Everyone, it seems, wants to be a surfer - or, at least, to look like one. This is good news for the surf industry, which racked up $11 billion in retail sales last year. Yet for an industry whose identity is so intimately linked to the oceans, surfing has remained curiously aloof from environmental issues.
Surfing's base components - fibreglass boards, rubber wetsuits and mass-produced clothes and accessories - are inherently unsustainable, and yet the industry has offered little beyond bamboo boards and organic cotton T-shirts.
"The surfing fraternity is great when it comes to grassroots campaigns to protect beaches and coastal communities, but the industry as a whole hasn't reflected that concern, because, like other industries, it's profit-driven," says Ian Cohen, a Greens MP and co-founder of the Cleans Seas Coalition. Cohen, a surfer, once rammed an eight-metre poo through the doors of Ballina Shire Council chambers to protest against a proposed sewage outfall at Lennox Head, on the state's North Coast.
The Surfrider Foundation Australia, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to the protection and preservation of the world's oceans and beaches, has been similarly critical. "On the whole, the industry is still dragging its feet," says Stuart Ball, Surfrider's general manager.
Now, however, there are signs of change. In the US, an increasing number of surf brands have started offering environmentally sound products, including organically sourced T-shirts, hats, shoes and sandals. "And many companies, such as Reef, Sole Tech, Volcom and Sector 9, have altered their business operations to reduce their carbon footprint, from using wind credits for power, to new packaging methods and significant waste reduction," says Sean Smith, executive director of the US-based Surf Industry Manufacturers Association.
In August the Surfrider Foundation launched Project Blue, a campaign by some of Australia's biggest surf companies to donate part of their sales to environmental issues. One of the initiative's big sponsors is Billabong, whose products include boardshorts that are made from 100 per cent recycled PET bottles.
Like most big surf companies, the bulk of Billabong's $1.2 billion annual turnover comes from clothes (surfboards represent only a fraction of the industry). This is a problem, says a recent report in the magazine Australian Surf Business, because clothing and textile production "is only narrowly behind oil and mining as one of the most polluting industries on the planet".
Clothing production generates large volumes of waste and consumes huge amounts of energy and water, taking up to 200 litres of water and thousands of chemicals to produce, dye and finish one kilogram of fabric. Billabong's clothes are mostly manufactured in Asia, a practice that has drawn criticism for the surf industry, over its outsourcing of environmental responsibility to developing nations. A spokesman for Billabong, John Mossop, says he is "aware of that issue", and that each of the company's off-shore suppliers "must demonstrate they are working to local environmental laws".
An industry leader, Quiksilver, whose global turnover reached $2.73 billion last year, has developed a range of bags and backpacks using Q-Tec, an environmentally friendly alternative to PVC.
"Q-Tec contains no dioxins, no heavy metals and is more durable than traditional PVCs," says Chloe Messner, the manager of the Quiksilver Foundation. "We've also halved the amount of plastic packaging we use in the warehouse, and we are a certified Wastewise organisation, meaning we reduce and recycle as much as possible."
Rip Curl, meanwhile, has employed a purchasing manager to secure certified ecological products (like hemp, ramie and bamboo), and is developing ways to recycle its petroleum-based neoprene wetsuits (they are torn up and made into beanbag filler).
Overseas, alternatives to the notoriously toxic process of manufacturing surfboards are emerging, with the US-based company Homeblown developing the industry's first plant-based polyurethane blank.
Homeblown says that its Biofoam, made from plant oils, not only has a finer and more uniform cell structure than foams made with petroleum-based materials but results in a 23 per cent reduction in total energy demand.
"It is time for the surfing community to walk the walk of environmentalism it often talks about," the company says on its website.
But some industry figures are sceptical. "If you look closely, most of the initiatives are more marketing exercises than anything else," says Sean Doherty, the editor of the magazine Tracks. "Overall, the industry is still pretty poisonous."
The Surfrider Foundation's Stuart Ball says surf companies must take the opportunity to lead. "They have to see that going green is the way of the future, and that young consumers will increasingly demand that companies operate in an environmentally responsible manner."
Bridging the gap
Helping hand for the residents on shore
IN 1999 Dave Jenkins, a New Zealand doctor, went for a surfing holiday to the Mentawai Islands, an archipelago 150 kilometres off the coast of Sumatra. He found surf, but he also found villages ravaged by malaria, malnourishment, chronic diarrhoea and chest infections. "The incongruity between the tropical surf paradise and the suffering of the local people really affected me," Jenkins says. "So I decided to do so something about."
In 2000 Jenkins founded SurfAid International, a non-profit humanitarian organisation that has become one of the most innovative and effective in the world, recently winning the World Association of Non-Governmental Organisations 2007 Humanitarian Award in Toronto, Canada.
SurfAid has long relied on the surf industry for funding, with one of the biggest donors being Quiksilver. In 2003 it "adopted" Katiet, a tiny village that fronts on to the surf break Lance's Rights, on the island of Sipora. The company has since given $340,000 to SurfAid's Mentawai programs (with a further $100,000 committed over the next two years), culminating with the launch in Katiet last month of the Quiksilver-SurfAid Community Health Training Centre.
The centre operates with a staff of seven in a converted copra trading post and focuses on improving the health of the people through behavioural change. "There are no turn-key solutions," Jenkins says. "Disease prevention is about long-term cultural shifts."
A big part of the centre's work is in land and resource management. "Many of the health problems here stem from poor nutrition," says a SurfAid program director, Brendan Hoare, an agriculturalist and specialist in rural development. "The main diet is taro and banana, which doesn't provide enough micronutrients, meaning that many of the kids you see are physically and mentally stunted. So we're trying to get them to grow a wider variety of food."
The community centre features a model fruit and vegetable garden, where Hoare holds demonstrations and grows seedlings to give away. He is encouraging more composting - important in the predominantly sandy soil - and the greater use of natural fertilisers such as chicken and pig manure. "Many of these ideas were practised here in the past but have been lost to the culture, just as they have been largely lost from Western culture, too," Hoare says.
The water table is prone to pollution from leaking cesspits. "So we're putting a rainwater tank in every house, which should cut down on water-borne contamination."
Hoare, a surfer, is in two minds about the impact of surfing on the local people. "The introduction of a cash culture has in some instances resulted in the loss of more sustainable practices."
Others are more optimistic. "It's easy to be cynical about the effect that surfing has had on the islands," says Bruce Raymond, a former pro-surfer and Quiksilver brand ambassador. "But surfing brought attention to the area. It shone a spotlight on the place, on the good things and the bad things and their needs. It shows that with the right leadership surfers can make a difference."
Media Man Australia Profiles