By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
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It's an issue for all surfers, says Kevin Whilden, a social entrepreneur and co-founder of Sustainable Surf, a San Clemente nonprofit that, since 2011, advises surf companies on sustainable business practices.
"Surfers are more environmentally aware, and yet typical surfboards are made with highly toxic materials," he said. "There's a big disconnect there. . . . How can you love the ocean when the thing you are riding is toxic?"
With the Ecoboard Project, Sustainable Surf asks surfboard shapers to use eco-friendly products and abandon standard materials such as polyurethane foam, which uses toxins including toluene diisocyanate (which irritates eyes and skin) and polyester resins that release volatile organic compounds into the air and forces shapers to wear breathing masks. SIMA endorsed the project; surf brands Channel Islands, Lost, Stretch and T. Patterson now offer boards made out of sustainable materials, and board maker Firewire has announced a 100 percent switch to making Ecoboards this year.
Sustainable Surf's other programs include Deep Blue Surfing Events, which works with producers of surfing contests to cut waste at big competitions. During the Volcom Pipe Pro at Hawaii's North Shore in February, it claimed to have recycled and composted more than a ton of garbage left by spectators.
It's an impressive amount of achievements in such a short time. But Whilden says his organization has a long way to go. "The industry itself is slow to change. There are a number of reasons. The profit margins are low, and it is hard to take risks." But change is happening, as the industry is beginning to see demand for sustainable products, he says.
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When Pierre André Senizergues took Paris streets by storm with his skateboarding in the 1980s, the city's elements took revenge: The air pollution made him feel as though he was on the verge of an asthma attack.
That didn't stop him from becoming a Euro-skating star, winning a world championship in 1985. Senizergues eventually moved to California, taking over a business that later became the foundation of Sole Technologies Inc., producer of skate brands Etnies, Altamont and eMerica. By 1999, the company employed 100 people and was an emerging powerhouse. At this point, Senizergues did something unpopular: With those smog-filled Parisian boulevards still in his lungs and memory, he retrofitted Sole Tech to reduce its environmental footprint.
"People thought I had lost my mind," he says. "They didn't know what I was doing when I decided to create an environmental company."
One step toward this skate rat's nature-boy dream was the building of a headquarters for Sole Tech. Among its 5 acres of sustainable landscaping, the award-winning headquarters features natural lighting and curving walls intended to be reminiscent of a loping skate ride. Around 2000, more than 600 solar panels were installed on the Lake Forest property at a cost of about $1.6 million (half of it financed by rebates from the government). The company broke even on its solar investment in 2008 and is now virtually off the electrical grid. And he's not stopping: Senizergues has set an ambitious goal of entirely cutting the company's polluting emissions and becoming carbon-neutral by 2020.
Sole Tech's gamble would've been impossible if it were a public company, Senizergues says. "A lot of companies are public; it is about [return on investment] every quarter, which is a short time. It is hard to grasp."
Even with a strong will, the way to go eco always finds roadblocks, especially in a struggling economy—and especially when the precedent-setting giants of the industry are trying to save themselves before they save the planet. On July 2, Quiksilver announced cuts in its marketing department as it moves to make its operations more "efficient," and more layoffs are expected—this, after Quiksilver put the kibosh on new brands it developed less than a year ago.
It's a struggle even on the smaller level.
In 2009 Hobie opened a boutique on Avenida del Mar in San Clemente that was Orange County's only action-sports shop devoted to eco fashion; nowadays, it sells only one such brand, Patagonia, instead focusing on core surf brands and other action-based, non-eco labels. No other action-sports shop has tried to offer eco-only wear since. A few years ago, creative-lifestyle shop eVocal closed its small Costa Mesa boutique and gallery in 2010 when the lease ran out after a five-year run. Br3tt Walker, its South African-born founder, continues designing the line and has been consulting for Toms, Reef, beverage company Sambazon and other eco-conscious brands.
For Reef and Sambazon, Walker had consulted on building sustainable stores, which had a focus on in-store displays. For Toms, he helped to develop a domestic eco-apparel program for the Los Angeles-based company, which built a philanthropic reputation by donating a pair of shoes to a needy Third World child for every pair purchased.
The experience of attempting to build an organic-clothing program was a tough education in the real economics of sustainable apparel. Most organic cotton is grown in faraway places such as China and India, and one point of making sustainable clothing is to do farming and production locally, so companies won't cough up tons of carbon monoxide while making and transporting raw materials and goods. Organic cotton is more expensive across the globe, as well as tougher to source, especially in the United States; supplies often run out, and smaller and emerging eco brands are left high and dry because they can't afford the volume for a steady supply.