Orange County's Action-Sports Companies Are Trying to Go Eco Before It's Too Late

Orange County's Action-Sports Companies Are Trying to Go Eco Before It's Too Late
illustration: Anthony Tremmaglia | Design: Dustin Ames

"You want to surf clean water," says Steve Zeldin, a former editor of Surfing magazine, and co-publisher of magazine and website What Youth. "After it rains, you're getting grass clippings, motor oil, used condoms and diapers, all from 60 to 70 miles away, dumped in Mother Ocean. . . . A lot of surfers have become unified in their thinking: 'We can't shit where we surf.'"

Zeldin is talking about what triggers so many action-sports enthusiasts to become ardent environmentalists, what drove a large section of the industry to rally against the proposed 241 Toll Road extension to San Onofre, what inspires them to battle any new developments along the coast and buck the surfer stereotype of the laid-back beach bum to become eco-warriors. Call it a communitarian self-interest; while such people truly do care about the health of the environment, climate change is threatening to drown action sports in a watery grave.

Melting polar ice caps is causing sea levels to rise. And the surf industry is fretting because it's not just coastal cities that are in trouble; scientists expect many of the world's great surfing beaches to face flooding so devastating they'll suffer permanent destruction. Adding further insult to environmental injury, wave sizes are expected to plummet in the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, according to a recent study by Australia's national science agency, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, thus cutting to shreds surfing's essence—and the sport almost altogether.

Frank Scura, founder of Action Sports Environmental Coalition
John Gilhooley
Frank Scura, founder of Action Sports Environmental Coalition
Derek Sabori, Volcom’s senior director of sustainability
John Gilhooley
Derek Sabori, Volcom’s senior director of sustainability

Surfing is not the only board sport in trouble. Climate change has caused warmer winters, which means less snow and ski conditions that will make everyone want to forget about winter trips to Big Bear and Mammoth. Skateboarding is safe for now, but environmental apocalypse and streets flooded by climate change-caused storms don't seem such a good backdrop for shredding concrete on a skateboard.

If any of this comes to pass, surfwear companies stand a good chance of losing their boardshorts. The action-sports industry raked in a reported $14.1 billion in 2010, according to Trabuco Canyon market-research company Board-Trac. With most of the big names based in the place lazy journalists lamely call "Velcro Valley," Orange County has become a fashion-business powerhouse for modern-day surfing, snowboarding and skating. Almost all of them boast of their eco-friendly ways, participate in fund-raisers to save the planet and espouse the same Mother Ocean mantra offered by Zeldin.

But some activists have complained that surfwear biz people don't go far beyond lip service when it comes to changing the way they manufacture surfboards and clothes, which are crafted with toxic materials. Scores of activists have evangelized and campaigned for surf and skate businesses to go green in the past decade, but they often hit a wall, especially as the economy worsens, says Frank Scura, who started Action Sports Environmental Coalition in 2003. The major problem was that money always talks, while everything else walks. "I wasn't selling a product; I was selling an ideal while people were just trying to survive." Though he put his organization on the back burner a few years ago to devote more time to his two kids, Scura has refused to give up hope for a greener action-sports industry. "The potential is there. It's just going to take leadership, commitment and faith."

Things might be starting to go his way. Despite fickle public interest in the environment and economic cards stacked against it, Orange County action-sports companies and nonprofits are slowly finding ways to practice what they preach, in ways large and small.

"There is a resounding willingness to take part in industry-wide change," says Isaac Nichelson, founder of eco-apparel consultng service Sustainable Source Studios, headquartered in Topanga Canyon and with offices in Shanghai. "But it always falls short when everyone goes home and goes into capitalist, corporate mode. We're the culture that's supposed to give a shit. We're supposed to be rooted in counterculture and creativity—we need that to shine through."

*    *    *

This year seems to be one of good news for action-sports environmentalists. President Barack Obama delivered on a 2008 promise to clean up the environment and unveiled executive orders to fight climate change. And this year, one of the biggest names in the industry, Volcom Inc., announced an ambitious environmental gambit: It has pledged to cut water usage, carbon emissions and waste by 25 percent by 2016 from its supply chain, ranging from its Orange County design offices to the Asian factories where its clothes are made. It also resolved to eliminate the chemical PVC from the manufacturing of its clothes and accessories, as well as to boost use of recyclable and sustainable materials in its collections and its paper and packing materials.

But the 22-year-old business is finding its most daring change dressed up in the dull, very adult language of accounting.

In April, the Costa Mesa-based company announced it would issue an environmental profit and loss statement (EP&L). Profit and loss statements are standard filing for big businesses, necessary documents to show investors and the world the financial health of companies. But an environmental profit and loss statement is downright revolutionary. Volcom plans to describe how much the brand is taking from the Earth—and how much it needs to reimburse the environment.

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