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.
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."
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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.
The EP&L didn't just come out of the surf. Kering, Volcom's Paris-headquartered parent company (which runs high-fashion brands Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen and Saint Laurent, as well as sportswear brands Puma and San Clemente's Electric), made a commitment in November 2011: All of its luxury and sport-and-lifestyle brands must implement an EP&L analysis so that the parent company could complete an EP&L by 2016. Spearheading the initiative was Jochen Zeitz, the former chief sustainability officer of Kering, former chairman of Puma and a current Kering board member.
"If we treated our planet as we treat any other service provider, Puma would have to pay 8 million euros [$10.5 million] to nature for services rendered to our core operations, such as Puma offices, warehouses and stores in 2010 alone," Zeitz said in a company statement while he was still Puma chief. "In addition, 137 million euros [$180 million] would be owed to nature from Puma's supply chain of external partners."
Zeitz stressed that the EP&L wouldn't affect the company's net earnings. The announcement immediately received praise from business groups and governments across Europe; he received awards for his efforts, the coolest probably being named honorary warden and trustee of the Kenya Wildlife Service Endowment Fund.
Volcom is scheduled to wrap up its EP&L by the end of this year, hiring consultants to help accurately account for everything, according to Volcom senior director of sustainability Derek Sabori. He has been working to make Volcom a more eco-friendly company since 2010, one year before being acquired by the company currently known as Kering.
However, the EP&L exercise is still unproven, says Susan Egan Keane, deputy director of the health program of Natural Defense Resources Council. She's rooting for it, but there's a chance it might turn into nothing more than great public relations. "The jury is still out on whether they will have a substantial impact on business decisions," she says.
EP&Ls are in their infancy, and Kering's family of brands are the only ones publicly committed to the effort. However, action-sports companies are starting to at least appear to want to follow similar steps, to demonstrate to consumers and peers alike how they're becoming more eco-friendly. Almost every month, some apparel industry group holds a conclave to talk about how businesses can become better environmental citizens. From July 9 to 11, American Apparel & Footwear Association, the big dog of fashion-biz trade groups, sponsored a sustainability conference in Santa Monica. On June 28, Surf Industry Manufacturers Association (SIMA) scheduled a Sustainability Boot Camp at the palatial Surf and Sand resort in Laguna Beach, but it was postponed because not enough people signed up, according to one of the event’s speakers.
From these powwows have emerged eco-protocols that give apparel manufacturers a map toward becoming a little more environmentally kosher. In 2007, Boulder, Colorado-headquartered trade group Outdoor Industry Association's sustainability working group started working on the Eco Index. Like the EP&L, it helps manufacturers measure how much they are taking out of the environment. In 2011, the Eco Index was used to help form the Higg Index, used by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, whose members include Patagonia, Levi's, H&M, Walmart, and Target. Considered a big step forward, the Higg Index helps apparel and footwear manufacturers judge what manufacturing practices and materials won't hurt the environment, as well as what could cause an environmental disaster.
For now, only individual companies can view Higg results, and its information won't be made available to the public. It's considered a work in progress, according to Tim Gnatek, spokesman for Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and results might see the light of day only after thorough scrutinizing by academics and groups who can validate the strength and veracity of the rating system.
Currently, companies are deciding what steps they should take to make the best environmental impact, says Keane. Many apparel businesses start with their retail stores, where they look for ways to cut energy usage and seek to use eco-friendly materials in their packaging and products—because that's what consumers see first in a company.
Another great step is acknowledging failings. Last year, Quiksilver executive chairman Bob McKnight admitted as much in an interview with Global Trade that—pardon the pun—made waves in the industry for its frankness.
"At the end of the day, a lot of the stuff we make is not good for the environment—we make wetsuits, we make surfboards, we make plastic things, but we try to counter it as best as we can," McKnight said.
At least the Huntington Beach-based megapower, with more than $2 billion in sales in 2012, has taken initiative, knowing others will follow. Quiksilver, the largest action-sports company, also recycles more than 100 tons of its waste and ensures that 30 percent of the office paper it uses comes from recycled sources. Plus, this spring, it introduced the Diamond Dobby boardshort; 75 percent of the line is made from eco-friendly materials such as recycled polyester. But it's a Herculean task for a giant company beholden to impatient investors. The Weekly requested an update of Quiksilver's eco efforts, but representatives didn't reply to an interview request by press time.
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.
Toms shifted gears to producing its clothes offshore after the costs of producing sustainable clothes locally proved too great, Walker says. And that experience made Walker skeptical of the commitment of high-profile companies to sustainable business. "There is so much greenwashing going on," Walker says, employing the term for companies who use a sustainable creed only as a marketing tool. "When you scratch below the surface, you realize the integrity is not always there."
(Toms did not respond to requests for comment as of press time.)
Does eco fashion or surf and skate fashion made in a sustainable way command anything more than a niche audience? Making clothes eco by using organic fabrics and certifying it as fair trade could be a risk to any company's bottom line. But Nichelson said the risks are small. Depending on materials involved, fees charged from going eco could range from nothing to $10 extra per clothing item sold at a store. But boosting prices could put companies at a disadvantage when competing at the market, often with fast fashion companies, which always are slashing prices.
"There's a certain emerging demographic that will support this," he says. "They will come up with a couple of extra dollars more if they knew they were investing in a worthy cause and a greater good."
To the action-sports industry's credit, individual skate and surf companies never seem to come up in exposés, such as the recently released Greenpeace International report, Toxic Threads, which documents pollution and destruction of ecosystems by sleazy Third World contractors, which do factory work for high-profile apparel companies. However, Greenpeace does not have the resources to monitor every company, says John Deans, who works on the environmental organization's toxics campaign.
According to Scura, someone has to show how green fashion can make the proverbial green. "These are hugely competitive guys," he says of the leaders of the action-sports industry. "And if you show them victory, they'll step up to the plate. All it takes is leadership."
This article was altered on July 17 to correct two errors. In the original version, it was written that SIMA produced a sustainability boot camp on June 28; the boot camp had been postponed. Also, the original noted that Volcom will seek to phase out PVC and plastics from its products. Volcom only intends to phase out PVC.
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