The culture of surfing is awash in environmentalism. It has soul, it's connected to the natural rhythms of the earth, it has icons like Jack Johnson singing about reducing and reusing.
Beneath the mythical veneer, however, the business of surfing (worth $7 billion annually) is big business. So it has all the usual problems - and then some - as it looks to live up to its eco-friendly image. Most major surf brands realize sustainability is core to their business, but they're just starting toward a fully integrated sustainability strategy.
For companies that want to futureproof their brand, this is a lucrative, untapped area of opportunity. The only catch is, surfing's sustainable transformation has a 'chicken and egg' problem. Consumers have few options to buy sustainable products, and manufacturers are reluctant to create such products because of perceived lack of interest and fears over lower profits.
This is the sort of issue you'd expect in the spotlight at Sustainable Brands '12, a conference that brings together sustainability and business leaders at the crest of the CSR wave. True to form, it was the Sustainable Brands team that introduced me to Kevin Whilden and Michael Stewart, the founders of non-profit Sustainable Surf. Whilden and Stewart will be paneling an SB'12 discussion with leaders of surf companies exploring profitable, sustainable transformation for their industry.
'It's the worst kept secret in surfing that making a typical surfboard involves a fairly toxic stew of petrochemical materials' says Stewart.
'But we can change that by working together. And if we can succeed at transforming the surfboard building industry into a sustainable model, it can be a catalyst for spurring the larger surf apparel businesses to follow suit.'
Inspired By Front Load Washers
As it turns out, Whilden and Stewart have a proven track record of market transformation in the energy efficiency and appliance world. It's this experience they're applying to surfing products.
'The energy efficiency industry uses market transformation, which is an advanced technique to create lasting change in how people use energy' says Whilden, who used to work at the Energy Trust of Oregon.
He believes one of the best (and most transferable) examples of this is washing machines.
In 1997, highly efficient front loaders were practically invisible in the US northwest. Sales were stuck at barely 3%, despite superior performance and lower overall costs.
Then a Portland-based NGO called the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (NEEA) started a market transformation program called WashWise. By targeting the most important sales barriers, the NGO helped market share jump to 13% in a year, and rise to 18% over a three-year period .
Following this, a federal law was created that raised the minimum efficiency bar for all US washing machines by 35%. NEEA's WashWise was key to the success of the law, having torn down the market barriers to more efficient technology.
All this refuted a long-standing industry lobby argument that energy efficiency standards would be bad for business. In fact, they became such believers that washing machine industry groups actually fought an attempt by the George W Bush administration to roll back appliance efficiency standards.
The Surfing Transformation Plan
Fast forwarding to surfboards, I learned Stewart and Whilden already have their transformation tactics mapped out.
Step 1. Educate And Engage
The first step in any market transformation plan is identifying major barriers, and how to get around them. 'Engagement and education are key,' says Stewart. 'Most surfers don't know sustainable surfboard materials even exist, while surfboard makers don't have enough experience with these newer materials to trust their performance.'
As a first step to engaging surfers in the transformation plan, Stewart and Whilden have launched a program called Waste To Waves. W2W encourages surfers to gather up expanded polystyrene foam - aka EPS or styrofoam - from waste packaging, and bring it to their local surf shop, where it gets collected in W2W branded bins. It's then picked up and recycled into new EPS material, which is bought by surfboard core manufacturers to make new, recycled surfboard cores. These 'blanks' - which have a ~50% reduced CO2 footprint - can be used by top shapers to create a complete, high-performance surfboard.
'Getting surfers personally involved in the whole recycling process has proven to be be a big success' says Whilden. 'Showing them how that material can end up back in a new surfboard that they purchase is revelatory for newbies and pros alike'.
No market transformation program can operate without good data on the status of the market and how it behaves and evolves. Sustainable Surf recently conducted research that shows 97% of the participants in W2W would prefer a recycled foam foam board for their next purchase. 'Ultimately, we are trying to show the industry quantitative proof that demand for sustainable surfboards is growing rapidly, so more surfboard makers offer it to customers' says Whilden.
Step 2. Build Acceptance
Alongside education and engagement, acceptance of the new materials by manufacturers is another major market barrier.
A few years ago, there was a push toward sustainable materials in surfboards, but the technology wasn't mature and the end product underperformed. This created skepticism in the market.
The new materials perform much better; even pro surfers can't tell the difference. Now, legendary shapers like Santa Cruz based Bill 'Stretch' Riedel and San Clemente's Timmy Patterson are starting to put their name on surfboards made from these more sustainable materials.
Based on that, major surf brands are starting to pay attention, and are now encouraging their sponsored pros to give these new materials a try.
Step 3. Certify And Incentivize
Are consumers getting extra value from their new boards? Stewart, who previously developed verification and certification programs for consumer products at stalwart organizations like Underwriters Laboratories, believes so.
In fact, Sustainable Surf is ramping up to launch the ECOBOARD Project, which will include a website designed to educate and connect surfers and board builders, as well as a third party eco-label for qualified surfboards - a first for the surfboard industry.
'Surfers, like anybody else, want to know the products they buy actually bring a meaningful benefit to the environment and human health. Other consumer products - including washing machines - are covered by the Energy Star label, an authoritative stamp of approval from the EPA' says Stewart. 'We're not at that level yet, but with the ECOBOARD project, we are developing a minimum benchmark of more sustainable materials for use in surfboards. This will be coupled with a consumer facing eco-label for boards to verify the use of those materials by the board builder.'
As the program develops in the future, a robust standard will be created, which surfboards - as well as other surf gear - could be certified against. 'That's the ultimate game changing path for surfboards' says Stewart, 'and we see it as a matter of when - not if.'
The ECOBOARD Project uses incentives to help build customer demand in the early stages of the program. Each purchased ECOBOARD has a unique serial number, which can be registered on Sustainable Surf's website for a chance to win brand name gear. The approach enables Sustainable Surf to accurately track how many ECOBOARDs are purchased each year, providing useful data to present to potential partners.
These incentives are great to kickstart the program, but they ultimately don't need to be a permanent element in the surf industry transformation. 'Financial incentives are useful at certain moments, but their importance is often over-estimated' says Whilden. 'The WashWise program actually stopped giving cash-back rebates in the third year, and sales only dipped by a tiny amount. By then, the market was transforming on its own.'
The key is understanding the market barriers, so proper incentives are applied at the proper time. 'Our market research strongly suggests that demand for ECOBOARDs will grow rapidly because many surfers feel it's the right thing to buy, and performance is on par with the more toxic-materials-based counterparts' says Whilden.
Lessons For Transformers
So how to effect that market transformation? Here are a few takeaways from Stewart and Whilden.
- Determine if the market is actually ready to transform.
Does the sustainable technology make good sense to consumers?
Can it compete in terms of performance and durability?
Is the manufacturing capacity available?
- Identify market barriers, and determine if they're consumer-driven, manufacturer-driven, or both.
- Map out how to reduce those barriers through education, marketing and incentives.
- Connect product with consumers, then evaluate sales performance.
- Develop sustainability benchmarks, and create a seal of approval designate preferred options in the market.
- Update program techniques rapidly through continuous market evaluation.