Why you should care
Manufacturers and surfers are switching to greener boards that don’t compromise on their competitive abilities.
When the so-called swell of the century swept through Indonesia in July 2018, no one was surprised to see two-time Big Wave World Tour champion Grant “Twiggy” Baker in the lineup. What turned heads was the board he was riding, made from expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) and coated with a plant-based bio-resin.
It emerged from an eco-board project Baker has worked on with Hurricane Surf, a surfboard firm based in Durban, South Africa. The project offers competition-worthy nature-friendly alternatives to polyurethane (PU) surfboards. But while Baker — who will be surfing eco-boards exclusively from next season — may be one of the bigger names to make the switch, his conversion is far from unique.
Sustainable Surf, an ocean-health nonprofit based in California that brands environmentally friendly boards, has seen sales of boards carrying its stamp of approval increase from 1,400 units in 2012, the year it was founded, to 58,000 in 2017. The number of manufacturers developing sustainable materials for boards has risen from two to 10 in this period, and in excess of 200 board builders from more than 25 countries are now partnering with Sustainable Surf.
(In the above video, Hunter Jones surfs a Ryan Harris Ecoboard. Credit: Earth Technologies)
One such shaper is Ryan Harris, owner of Earth Technologies in Los Angeles, who abandoned the “toxic legacy” of PU boards a decade ago. He has seen demand for his eco-boards surge in the past five years, doubling over the past year alone. In March 2018, he made the “Switch to Zero,” a concept that completely eliminates waste in surfboard manufacturing. He now upcycles all his production waste into “handplanes, fins, tiles, key chains and coasters.”
[We’re keen] to show surfboard manufacturers that sustainability can also make business sense.
Kevin Whilden, Sustainable Surf co-founder
And over at Hurricane Surf, co-founder Jestyn Viljoen has reached a point where the firm’s two lines of eco-boards comprise almost 50 percent of his sales, with the flagship Green range seeing a 480 percent increase in 2017. He too is looking at other ways to do his bit for the planet and has commissioned a cardboard-based bubble wrap for packaging surfboards.
For years, the fact that conventional surfboards — made from a combination of PU and fiberglass — are “as toxic as it gets,” in Baker’s words, has irked surfers. But, until recently, most surfers pushed these nagging environmental concerns aside because none of the alternatives could compete on price or performance. Getting people like Baker to test the boards on “waves of consequence” (those big enough to kill a surfer) is pivotal to changing this mindset.
“One particular day at an unnamed, massive barreling left [wave] stands out as the eureka moment when I knew these boards performed at the same level as regular PU equipment,” says Baker.
If they’re good enough for the world champ, the logic goes, they’re surely good enough for you.
To Sustainable Surf co-founder Kevin Whilden, the sharp increase in traction his organization is witnessing suggests it’s now succeeding in its mission to “create a vision of what it means to have a sustainable surf culture.” Whilden is a geologist who has specialized in climate change, and fellow co-founder Michael Stewart has a background in sustainable-product certifications. They’re keen, says Whilden, “to show surfboard manufacturers that sustainability can also make business sense.” Ultimately, they want that message to filter through to other industries too: “Every product in the world should be made sustainably while not reducing performance,” insists Whilden.
The first step of the process for them was to conduct life-cycle analyses comparing conventional PU boards to their eco-friendly alternatives. They found that a board made from a recycled polystyrene blank and a plant-based epoxy produced approximately 30 percent less carbon emissions than regular equipment.
Armed with these stats, Whilden and Stewart set up a third-party labeling protocol that enables any surfboard manufacturer who uses one of the approved products listed on the Sustainable Surf website to start marketing their boards as “Level One Ecoboards.” Because many of the world’s surfboards are produced by small local artisans operating on tight budgets, the onboarding process is deliberately affordable and simple. Shapers simply fill in an online application form, send proof that they’ve purchased an approved material and buy their first batch of decals at $1 a pop. There are more rigorous requirements for materials manufacturers and larger surfboard makers. And achieving Gold Level — the highest standard of eco-friendliness — requires a comprehensive commitment to reducing waste and undergoing an annual sustainability audit and more stringent materials requirements.
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Last night during Game 4 of the #WorldSeries ⚾️ This was broadcasted #worldwide & seen by roughly 13.5 million people (according to @wikipedia). @Earthtechnologies and I whipped out one of my #HJM Models and gave the world a little taste of #EcoBoards. Did you see it? So stoked everything came together @foxsports 🍻 • Thank you @chloelyncarlson for making this possible 🙏🏽 • @imperialmotion @globebrand @earthtechnologies @formula.fun @surforganic @sunski @sovrnrepublic @fishatsea @auctiv @juneshineco @take3forthesea @markofoamblanks • #surf #surfing #surfer #surftrip #surflife #surfboard #surfphotography #waves #surfinglife #surfergirl #longboard #ocean #surfers #sup #bodyboard #beach #standuppaddle #gopro #sunset #surfdaily #waveoftheday #Dodgers #RedSocks #Baseball #FoxSports
Getting shapers and surfers to actually try the new materials would be their next challenge. They partnered with surf clothing brands like Volcom and Vans and pro surfers including Alex Gray, Rob Machado, Jordy Smith and Lakey Peterson to spread the word. But getting Kelly Slater — the one surfer whose name transcends the sport — to ride a board with the Ecoboard project logo in 2015 was by far their biggest coup. Slater is now an owner of Firewire Surfboards, which makes only certified eco-boards and is one of the biggest manufacturers in the world.
Not everyone is convinced that eco-boards are an economically viable profession — yet. Anton Butler of Ferral Surfboards in Cape Town says he’s all for protecting the environment but isn’t convinced that eco-boards are as effective for competitive surfing as the PU boards he primarily makes. Butler, who has hand-shaped 8,000 boards, has used bio-resin though and is open to making eco-boards on request.
Even within the eco-board fraternity, some shapers think it’s time to reassess Sustainable Surf’s strategy of keeping the eco-board certification process easy. While the claim of 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions is based on boards that use an approved blank and an approved resin, a shaper can qualify for Level One certification by using one or the other. A board that achieves certification by using only an approved resin doesn’t compare to the board Baker used during the swell of the century, which — apart from EPS — used approved bio-resin, organic hemp cloth and parabolic rails made from sustainably grown flax, says Viljoen. Factors like poor waste management can have just as great an impact on a product’s carbon footprint as using the right materials, he adds.
Cape Town-based Patrick Burnett, who’s been crafting surfboards out of wood (the greenest material of them all) since 2007 but hasn’t signed on with Sustainable Surf, agrees. He worries that “the low-hanging fruits are being plucked without tackling the bigger issues,” and that “ultimately any accreditation system will have to move toward stringent standards or risk not meaning much.”
Whilden understands these concerns but remains convinced that the way to create change is to “make it easy in the beginning,” because most shapers operate on tight budgets. Once a board builder starts experimenting with one eco-friendly material, he says, “they tend to take it as far as they can” (as shown by Harris, Viljoen and Firewire). He’s passionate about waste management, but the numbers show that using materials with fewer petrochemicals is still the most important single step. “That’s why Level One is about materials choices, and Gold Level adds in waste and energy. There’s a lot of thought and strategy in our program.”
That internal debate within groups and firms bound by the same goals only underscores how the surf industry’s green warriors aren’t ready to just sit and admire their gains — they’re constantly looking at next steps. How far the revolution is taken depends on consumers. If Gold Level eco-boards start outselling the competition, you can be sure shapers will take the hint. And other industries too.