Making Futures Journal
Sailing Towards Sustainability: Material-based, Practice-led Research
Sustainability, waste reuse and upcycling
Integrating upcycling and waste material reuse into the design process
Waste reuse and upcycling for sustainability and the market
The research context: Aotearoa New Zealand and the ‘City of Sails’
New Zealand’s leading-edge yacht designers emerged on the international scene in the 1980s, and sailing material manufacturers supply competitive and leisure sails worldwide. Amongst them, the numerous sailing vessels in Auckland discard a considerable number of used sails, which are dumped or stored as they cannot be recycled.
Competitive sails as waste
Starting in 2016, our team of three design practitioners and researchers began to investigate waste streams for a funded research project. We focused on the sailing sector due to its popularity and size in New Zealand, particularly in Auckland. In high-stake races, competitive sails are commonly used only a few times, since their performance and reliability quickly diminish after exposure to extreme forces, abrasion and UV light. High-end and high-priced sails have been made in New Zealand since the early 1980s, but an increasing number are acquired from China. Regardless of the country of origin, the high number of regattas in New Zealand results in large stockpiles of used sails still in reasonable working condition.
During our search, we found a company that specialised in America’s Cup sailing experiences for the tourist industry. This company has between fifty and sixty used competitive sails stored in containers, some fifteen to twenty years old. There are two main reasons for storing these used sails and not disposing of them: first, their size and weight makes it too expensive to throw them away; and second, the initial cost and perceived value of the sails is too high.
The competitive sails we sourced were made from carbon fibre and Kevlar fibre strands, providing flexibility and stretch resistance. The strands are laid out in a specific pattern and are held in place between two layers of Mylar, which is a translucent foil made from PET. Due to its material and fabrication, this type of sail is considered a composite material, mostly non-recyclable. There is no official information related to the environmental impact of these sails and their components, and unwanted sails are classified as ‘unknown’ due to their composition and thus discarded along with other non-recycled household waste.
Commercially reused sails
The reuse and upcycling of sailcloth material to create new products is not a new concept. There are several businesses around the world that trade this type of product, many on platforms like Etsy, where people offer one-off, handmade designs. We identified four key challenges for businesses commercialising recycled sailcloth: 1. A lack of continuous flow of sail material for production; 2. Intensive craft-type/hand labour to produce upcycled objects, increasing retail prices; 3. Difficulty in maintaining a consistent supply chain to retailers; and 4. A focus on niche markets, like high-end stores and galleries of art-objects. The latter creates a dependency on one or more of three aspects: 1. Environmentally conscious consumers; 2. The name of the creator-artist as an important asset; and 3. The cultural capital the sails’ provenance may provide.
Design process and reflexivity towards sustainable change
The blurred boundaries of art, design and craft
Differences between art, design and craft were constant topics of discussion during the research. In conventional design education, the distinctions between design and art and craft are emphasised to establish, in simple terms, that art focuses on personal expression, design on fulfilling business-oriented briefs, and craft on objects predominantly made by hand. As design practitioners and researchers we beg to differ, particularly in the light of a recent publication of one of the authors on decolonising design. 
The tensions between the creative fields have been discussed by many authors over time. Shiner claims there are “blurred boundaries” between craft and art, while Greenhalgh considers crafts to exist on the border between design and art economies. Despite the questioning of the boundaries between art, design and craft, hierarchies are still present in their perception, value and consumption.
Considering the similarity of our design education and our focus on collaboration, we agreed to use a familiar design process as a guide and point of reference to compare the two material-based projects with a sustainability focus: the double diamond model.
The double diamond design process
The double diamond design process is a model launched by the British Design Council in 2004 as an innovation framework for designers and non-designers to address “complex social, economic and environmental problems.” The reasons to use this approach were: 1. That it is directly linked to the divergence-convergence model and creativity, common in art, design and craft; 2. That it is an established design process in academia; and 3. That the authors had previous experience applying and teaching the model.
Each diamond represents a different stage in divergent and convergent thinking as a process of exploration followed by action. The double diamond design process is divided into four stages: Discover, Define, Develop and Deliver. The first half of the first diamond (divergence) represents Discover, a stage where understanding of a problem is pursued, and the second half (convergence) constitutes Define, where insights are gathered and opportunities defined. The second diamond, another cycle of divergence and convergence, starts with Develop to explore potential answers or solutions, followed by a Deliver phase in which different solutions are tested and a final solution is delivered (Figure 2).
Reflexivity for sustainability
Sailing-inspired, practice-led research projects
Navigator: Product design with a commercial brief
Voyager: Wearable art for public exhibit
The Navigator and Voyager material-based designs had many things in common, like the reuse of discarded sails for sustainability, but our experiences working on both projects were different. Using the double diamond design model as reference, we made a comparison of the design process, organiser requirements, circumstances and experiences, for a holistic approach and to analyse why and how the differences came to be. We concluded that external factors were the main drivers, issues over which we had little or no influence (Figure 8).
Navigator, although presented as a research project, was really a commercial project where the organiser expected a return of investment, which was not clear to us at the outset. Also, this project had a limited timeframe in comparison to common research approaches in academia. We realised that the involvement and direction of the project originator, who had secured funding, directly influenced the outcome. Our project was perceived as ‘unsuccessful’ because it did not achieve the commercial gain aspect. Commercial product outcomes are hard to achieve when there are not established businesses involved in the projects. The challenges and requirements of using discarded material added complexity to the matter, and especially with the inclusion of organisations that function as charities (not-for-profit) as opposed to commercial enterprises.
The Voyager project presented different challenges in comparison to Navigator. For example, the garment was a unique piece without the intention of being replicated, a common approach in art-based projects. While we achieved entering the WoW show and participated in the exhibition, creating awareness around the reuse and value of waste materials, we could not measure the impact of this approach.
Our experiences and reflexive practice working on the Navigator and Voyager practice-led research projects allowed us to have a better understanding of the challenges in the reuse of waste material for sustainability. Even though both projects had a similar design approach through the double diamond model, external factors influenced the perceptions of and the learnings from each project, aspects to take into consideration for further research.
It is important to understand the difference between research projects and short-term projects that aim for commercial outcomes. Academic research needs long-term commitment and funding that is not attached to commercial gains. Particularly, design research and processes require extensive experimentation and testing, where failure is necessary and a fundamental part of the process and learnings. Therefore, relationships with funders, academic organisations and stakeholders can generate challenges when briefs and expectations are not clearly stated during initial discussions.
The aim of the Navigator project was to find ways to repurpose the valuable, visually appealing and unrecyclable sail material and, through this, have a positive impact on environmental, social and economic issues. We concluded that the reuse of materials for commercially viable products is challenging, especially for complex composite materials like competitive sails. The costs of sourcing, transporting, storing and cleaning the material, and the labour-intensive process of manufacturing and crafting, would result in unviable design solutions long term or, at best, in small-scale craft outcomes. Waste responses must be designed into the original material or product where reuse is not a viable option, especially for complex and/or composite materials. Finally, the intention of engaging with not-for-profits to alleviate waste issues, mindlessly created through activities for the privileged, undesirably places the burden of the ‘costs’ onto vulnerable communities.
The Voyager project aimed to bring attention and generate public awareness about the wastefulness of this short-term use but high-tech, high-value material. However, the impact of our project is hard to measure. While, according to the WoW organisation, sixty thousand people saw our outfit in the live shows, and up to forty thousand people saw it in the exhibition, we had limited time and influence to implement measuring mechanisms. In this project, the challenges revolved around misrepresentation and perception, where the performance added cultural elements we had consciously avoided, possibly leading to perceptions of cultural appropriation.
We also concluded that, despite the difference in design and art-based approaches, there are common challenges around the limited control creators have over the outcomes of their creations once they are delivered. For example, decisions around representation, placement and promotion are commonly made by organisers and funders and could change the final perception of the projects. Therefore, external factors need to be considered and clarified in advance. Also, due to the subjective nature of design and art disciplines, perceptions around failure and success need to be discussed in early stages so as to have a common understanding and expectations.
Even now we still have unanswered questions: Have the projects made any difference on an environmental, social or economic level? Did they create awareness around competitive sail waste issues, or waste problems in general? Creating awareness through art and design projects is hard to measure, despite the large audiences the projects can sometimes reach. However, it seems this approach is more common than systematically using waste material in commercial projects, perhaps due to the complexities in commercial projects regarding funding, resources, larger teams and time constraints. Although both projects were enjoyable and had satisfying results, the most useful outcome has been the conclusions we were able to draw from our lived experiences, and the insights we have taken from each project.
We want to acknowledge the contributions from Dr Amabel Hunting in the Navigator and Voyager projects; Dr Amanda Smith and Dr Tina Engels-Schwarzpaul for their support in this paper. This research was funded by Rekindle, Creative New Zealand and Auckland University of Technology.