by Marc Stoiber
GLOBE-Net, May 28, 2012 - 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
"It's the worst kept secret in surfing that making a typical
surfboard involves a fairly toxic stew of petrochemical materials"
"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
"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.
WashWise proved that consumer demand
could grow rapidly with education and incentives, that consumers
wanted machines that cleaned better and saved them money, and
retailers and manufacturers welcomed the opportunity to make higher
profits on more expensive machines.
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
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
"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"
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
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
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
The surfing lifestyle is
strongly connected to environmentally responsible consumption,
provided the knowledge and opportunities are there. Once the
program becomes established, this sense of community will provide a
stronger motivation than money.
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.
1. Determine if the market is actually ready to
Does the sustainable technology make good sense to
Can it compete in terms of performance and durability?
Is the manufacturing capacity available?
2. Identify market barriers, and determine if they're
consumer-driven, manufacturer-driven, or both.
3. Map out how to reduce those barriers through education,
marketing and incentives.
4. Connect product with consumers, then evaluate sales
5. Develop sustainability benchmarks, and create a seal of
approval designate preferred options in the market.
6. Update program techniques rapidly through continuous
About Marc Stoiber - Marc Stoiber is a creative
director, writer, innovator and green brand specialist. He consults
with clients across North America. He also speaks and blogs
extensively on trends that will influence the destiny of today's
brands. View all posts by Marc Stoiber →