideas and concepts when you can.

There’s also a lot of false information out there leading people to believe things are sustainable when they often aren’t.

Some of the wording around plastics is also confusing such as compostable - often things say they are compostable but actually, they are only compostable industrially, which is very different to being able to put something in your garden compost if you have one.

Sailing into a Sustainable Future

Romain: Sportiwork wants to improve job visibility in sailing and automatically provide important sustainability and inclusion information with each job posting and application.

Do you think organizations like the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) would find value in using Sportiwork to promote sustainability and inclusion within their clubs, training centers, and instructors? 

Hannah : Absolutely! I think it's an excellent idea to offer valuable information related to crucial topics while applying for or looking for a job. It will not only improve the knowledge of the coaching staff hired through Sportiwork but will also assist clubs and training centers in designing programs that attract young sailors, promoting inclusivity and sustainability.

These aspects are vital for informing and engaging the new generation.

Romain: What advice would you give to young sailors who are interested in protecting the environment?

Hannah : Think about how you can do things differently, make small changes in your own life where you can and others around you will notice and want to know more, help, and educate people, and bring them on your journey if they are interested. Find like-minded sailors locally and think about organizing beach or boat park clean-ups to build up a community, things can often grow from a few people starting small, perhaps your sailing club might be interested in forming a sustainability committee to see how the club can operate differently. Use social media if you are on it and comfortable, to explain what and why you are making these changes to help educate others :)

👉 To learn more about the Big Plastic Pledge.