With roots in ancient Polynesia and the freedom counterculture, you’d think that surfers would naturally be environmental stewards. This is not the case. Surfing is mainstream, and big business prioritizes shareholder returns, often at the expense of suppliers and the environment. What was once a relatively low-footprint activity—cut down a tree, carve a board, go for a surf—is now wave pools, petroleum derivatives (wax, neoprene), flashy events, high street stores, and fast fashion.
Yet, as concerns about the environment grow, the surfing community has started to respond with novel and eco-friendly solutions.
This article delves into the world of sustainable surfing, exploring brands, movements, ambassadors, and activists who are making a difference to the surf industry.
We’ll look at sustainable clothing, gear, surfboards, and tackle the topics of greenwashing and the unfortunate pollution caused by the manufacturing of surf equipment.
Surfers can also contribute to initiatives like the Ocean Cleanup, which aims to reduce marine plastic.
Ambassadors and Activists
High-profile surfers like Greg Long, Rob Machado, and Kelly Slater have become environmental ambassadors, using their influence to promote sustainability across the sport. Slater’s brand, Outerknown, is a perfect example of this commitment. Activists like Cliff Kapono and James Pribram have gone a step further by launching initiatives such as Project Blue and the Eco-Warrior Project, which focus on ocean conservation and education.
David Rastovich – A Pioneer in Surfing and Environmentalism
David Rastovich, an Australian professional surfer, has been an influential figure in promoting environmental awareness within the surfing community since the early 2000s. Known for his unique blend of performance and style, Rastovich has used his platform and passion for the ocean to champion various environmental causes.
As a co-founder of the environmental group Surfers for Cetaceans, Rastovich has been dedicated to protecting marine mammals and raising awareness about the threats they face, such as commercial whaling, pollution, and entanglement in fishing nets. He has participated in numerous campaigns and events to protest against whaling and dolphin slaughters, often traveling to distant locations to shed light on these issues.
Rastovich’s commitment to the environment extends beyond marine mammals. He is a firm advocate for sustainable living and has been involved in various environmental projects, including reforestation initiatives, clean water campaigns, and plastic pollution awareness. Rastovich practices what he preaches, living a low-impact lifestyle and using eco-friendly surfboards made from sustainable materials.
In 2009, Rastovich co-founded the organization TransparentSea, a marine-focused initiative that combines surfing, environmental activism, and direct action. The inaugural TransparentSea voyage saw Rastovich and a group of fellow surfers and environmentalists travel 700 kilometers along the Australian coast on sailboats and paddleboards to raise awareness about coastal and marine conservation issues.
As a pioneering figure in the world of sustainable surfing, David Rastovich has inspired a new generation of environmentally conscious surfers. His tireless work to protect marine life and promote eco-friendly practices within the surf industry has left an indelible mark and demonstrates the powerful impact surfers can have when they join forces to protect the environment they cherish.
Sustainable Clothing and Gear
Eco-friendly clothing and gear options are now more accessible than ever. Brands like Picture Organic Clothing, Rapanui, and Finisterre are producing wetsuits, rash guards, and boardshorts made from recycled materials and natural fibers. Moreover, sustainable surf accessories, such as traction pads and leashes made from recycled plastics, are becoming increasingly popular.
Case Study: Patagonia’s Yulex Wetsuits
One of the most significant breakthroughs in sustainable surfing gear is Patagonia’s Yulex wetsuits. Traditional wetsuits are made from petroleum-based neoprene, which is not only non-renewable but also has a significant environmental footprint due to its production process. Recognizing the need for a more sustainable alternative, Patagonia developed Yulex wetsuits, made from natural rubber sourced from sustainably managed forests.
Yulex wetsuits are made using hevea rubber, which is harvested without deforestation and is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). This natural rubber is then combined with other eco-friendly materials, such as recycled polyester, to create a high-performance wetsuit with a significantly reduced environmental impact. Patagonia’s Yulex wetsuits have set a new standard for the industry, encouraging other brands to explore environmentally responsible alternatives to neoprene.
Both Patagonia’s Yulex wetsuits and Firewire’s sustainable surfboards demonstrate the surf industry’s potential to embrace innovative, eco-friendly solutions without compromising the quality and performance that surfers demand. These pioneering products serve as examples for other companies, proving that sustainability and high-performance can coexist in the world of surfing.
Traditional surfboards use toxic materials like polyurethane foam and polyester resins, which are harmful to the environment. To counter this, eco-friendly alternatives have emerged, using materials like recycled EPS foam, bio-based epoxy resins, and sustainable wood cores. Brands like Firewire, Channel Islands, and Earth Technologies are leading the way in producing eco-friendly surfboards that perform as well as their conventional counterparts.
Case Study: Firewire’s Sustainable Surfboards
Firewire, a leading surfboard manufacturer, has been at the forefront of eco-friendly surfboard innovation. The company’s commitment to sustainability is evident in its use of alternative materials and construction techniques that minimize environmental impact without compromising performance.
Firewire’s Timbertek technology is a prime example of their sustainable approach. Timbertek surfboards feature a lightweight EPS foam core, sustainably sourced paulownia wood deck skins, and bio-based epoxy resins. This combination of materials results in a strong, lightweight, and high-performance surfboard with a significantly reduced carbon footprint compared to traditional polyurethane foam and polyester resin surfboards.
In addition to using eco-friendly materials, Firewire is committed to reducing waste and improving the energy efficiency of their manufacturing processes. The company has implemented an innovative waste reduction system that captures and recycles excess foam and resin during the production process. Firewire also continually invests in energy-efficient equipment and technologies to minimize its environmental impact further.
The Dark Side of Surfing – Greenwashing and Pollution
Unfortunately, the surfing industry is not immune to greenwashing – deceptive marketing practices that make products appear more eco-friendly than they are. Companies may tout their environmental credentials, while still using harmful materials and exploitative labor practices. Consumers should be vigilant in researching products and the companies behind them to ensure they are genuinely sustainable.
Example 1: Eco-friendly Claims with Limited Impact
Some companies in the surf industry market their products as eco-friendly by highlighting minor changes in their production process or materials. For example, a surfboard manufacturer may claim to use a small percentage of recycled materials in their boards, while still relying predominantly on non-renewable, toxic materials like polyurethane foam and polyester resin. Such claims can be misleading, as they create the impression of significant environmental benefits while the overall impact remains relatively small.
Example 2: Ambiguous Terminology
Ambiguous or vague terminology is another common greenwashing tactic. Companies may use terms like “green,” “natural,” or “eco-friendly” without providing clear definitions or evidence to support their claims. These terms can be misleading and make it difficult for consumers to determine the actual environmental benefits of a product. For instance, a wetsuit brand may claim to use “natural” materials without specifying the sourcing, processing methods, or environmental impact of those materials.
Example 3: Misleading Certifications
Some companies in the surf industry may display certifications or logos on their products that give the appearance of independent verification of their eco-friendly claims. However, these certifications may come from unaccredited or industry-sponsored organizations with low standards, or they may not even be related to the specific environmental claims made by the company. This practice can lead consumers to believe a product is more sustainable than it actually is.
To combat greenwashing in the surf industry, consumers must be vigilant in researching and scrutinizing products and companies. This can include looking for transparent information about materials, sourcing, and production methods, as well as seeking third-party certifications from reputable organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). By staying informed and demanding transparency, surfers can help ensure that the industry moves towards genuine sustainability and away from deceptive marketing practices.
Surfboard Production and Pollution
Surfboard production has long been associated with environmental pollution due to the use of toxic materials and the release of harmful waste byproducts during the manufacturing process. The traditional surfboard is made of a polyurethane foam core, fiberglass cloth, and polyester resin, which not only have significant ecological footprints but also pose health risks to workers and the surrounding environment.
Polyurethane Foam Blanks
The production of polyurethane foam blanks involves the use of toxic chemicals like toluene diisocyanate (TDI) and methylene chloride, which are harmful to both human health and the environment. The process generates hazardous waste, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other toxic byproducts. These substances can contaminate air, water, and soil, posing risks to wildlife and ecosystems. Moreover, foam dust generated during the shaping process can be harmful if inhaled by workers and may contribute to air pollution.
Polyester resin, used to laminate surfboards, is another significant source of pollution. This resin contains styrene, a volatile organic compound that can cause respiratory and skin irritation, as well as longer-term health effects. When surfboards are laminated, styrene evaporates into the air, contributing to air pollution and increasing the risk of respiratory issues for workers. Furthermore, resin spills can contaminate water and soil, posing threats to aquatic life and ecosystems.
The surfboard manufacturing process also generates a significant amount of waste, including foam offcuts, fiberglass scraps, and excess resin. Proper disposal of these materials is crucial to minimize pollution, but many smaller surfboard manufacturers may lack the resources or knowledge to do so effectively. As a result, waste materials may end up in landfills or, worse, be illegally dumped, leading to further environmental contamination.
The pollution created during surfboard production has prompted the surf industry to search for more sustainable alternatives, such as eco-friendly materials, including mushrooms, and cleaner production methods. By adopting these innovations and minimizing pollution, the surfboard manufacturing industry can become more environmentally responsible and help preserve the oceans and natural resources that surfers cherish.
Neoprene Pollution and Dangers in Surfing Wetsuits
Neoprene, a synthetic rubber widely used in the production of surfing wetsuits, has raised environmental and health concerns due to the potential pollution and dangers associated with its manufacturing process and disposal. Neoprene is made by polymerizing chloroprene, a chemical compound derived from petroleum, which carries a significant environmental footprint.
The production of neoprene involves the use of toxic chemicals and generates hazardous waste, posing risks to both the environment and human health. One of the primary pollutants associated with neoprene manufacturing is dioxin, a highly toxic and persistent environmental contaminant that can have severe health impacts on humans and wildlife. Dioxins are released during the chlorination process and can accumulate in the environment, disrupting ecosystems and contaminating water sources.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are another byproduct of neoprene production. These compounds contribute to air pollution and can cause respiratory issues, eye and skin irritation, and other health problems for workers and people living near manufacturing facilities. Additionally, the production of neoprene is energy-intensive and relies on non-renewable resources, contributing to climate change and resource depletion.
While neoprene wetsuits are generally considered safe for use, there are some potential health risks associated with skin contact and inhalation of neoprene particles. Some people may experience allergic reactions or skin irritation when wearing neoprene wetsuits, particularly if they have a sensitivity to synthetic rubber. Furthermore, neoprene dust generated during wetsuit production and repairs can be harmful if inhaled, causing respiratory irritation and other health issues.
Disposal and Pollution
The disposal of neoprene wetsuits poses another environmental challenge. Neoprene is not biodegradable and can take decades to break down in landfills, leading to long-term pollution and waste accumulation. The improper disposal of neoprene wetsuits, such as dumping them in oceans or natural habitats, can also be harmful to wildlife and ecosystems.
The pollution and dangers associated with neoprene have prompted the surf industry to seek more sustainable alternatives for wetsuit materials. An example is Patagonia’s Yulex wetsuits, made from natural rubber sourced from sustainably managed forests. Yamamoto’s silky soft neoprene comes from limestone.
By adopting eco-friendly materials and production methods, the surf industry can reduce its environmental impact and contribute to a cleaner, healthier planet
The surfing community has made significant strides towards sustainability, with eco-friendly brands, activists, and improved gear and surfboard manufacture. But challenges remain, including greenwashing and pollution as detailed above.
As surfers, we must continue to push for change and demand that the industry prioritizes sustainability at every level. By doing so, we can ensure that future generations can continue to ride the green wave, both in and out of the water.