While sustainable luxury was once a nice-to-have in yacht design, now it’s fast becoming a need-to-have. Helen Chislett looks at the latest haute eco swaps, from floor to ceiling.
While sustainability remains the buzzword on everyone’s lips, adapting its principles to the haute luxe world of superyachts comes with its own challenges. Fortunately, a few forward-looking studios are proactive in this area, scouring the globe for top-tier innovations and recognizing that sustainability is important not only for the planet, but also for the long-term success and stability of the industry.
Winch Design, for example, employs an in-house dedicated sustainability expert, Alex Parkinson, who manages a resource library of appropriate suppliers, tracking methods of sourcing, manufacturing and application of each material to check it meets the correct criteria. Those criteria are based on the 17 UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include themes such as water, energy, climate, oceans and technology. In celebration of World Ocean Day 2023, Winch launched Arc in Colour, a collection of exterior furniture in collaboration with Summit Furniture, with chair backs woven from nylon yarn regenerated from recycled ghost nets and textile waste. The firm also has recently announced an explorer yacht project with Cantiere delle Marche using only natural, non-toxic or eco-friendly materials in its interiors. These include textured walls using eggshell waste, furnishings upholstered in palm leather and a living wall from preserved moss.
Parkinson says she is seeing a more conscious effort from designers and clients alike to embrace sustainable innovations. “We have the power to effect real change by showing our clients beautiful, durable and authentic materials, which are also sustainable. The storyline behind each one becomes the selling point, which hooks the client into the narrative. These are all unique, exclusive and luxurious options, which just happen to be sustainable.”
However, there is a lot of misunderstanding around which materials are most sustainable, with many people assuming that natural always trumps synthetic – wool has to be “better” than nylon, surely? In truth, it is not that simple. While we already have far too much plastic in the world, there is an argument to say it is greener to keep reusing the plastic we have in a closed-loop process in a bid towards a waste-free future, rather than to see it piled into more landfills.
Wool is a beautiful material, but it comes from animals that contribute enormously to greenhouse gases (as cows do) with the methane they release into the environment. In addition, excrement from sheep causes eutrophication, a serious ecological problem caused by run-off waste polluting water systems and leading to river “dead zones”. Wool production is also responsible for soil erosion and decreased biodiversity, because more land cleared for sheep means fewer other species can survive when their habitats are destroyed. Add to that the production methods for treating wool – pesticides, insecticides and other toxic chemicals – and it becomes clear why wool has been labelled by campaigning organisations such as PETA as one of the five most damaging materials contributing to climate change. Instead search for truly organic wool certified by GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard).
The important thing, as Ewa Eidsgaard, director of Harrison Eidsgaard, explains is to undertake careful research into materials. She would prefer to specify nylon carpets over wool ones, for example. “If you don’t pay attention you end up following stereotypes – linen, wool, cotton equal good; plastic equals bad. The fact is that many nylon carpets are continuously recycled and upcycled through closed-loop production. They are very durable and as soft as silk, and they are also a way of “giving back” as many of them are made from discarded fishing nets, unwanted clothing, plastic water bottles and suchlike.” EcoSylk by SYLKA, for example, is crafted using yarns regenerated from carpets that would otherwise end up in landfill.
Weight is always a factor in superyachts, but as Eidsgaard says, there is no clear-cut distinction between eco and non-eco choices. “Solid woods are heavy but natural; veneered furniture is lighter, but has a larger amount of resins and glues used in its production. As a designer, one has to consider every material on a case-by-case basis.”
The same is true of fire retardancy: while wool is naturally retardant to fire, both silk and cotton burn easily. Synthetics tend to melt, rather than burn. The important thing is to acquire a holistic knowledge of materials and use them as wisely as possible.
Intensively farmed cotton and linen, for example, have had a catastrophic effect on the environment – not least in terms of water usage – but there are truly organic versions available.
Bernadette de Le Cuona, CEO and founder of de Le Cuona, launched her first collection of organic linen, Pure, in 2020 and is regarded as a trailblazer of natural sustainability in the luxury interior textile business. “We select specialist mills and are continually challenging them to ensure complete traceability through their supply chain. It is important to me that we know where the fibres are grown and that they are farmed and processed in a way that is safe for the environment and people. It is a continuing challenge, and it is important that brands keep pushing for higher standards of sustainability and traceability or things won’t change as fast as we need them to.”
Leather production is a thorny subject, because many people view leather (and parchment) as the natural by-product of the meat industry – in which case it is a fully sustainable material, a means of using a natural waste product. However, that seems unfair as it relies on piling all the ecological downsides of farming cattle onto the meat industry, rather than allowing them to be apportioned. The downsides are many: the huge amounts of methane released by cattle; the reliance on water and grain crops for feeding; the intensive farming of beef, which creates pollution hotspots; the deforestation in places such as Latin America to grow soya for cattle feed and so forth.
The message is to source organic, grass-fed leather wherever possible, rather than switching to faux alternatives made from petroleum-based polymers, such as polyurethane. However, there are also excellent vegan leather alternatives made from materials such as cork, olive, mushroom, pineapple and banana leaves and apple skin. For non-meat-eating clients, these offer an ethical solution.
One material that has become a complete no-no for most designers is shagreen, because the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) suggests that a quarter of shark and ray species are now threatened with extinction. The problem is that the demand for shagreen cannot be met sustainably under current conservation efforts, so exotic leathers such as these are best avoided altogether, although ethical design brand Nature Squared offers an ethical alternative in the form of triggerfish skin.
Founded by Paul Hoeve and Lay Koon Tan in 2000, this company is doing remarkable work in offering eco alternatives to traditional materials for superyachts. Today, its 200-plus team based in Germany, Switzerland and the Philippines includes artisans, engineers, draughtspeople, project managers and chemists. Its mission is to create truly sustainable surfaces using abundant natural materials, such as eggshell, seeds, bark and feathers, which are used in things such as wall panels, ceilings and furniture elements. For example, they work with a lot of shells, including hatchet shells from the Philippines, as Tan explains. “Fishermen in the Philippines eat these large saltwater clams, and we buy the shells, paying a premium if they are largely undamaged, which encourages them to give up unsustainable and dangerous dynamite fishing and compensates for the lower fish harvests that result from net or spear fishing.”
Bamboo is another waste material in abundant supply. “Bamboo is widely used as a construction material in the Philippines. We buy construction waste and turn the poles into a large array of surfaces, by inlaying cut pieces in diverse patterns,” Tan says. “The poles are usually discarded once damaged, and we turn this into a virtue by removing the outer skin to reveal its underlying texture.”Read More/Q&A with Nature Squared co-founder Lay Koon Tan
They have even found innovative uses for mango waste. “Our production is based in Cebu, Philippines, which is a large producer of mangoes and mango products such as juice. We work with mango waste otherwise destined for landfill, turning it into innovative surfaces. There is a popular misconception that such organic waste will biodegrade into compost, whereas the reality is that without exposure to oxygen, it produces copious amounts of methane, which is much worse than CO2 as a greenhouse gas.”
Everyone we spoke to for this feature agreed that sustainability is no longer simply a tick-box exercise. Clients are asking increasingly complex questions about the source and traceability of materials, with many requesting that a yacht be as “clean and green” as possible. As Parkinson says, `’If we do not become more proactive about sustainability, we will become irrelevant to the clients of tomorrow who are looking for sustainable innovations, and we also may find ourselves falling foul of an unfavourable regulatory environment in the future.”
Eidsgaard notes, “Right now, eco credentials are a relevant factor for clients, but in 10 years’ time, they might be the most important consideration of all – and that could impact future resale values, with a negative impact on yachts built with little regard for the environment.
This is an upward trend, not a fad. We might well see more rules and certification around this subject in the future, but that is a positive as it would focus our minds and encourage us all to move more swiftly.”Read More/Artistic edge: Eight of the most creative bespoke elements on superyachts