Sea change: Surfing used to be an environmental disaster, now it's cleaning up its act

Surfers are in tune with nature, right? Wrong. All that plastic – and all those flights to exotic locations – are an environmental disaster. But the emergence of sustainable boards, green clothes and even a carbon-zero shop shows the sport is cleaning up its act

Alex Dick-Read
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:53

According to the coconut wireless, there's a big green wave washing through the surfing world. Apparently, surfers are waking up to a cleaner, greener approach to our whole dirty pursuit. And rumour has it that the UK is at the leading edge of the hunt for one of surfing's holy grails – an edible surfboard.

In normal times I'd write this off as hype and nonsense. Ten years of editing a surfing magazine with an environmentalist agenda have taught me the difference between a big green wave and a mere green ripple. At The Surfer's Path we've seen plenty of the latter, and none of the former.

But with another summer behind us, for the first time ever the forecast looks good. After years of denial and less than total commitment, the big surf companies, the retailers, even the surf magazines really are competing with each other to do less damage to the planet. More importantly, surfers themselves are hungrier than ever for solutions to the embarrassing paradoxes that have long plagued our world.

So what's the problem? Aren't surfers supposed to be laid-back and nature-loving, moving with seasons, drifting with the tide, into Jack Johnson and all that? What exactly is it about our little fun bubble that needs cleaning up?

It's true, we tend to think of ourselves as closer to nature than most. We throw ourselves into the ocean and fly with its rolling energy in an act of elemental oneness that's hard to match. Aside from the wave riding, every time we paddle out we enter a foreign, uncaring realm that leaves us in no doubt about our sheer insignificance. For many surfers, much of the magic lies in the interaction with wilderness. Playing in wilderness, admittedly; but that requires watching it keenly and becoming aware of its ebbs and flows, mood swings and states of health. "We have a much more integral tie with the environment than most sports," says Tom Kay, founder of the eco-active surf clothing company Finisterre. "Compare surfing to, say, golf, which is played on a man-made course to man-made rules, and clearly surfing does engender a deeper relationship with nature. It's a cliché, but it is largely true."

Surfers tend to be the first to get sick if there's sewage in the water, to notice reefs dying, to be affected by oil spills, agricultural run-off and industrial pollutants. It's fair to say that we surfers should be natural environmentalists. Yet we commune with nature on craft made of poisonous polymers, wearing suits made of oil, and guzzle more petrol in our endless search for the perfect wave than the Learjet owners' club. "Even the wax that surfers use to add grip to their surfboard is made from petroleum," pointed out Lacey Nakaguma in a recent University of Southern California study of petrol use among the wider US population. Nakaguma chose to focus on surfers to show how even those who appear to have a "laid-back, simple, and all-natural" lifestyle are reliant on oil.

We also worship at the altar of travel far more devoutly than the average annual UK holidaymaker. Surfers will think nothing of driving for hours to check every spot looking for the best wave for the wind, swell and tide conditions. Flying to the far side of the world for high-quality waves is simply seen as essential to the authentic lifestyle. Every surfer wants to go to Hawaii, Indonesia, Australia, South Africa, Chile, France, California at least once in their life; the "luckiest", the top 44 professional surfers on the Fosters ASP Dream Tour, do so several times a year.

Over the last 30 years, our idyllic addiction has spawned a global industry that in 2006 was worth $7.5bn (£3.75bn) in the US alone, according to a recent Surf Industry Manufacturers Association (Sima) study. In the UK, surfing is reckoned to bring between £40m and £100m just to the West Country, by no means the only region where surfing brings business.

But a huge portion of what's known as the surf industry is in fact the rag trade. "As it turns out, the surf industry is not the surf industry – it's clothing companies with a very good hook," says Glenn Hening, founder of America's most powerful surfing pressure group, the Surfrider Foundation. The big surf companies – Quiksilver, Rip Curl, Billabong and O'Neill, all founded by genuine beach dudes who wanted better-fitting shorts and warmer water-wear – are now high-street brand names, listed on the stock exchange or owned by even bigger corporate giants. Although the big companies do have good track records when it comes to charity and support for environmental initiatives, their phenomenal growth came with a distinctly head-in-the-sand approach to the damage caused by bleached cotton, toxic dyes, petroleum-based fabrics and plastic packaging.

After years of denial, things finally seem to be changing, spurred on partly by the examples set by companies such as Patagonia, the Californian outdoor outfitters, and Howies here in the UK. "Everyone looks to these companies as a benchmark," says Paul Richards, general manager of Rip Curl UK. "We've always been very strong on support for environmental groups and charity work, but now we're integrating that thinking into the whole company. We still donate to charities like Surfers Against Sewage and to Patagonia's One Percent for the Planet scheme [in which a portion of company profits go to environmental pressure groups], but this year 12 per cent of our total range is made from organic or recycled materials, and that portion is growing all the time."

Quiksilver, O'Neill, Volcom, Hurley, Globe, Billabong, Reef, Body Glove – all the biggest surf companies are wheeling out organic or recycled ranges and lavish charity donation schemes. More significantly, they claim to be cleaning up their production, processing, packaging and shipping. The time is right, as one company president says, "to do well by doing good" .

"The ones truly cleaning up their acts will soon emerge from the ones that aren't," says Finisterre's Tom Kay, whose Cornish company is tiny by comparison. Finisterre is one of a new breed of much smaller businesses basing their whole philosophy on the Patagonia-style principle of aiming for the highest quality with the lowest possible environmental impact. Finisterre has been going for five years, and only has six products – but every stage of those products' life cycle is accounted for. " Transparency is the key," says Kay. "If you're claiming to be as low-impact as possible, it's important every stage of your product life cycle can be assessed for its environmental implications."

Every year we do the Surfer's Path Green Wave Awards, to encourage and recognise environmental efforts in the surfing world. Nominations come from the public, and every year we are alerted to new, small, idealistic businesses aiming to make it big while keeping their footprint small – companies like Hills Organic Surf Wax, or Loose Fit, which calls itself the world's first carbon-zero surf shop.

Perhaps most positive of all is the work being done by two Cornish companies, Homeblown and Sustainable Composites. With the backing of the Eden Project, they have come up with a surfboard that damages the planet far less than any other.

Surfboard technology hasn't changed much since the 1950s. Ninety per cent of modern boards – about a million every year – are still made using blown polyurethane foam, wrapped in fibreglass and coated in polyester or epoxy resin. This oil-based combination gives off poisonous TDI or MDI fumes, nasty volatile organic compounds and, though liable to break with alarming ease in the surf, won't break down at landfill sites for millennia.

This year, Homeblown, Eden and Sustainable Composites unveiled the Ecoboard, which has a core made from 40 per cent vegetable foam, is wrapped in hemp cloth instead of fibreglass, and is set in a new 96 per cent vegetable-based resin. "You could actually eat well over 40 per cent of the raw materials that go into these products," Homeblown has declared.

OK, so the coconut wireless isn't always accurate. The board we're all seeking isn't edible at all – it's organic, biodegradable, functional and strong. And that's still a long way off. "'Green' boards don't really exist, and they won't for a while when you consider the whole composite," says Homeblown USA's Ned McMahon. But the Ecoboard is the biggest step in the right direction since the ancient Hawaiians rode boards hewn from koa and wiliwili trees. After decades of ignoring the toxicity that plagues our nature-based sport, surfing is finally pointing its nose in the right direction. The green wave may not be as big as its hype, but as any surfer will tell you, a small wave is better than no wave at all.

Five ways to surf green

* Buy a secondhand board. It's called recycling and it works perfectly.

* If you must have a new board, order an Ecoboard. If you can't get hold of one, at least order a board from the local shaper at the beach where you surf. See if they can get hold of an Ecoblank or use Ecocomp resin.

* Don't fly out of the UK to surf or learn to surf. Every coast of the British Isles gets rideable waves; the South-west, Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and North-east England are best. And there are literally hundreds of surf schools. Check the British Surfing Association for certified schools near you.

* Share lifts to the coast. It not only saves on fuel and emissions, but also offers a chance to tell tall tales about your incredible surfing exploits and argue over which beach will have the best waves.

* Look for the most eco-friendly surf goods you can find. Companies are falling over themselves to show off their green credentials, so if you have to buy new stuff, encourage them in the right direction by buying their low-impact gear and clothes.

The groups leading the eco-surfing groundswell

* Surfers Against Sewage

Incredibly successful UK campaign group set up in the 1980s when raw sewage was discharged all along our coasts. Thanks largely to SAS, that's no longer allowed. Their campaigns continue on the local, national and international levels.

* Save The Waves

Set up to protect surf spots around the world, this group wades in with serious international campaigns aimed at stopping unnecessary coastal construction and damage to the world's waves. It ultimately hopes that surf spots worldwide will become protected natural resources.

* The Surfrider Foundation

SRF has a network of local chapters in Europe, the US, Japan, Australia and South America that it uses to campaign to protect surf zones while also working on broader national and international campaigns to keep beaches clean, prosecute polluters and educate the public.

* SurfAid International

Set up by surfers alarmed that people in the Indonesian villages near some of the world's best surf spots were dying of preventable diseases. Their successful anti-malaria campaign has been backed by the big companies in the surf industry, and their reach has expanded throughout Indonesia's island surf grounds, savingthousands of lives every year.

* WildCoast

Wildcoast primarily targets the Spanish-speaking surfing community, from Los Angeles all the way down to southern Chile, that rides the waves of the Pacific Ocean. It runs a variety of campaigns to educate people about the importance of healthy oceans.

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