Spring Swell: Surf scene holds stake in climate crisis

In light of recent years where rampant fires turned the West Coast’s skies into a “Blade Runner 2049” blood orange hue, tens of thousands of people dying in Delhi due to preventable air pollution, Texas frozen in place and communities in Southeast Asia facing the threat of extinction from rising sea levels and storm surges, it is naive to separate one’s own participation from the events that have decimated the Earth to a point of no return.

Whether it be reducing emissions, pollution or waste from home life, your career endeavors or elsewhere, some companies are inching toward the realization that sustainability in its most basic and buzzword-y terms is very lucrative, but not so much for the environment. 

Surfing, encompassing more of a lifestyle than most other sports and activities out there, is pushing its endorsers and suppliers to take the lead in areas of ocean conservation and the reduction of emissions from the garment industry. But the impact surfing has on global anthropogenic CO2 and energy use far exceeds these broad categories. 

In 2009, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the textile and leather industry consumed 2.15 exajoules of energy across the world, most of it powered by coal and electricity. If you’re curious or don’t understand energy units like me, one exajoule is 1018 joules, and the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011 off the coast of Thoku had about 1.41 EJ behind it.

After the fast fashion boom out of the UK from 2000-2005, clothing consumption increased to the buying of about a third more garments per year, per person. The advent of “sustainable” fashion has pushed people to buy more clothing, not out of need, but out of interest. In 2018, according to data from the “Fashion on Climate” report, the garment and footwear industry created more greenhouse gas than the countries of France, Germany and the UK combined.

Tourism, a particularly difficult sector for international climate change agencies to balance, is projected at what is called a “business-as-usual” scenario (no significant mitigation techniques) to increase its emissions by 130% up until 2035, with that from flights and accommodations tripling. Travellers who frequent long-distance journeys to — I don’t know — surfing hot spots such as San Clemente to Bali, contribute most to these emissions. 

Am I saying every single person in the world is a surfer or that surfers are the reason for accelerated climate change? Average reading comprehension would say no. But it’s important to note the different players that provide what you need for surfing, or any other activity, and how they interact with the ocean and greater climate.

Consider the tool of the trade — surfboards. Indigenous peoples of Hawaii and Polynesia have been and are arguably the most environmentally conscious surfers out there, beginning on heavy boards made out of trees. Since then, most surfboards have been made out of a few different yet similarly toxic materials: blanks made with petroleum-based polyurethane sealed with carcinogenic polyester resin to boards starting from expanded polystyrene (Styrofoam). While the average surfer’s quiver is sure to last decently long, a professional surfer can go through one of these boards almost every week. 

The GOAT of surfing, 11-time world champion Kelly Slater, made a more meaningful statement on the subject when he won the 2015 Rip Curl Pro event in Bells Beach on an Ecoboard. The board has a certification from the nonprofit Sustainable Surf that verifies the board has one of the following: “a measurably reduced carbon footprint, renewable, recycled and/or up-cycled material inputs,” or “uses materials and processes that reduce toxicity during manufacturing.”

However, attempts to make surfboards almost completely sustainable, including one made out of an invasive species of seaweed in the British Isles, have not proved successful in making low-volume and strongly constructed boards. 

The GOAT of surfboard shaping, to some, San Clemente’s Matt Biolos, is skeptical of the reception of these boards, which is understandable coming from the owner of Lost Entreprises, which boasts over 30 former champions, current world tour trotters and up-and-comers on its brand team. 

“Surfers are not going to sacrifice the performance of a light board for being green,” Biolos told the New York Times in 2009. 

Yes, that quote is older than some of the current surfers on Lost’s team, but it still speaks to an important choice. During that time, Southern California was putting out around 800 boards a day, with 40% of the blanks they were coming from going to landfills. With around 13-24 million surfboards sold globally in a year, who knows how many more from quarantine-inspired activity and the surfing equipment industry valued at $3.1 billion in 2018, it’s hard to overstate the impact that a once-daily activity for locals of Polynesia in the 4th century, since transformed and colonized by domineering global capitalism, has had on the environment. 

There are some good moves happening right now to address this issue: Apparel and footwear company Globe launched its Low Velocity program last year to “put environmental priorities and products of quality and longevity ahead of fast fashion sales of disposable items.” Biodegradable traction pads and buy-a-board-plant-a-tree sales are increasing. Labs like the Center for Surf Research are encouraging people to think of their passion for surfing in terms of a career and purpose. Some surfers are at the forefront of environmental activism and ocean conservation around the world. 

But in a world with maybe 36 million surfers, the individual shouldn’t have to be reminded that their contribution to helping the environment doesn’t start and end at the beach parking lot. 

Lauren Mattice is a senior writing about surfing. She is also the digital managing editor at the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Spring Swell,” runs every other Monday.