Have surfers discovered the future of sustainable design?
Surfboard materials are experiencing a wave of innovation with big implications for other industries. But could familiar concerns about performance, appearance and costs hinder sales?
Like many athletes, surfers — and the manufacturers who produce their expensive boards — are very particular about their equipment.
Even minute details can make or break the next wave, which has led to quite a conundrum for the stereotypically-green surf culture.
Lots of professional surfers, manufacturers and industry nonprofits preach ocean conservation and organize beach clean-ups, but day to day the surfboard industry remains reliant on unsustainable materials laden with carcinogens and petroleum byproducts.
Sure, a few environmentally-minded groups have attempted to develop soy-based oils or other alternatives for foam surfboard cores, known as blanks, but the results have been less than stellar. Inconsistent supply chains, not-quite-right material densities and ugly discolorations have made prototypes far from commercially viable.
"The soy looked dingy on the racks. It looked like it was sitting in the sun for a few months," said José Ignacio Lozano, CEO of surfboard blank company Arctic Foam. “The oils being used were also coming up with some pretty soft foam — we didn’t think that was ultimately going to be what would marry oils from sustainable source with high performance."
Those sorts of shortcomings, whether aesthetic or performance-based, aren't an option for Arctic Foam, since the Southern California company's blanks will be shaped into boards for some of the world's best professional surfers.
In recent months, however, Lozano has found a reason to be more optimistic about the future of sustainable board design. An unexpected application for a commercial algae oil already on the market recently helped researchers in San Diego and surf industry veterans at Arctic Foam develop the world's first algae-based surfboard.
The implications of that material science breakthrough, coupled with much broader activity in plant-based bioresins, recycled materials and new types of supplier-manufacturer collaboration has the surf industry poised to catch an unprecedented wave of innovation — one which could also have big implications for a range of other industries, from food systems to renewable fuels to the shipping business.
“This is pretty dramatic," said Michael Stewart, co-founder of the independent nonprofit Sustainable Surf. "If the technology works — and from what we saw with the (algae) board they actually had — it looks like it’s basically the game changer that every one thought it was going to be."
An algae cultivator, a surf company and a team of Southern California academics might sound like the wind up for a bad joke about West Coast hippies. But that is the trio that unwittingly came together to create surfing's inaugural algae board, which was debuted in San Diego in late April.
"We were actually contacted. We had no idea this was going on," said Joseph Zwillinger, vice president of industrial products for micro algae purveyor Solazyme.
The 12-year-old California biotech company, which raised $145 million in funding before going public in mid-2011, was staying busy honing its algae-based renewable fuels and exploring how its algae oils might translate to other industries when they got a crash course in surfboard materials.
In early 2015, Lozano's team at Arctic Foam had approached materials science researchers at the University of California, San Diego, about teaming up to take another crack at sustainable surfboards.
"They had already made a new foam in the lab but didn't have a foam manufacturer," Lozano recalled of an initial conversation with Stephen Mayfield, a UCSD professor of biology and algae geneticist, who was interested in applying Solazyme's oils to polyurathane materials.
"The event itself is basically the only sort of surfboard manufacturer-specific trade show left," Stewart said. "It’s kind of the leading light of the brands and the manufacturers — the people who make the foams and the resins and fiberglass."
In another indication of the surfing industry's increasing interest in sustainability, Sustainable Surf for the first time this year oversaw the event's best in show awards. Arctic Foam nabbed the best sustainable advancement award for the algae board's potential to achieve scale that impacts the entire surfing business.
“Having this change on the foam blank side of things — it’s hard to overstate the importance of it," Stewart said. "Instead of working more on the margins or the specialty markets, this has the ability to get into the actual mainstream."
Part of the reason the material innovation could prove so important is the potential to be adapted with relative ease into existing supply chains and market structures. Polyurethane blanks like those made by Arctic foam make up about 70 percent of the surfboard market, and the shift to algae oil would really only entail replacing a single raw material.
"It really comes down to how much Solazyme charges them for the algae-based poly oils," Stewart said. "It’s one component with one price. They can source that just like anything else."
Arctic Foam's surfboard blanks, which it supplies to major brands like Lost and Rusty in addition to independent shapers, start at around $50 for basic off-the-shelf models and retail for $150 or more for higher-end versions. Lozano said Solazyme's costs are only marginally higher than its traditional petroleum suppliers.
"We’re still a bootstrapped company, so we’re very concerned about the cost," he said. "We’re thinking quite literally that the added cost to the end user is going to be somewhere south of $5."
One slightly less clear cut variable in the algae surfboard development process will be hammering out an intellectual property agreement with researchers at UCSD — a particularly timely question given the push currently underway by the California public university system to increasingly commercialize R&D work being done in campus labs.
Licensing agreements are fairly common with industrial innovations spawned by academic research, though University of California higher ups are also experimenting with new investment models being developed with the help of Silicon Valley investors. Lozano said Arctic Foam is in "ongoing conversations" with UCSD.
The company hopes to start selling blanks with the algae-based material in time for the company's busy pre-winter production run, when the waves get bigger and major stops on the professional world tour kick off. Arctic Foam also isn't just mulling one or two novelty eco board lines.
"Our goal is to replace everything with sustainable oils," Lozano said. "Within two years if anyone is still using petroleum-based polymers for their foam I’m going to be surprised. It’s just going to be that ubiquitous."
New value on dry land
Lozano's growth outlook for unconventional sustainable materials may sound ambitious, but the drivers behind his optimism are also spurring design teams and procurement officers in other industries to rethink their go-to materials.
“This microorganism has incredible breadth and applicability," Zwillinger said of Solazyme's lab-engineered micro algae.
The company started with a mission to supplant old-fashioned petroleum in the combustion process for industrial engines, which drew enough interest to secure investment from fossil fuel incumbents including Chevron. Newer potential market openings for the company range from triglyceride oils that could serve as a lower-cholesterol alternative to butter or other cooking oils or cosmetic applications, like soap made by Solazyme client Unilever.
Other tryglicerides, like palm oil, cocoa butter and coconut oil have turned into cash crops for developing nations in equatorial regions of the world, like Southeast Asia, Central Africa and South America — but the increased exports have also come at high social costs and helped accelerate mass deforestation.
"If you look at a map of the world 10 degrees North and South of the Equator, you have a high density of tropical rainforest that are very sensitive for climate issues and also very poor," Zwillinger said. "You get this mass of really significant environmental degradation, and you also have pretty bad exploitation of workers in the region."
Solazyme is also just one example of an advanced sustainable materials provider looking to navigate a very broad landscape of potential business opportunities.
Lozano from Arctic Foam also coyly notes that his company's foray into sustainable product design could have applications "for lots of stuff" in all sorts of industries. One natural progression for his company would be to move from the inside of the surfboard to the exterior materials used to finish blanks.
“We’re not looking at stopping with the foam," he said, adding that the company has already grown from selling about 45,000 blanks a year five year in 2007 to 85,000 this year. "We’re looking at having the whole board."
Already, a small but growing group of boutique bioresin companies, like Green Room Resin and Entropy, are working to develop a market for plant-based materials to coat surfboards, as opposed to traditional fiberglass or petroleum-based epoxy.
Should those companies decide to branch out if and when sales pick up, the current crop of surfing-specific sustainable resin providers would also likely be well positioned in the broader biocomposite sector.
Plastic alternatives are already drawing interest from the likes of automakers, the military and just about any kind of business seeking something other than plastic to package or ship its products.
Hitting the big time
For Stewart and Sustainable Surf Co-Founder Kevin Whilden, one particularly surreal moment in the last year cemented how far the surfing industry has come on sustainability.
It wasn't when Surfer magazine declared that "An Eco-Revolution is Upon Us" — though that was nice, too — but when the most famous surfer of all time, Kelly Slater, strode down the stairs toward the surf for his opening heat in one of the first world tour events of the season.
Emblazoned on Slater's board alongside myriad sponsor names was an Ecoboard project logo, denoting that the board made by long-time sponsor Channel Islands surfboards was up to the standards of Sustainable Surf.
"We were like 'Dude, look!" Stewart recalled. "We didn’t even actually try to make that happen. What we did was change the actual system, so that Channel Islands — which is his surfboard sponsor for more than 20 years — shifted their practices. It by default carries our logo."
For Stewart, the unexpected cameo on the world tour speaks volumes about both the logistical and marketing challenges of getting an entire industry to not only take sustainability seriously, but to then turn lofty rhetoric into action.
With Channel Islands, Stewart recalls the company “farming out” early lines with more sustainable epoxy resins. But the shaper based in Santa Barbara has since started its own operation to produce about 40 of the boards per week in the Southern California beach town.
“Surfboard margins are quite low,” Stewart said. “But they made the investment to actually build their own epoxy shop.”
Overall, the inventory of sustainable boards on the market has expanded from “maybe about 400 eco boards” in the mid-2000s to “about 22,000 for this year,” Stewart said.
Stewart and Whilden, who previously worked in consumer electronics manufacturing and geology, respectively, espouse a "science-based" approach to greening the sport. The three-year-old Ecoboard verification project established benchmarks for sustainable materials, like bio content of 15 percent or higher.
Perhaps most encouraging to the duo is how industry companies have chosen to run with the concept of sustainability in their own supply chains. In an example than transcends the surfing industry and illustrative of calls from leaders across the corporate sustainability spectrum, several surfboard materials companies have opted to both invest in new processes and collaborate where possible.
For example, Marko Foam, a blank company that has experimented with recycled EPS foams for years, had trouble establishing a steady supply of recycled material. Programs like Sustainable Surf’s Waste to Waves reuse campaign have helped that company and others, like Reef,more efficiently collect styrofoam from businesses or surf shop drop-offs:
Beyond the nitty gritty of manufacturing logistics and materials specifications, Stewart sees Sustainable Surf’s overall charge as shifting the narrative around sustainability to “the exact opposite of what the environmental movement and the environmental message has been,” he said.
“It was, you know, ‘You should be bummed and ashamed of what you’re doing.’ It’s going to suck and it won’t be any fun,” Stewart explained. “We said, ‘You know, if you blend the eye candy and the lifestyle appeal of surfing… what if you took that sort of vehicle and grafted sustainability onto it?”
The emphasis on a “deep blue lifestyle,” Stewart said, most resonates with a surfing audience because of the sport’s roots in Hawaiian permaculture, where daily lifestyles as a whole were more localized and sustainable.
Still, for all the historical resonance and narrative appeal of making surfing an icon of green recreation, Lozano insists that the sport's wave of green materials innovation comes down to business.
“It’s got to be commercial," he said. "We’re not just going to do this as an intellectual exercise."
Correction: A previous version of this article inaccurately described the origin of Solazyme's algae oils. The company's main main oil-producing microalgae strain dates back over a century to the sap of a species of chestnut tree.