Competitive surfing drops in on the sustainability wave

FlickrChris Preen2013
A surfer rides waves near Long Beach, Calif. Sustainable Surf helps surfing competitions reduce carbon footprint and educate fans about the threats that oceans face.

Not every kid wants to be quarterback of a football team.

In fact, a recent survey found that 20 percent of American kids listed surfing as the sport they most want to learn — and no other sport is even in double digits.

Aware at the margins of surfing’s impact on popular culture (from music to apparel to attitude), I had no idea of its extent. Given surfing’s power, it follows that a movement to make the sport sustainable would have the opportunity to make a big and important impact.

With that in mind, we were happy to talk with Kevin Whilden, co-founder and executive director of Sustainable Surf, about the greening of surfing.

GreenSportsBlog: How did you come to co-found Sustainable Surf?

Kevin Whilden: Well, I’m an avid surfer on the one hand. On the other, professional hand, I’m a geologist and a cleantech-climate change entrepreneur. My partner and I recognized an opportunity to help the surf community take advantage of the latest developments in sustainability and clean tech.

GSB: It sounds as if Sustainable Surf found you to some degree.

KW: Exactly. The act of surfing on the ocean is a beautiful experience, but I know the seriousness of environmental threats to oceans. Toxic and plastic pollution is a global epidemic, and it’s not really safe to eat a lot of fish these days. Human CO2 emissions are an even greater threat.

With Sustainable Surf, we see a way to create positive change and show that solutions to these problems can be fun and desirable. “Fun” is a rare commodity in the popular narrative around environmental issues and solutions.

GSB: Is surfing affected by climate change in a similar, existential sort of way as winter sports are (lack of snow and ice make it impossible for the sport to take place)?

KW: The “playing field” of surfing is directly threatened by climate change. Ocean acidification and ocean warming will lead to the global extinction of coral reefs, where some of the best waves in the world are found. Coral reefs are among the most beautiful and diverse ecosystems on the planet, and it’s scary to imagine a world without them. Yet many projections show the extinction of most reefs by mid-century.

In parallel, sea level rise will drown out many other great surf breaks. In general, waves don’t break as cleanly when the water is deeper. Sea level rise is projected to add two feet of water globally by mid-century, which is a lot of water for most surf breaks. We call this “permanent high tide,” and it’s not a good thing for most surfers.

We’ve partnered with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to help tell these stories to surfers and the general public. This video demonstrates how wave quality will be affected by sea level rise at one of the world-class surf breaks in California.

Oceans are on the front lines of climate change. The ocean absorbs 90 percent of the heating from global warming, and it is acidifying 10 times faster than any other event in geological history. This will cause a dramatic shift in the ocean’s biology and chemistry. All ocean lovers need to know about this. There’s still time to solve the problems, but not much.

GSB: So what is Sustainable Surf doing to combat these environmental challenges?

KW: Our mission is simple: Transform surf culture and the surfing industry into a powerful community that protects our ocean playground.

To do this, we bring the best ideas in sustainability, science and clean technology into the core areas of surf culture: the surfboard, the surfer, surf media and professional surf contests. All of our programs, detailed on our website, help reduce the impacts to the ocean within surfing, including the carbon footprint.

GSB: How are you working with professional surfing?

KW: Our Deep Blue Surfing Events (DBSE) program provides a comprehensive approach to reduce the environmental impact from any professional surf contest. Participating events are required to measure performance and create a transparent public report. The reports detail waste diversion from the landfill, the use of renewable energy, supporting the local community, providing alternative transportation options, offsetting the carbon footprint and more.

There are some great stories at the event level. Biodiesel produced from local restaurants. Implementing a comprehensive waste diversion plan is not easy to do on a beach, and we’ve been very impressed by the dedication of the waste diversion staff.

GSB: Are most pro surfing events Deep Blue Surfing certified?

KW: There have been 15 events over the last three years, which is about 20 percent of the major contests during that span. The most recent contest is the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing 2014, which includes the Billabong Pipeline Masters. The Volcom Pipe Pro 2015 is next.

GSB: How can fans find out about DBSE and its impacts?

KW:The program includes a public performance report that is based on the Global Reporting Index framework. All reports are published on our website. Links to the most recent DBSE reports are here and here.

GSB: How many athletes are we talking about at a typical surfing event? And how big are the crowds?

KW: At the top level in men’s surfing, 32 surfers compete over one year at 10 of the world’s best waves. Crowds typically number in the thousands as surfing venues tend to be remote and thus hard to get to.

Even though crowds are relatively small compared to sports such as football and baseball, millions of people watch the live webcasts of the events from all over the world. The cultural impacts of these events are huge. So making the contests sustainable and offsetting the carbon impact resonates far beyond the surfers and attendees at the events.

GSB: How are the events offsetting their carbon footprint?

KW: A typical surf contest has a carbon footprint of 200 to 400 tons of CO2. This comes from athlete and staff travel and hotels, spectator travel and energy use at the event site.

Deep Blue Surfing Events choose high-quality certified carbon offsets from projects with a great story. For example, REDD+ projects that protect pristine rainforest ecosystems while providing local sustainable jobs and education.

GSB: How have Deep Blue Surfing Events been received?

KW: The response has been very good. Especially by the surf brands and contest organizers. They love having help with sustainability strategy and a report that shows their final performance. Even if they didn’t do well in a particular area, it inspires them to do even more next time.

We see a dramatic improvement in performance for events in their second year as a Deep Blue Surfing Event. Deep Blue Surfing Events are just starting to engage with the surfing public. Both Vans and Volcom are producing films with their athletes to tell the sustainability story and inspire the public to do the same. I can’t wait to see what happens in 2015 with fan-athlete engagement in surfing.

GSB: Besides Deep Blue Surfing Events, how are you doing this?

KW: We created a standard for sustainable surfboards via the Ecoboard Project, and major manufacturers and pro surfers are now making and using surfboards with greatly reduced toxicity and carbon footprints. We educate surfers on better ocean-friendly lifestyle choices through our Deep Blue Life program.

We initiated a unique recycling program called Waste to Waves, that recycles waste styrofoam packaging foam into new surfboards and other products.

GSB: That is all very cool. Have the surfers bought in to sustainability?

KW: There is a growing public awareness of the options for surfers to live a more sustainable lifestyle. When they see that food scraps from the Pipeline Masters are being composted at the farm across the street from the waves, how could they not be inspired?

The surfers and the fans love it. Key sponsors like Vans, Volcom, Reef and Quiksilver are also very supportive.