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1 Jun

Surfing and Sustainability

by Sam Bleakley

Multi coloured softech surfboards in a surf rack at the Wave inland surfing lake in Bristol

Sustainability is a central pillar to a resilient and healthy surfing future. But what does ‘sustainability’ mean to us as surfers? To find out more about the relationship between surfing and sustainability we caught up with two leading voices: blue heath activist, multiple Irish champion and marine social scientist, Dr Easkey Britton, and Adam Hall from North Devon, who is Head of Sustainability at the online action sports retailer, Surfdome.

When did the relationship between surfing and sustainability become something important to you?

Easkey Britton: The connection really started as a kid growing up surfing in Ireland as I began to appreciate the interdependence between being in the ocean and my own ability to sustain my health and wellbeing. Starting to surf professionally around the world was a big eye opener as I began seeing the lack of environmental awareness at professional surfing contests and on surf media shoots.

So my first boat trip to the Mentawai’s in Indonesia was both an incredible experience and a challenge as I quickly saw the lack of awareness about sustainability in surf tourism, and the lack of space to question the impact surf tourism was having. Many of these impacts where clearly negative. It felt very extractive going into a place, getting the media material, and then selling it to the surf brands and magazines. This didn't feel very sustainable because there was limited interaction with local communities and local environments in a positive way. It was clearly unhealthy and was certainly going to become a problem, especially since it wasn't welcomed to question the shady side, or the dark underbelly, of the surf industry.

Adam Hall: I've worked in the surf industry for a long time, and seeing the sheer scale of unnecessary plastic packaging - from huge warehouses to shop delivery - really fired me up. Of course climate change and biodiversity loss are the much bigger issues, but waste packaging is the most visually impactful element, while the carbon footprint of products is more hidden. That built up my awareness of the contrast between the way we project the positives of surfing in clean environments, and the realities of the ‘dirty’ side of the industry.

It all came to a head on a trip to Panaitan Island in Indonesia, which is a World Heritage site with amazing waves like One Palm. The shoreline was filled with two to three feet of plastic! We couldn't see other humans, but the consequence of overconsumption was right there in the microplastics and the waste along the beach. That experience really inspired me to be a leader in the surf industry to develop more sustainable practises.

I started working for Surfdome, and when we sponsored the Global Wave Conference in 2015, there were a lot of great speakers, but on the environmental topics Easkey Britton stood out. She gave the audience time to reflect on our work and impact. She paused and said ‘give yourself five minutes to think about some goal setting’. I was sitting with my boss and wrote down the goal to ‘be the world’s first plastic free company’. That was the start of the journey, and by 2019 we reached 99.81% plastic free packaging.

How do you define ‘sustainability’?

Easkey Britton: Essentially it's about the ability to sustain. However it feels quite hard to attach as much meaning to the word now because it's such an over-used term. At the moment ‘sustainable’ feels more in the past tense because we have overshot so many of those opportunities for ‘sustainability’. So now I'm more drawn to terms like ‘regeneration’ and ‘restoration’ as ways we can restore, heal and regenerate our environments and surfing spaces both physically and mentally and culturally.

Adam Hall: It’s about using resources without taking away from future generations. I believe that our generation is a vital stepping stone to the next generation. It's important to remember that we cannot always achieve perfection, but if we don’t do something, then stagnation happens. So we must always strive to tackle things step-by-step and leave the planet in a better situation for future generations. If I'm not making a difference, I'm not interested. That's my passion. I want my kids to grow up in a better place

What examples are you seeing of both bad and good practices of sustainability in surfing?

Easkey Britton: I think it's definitely unsustainable to put the economic first. It’s much more important to value communities, environment and health in equal measure. There are so many beautiful elements of surfing, but I think with regards to environmental sustainability, ocean conservation is so much about cultural preservation. There are many examples of the negative cultural impacts from mass surf tourism by transposing western ideologies on to areas where local grassroots surfers then struggle to develop ocean conservation. One place that is doing this really well is Papua New Guinea. Here the development of surf tourism is not top-down, but bottom-up and community centred. It integrates local values and local cultures, and also helps to bring positive qualities to the forefront, like the role of women in the ‘pink nose revolution’ where women are given a stronger voice through access to surfboards (sprayed pink on the nose) and a shared place in the line-up.

Beyond this there are also so many great examples of water therapy around the world, like Waves for Change and I Am Water in South Africa and Liquid Therapy here in Ireland, who I do a lot of work with. Integrating the physical and mental in these ways is such a great way to improve the health and resilience of surf communities, and I think a lot of this work showcases the best examples of sustainable practice in surfing.

Adam Hall: The environment always comes first because without a functioning environment everything else is built on sand. There is a climate emergency, so first we’ve got to fix the leak, but we've also got to look at the entire system. I think the toxic materials that surfboards and wetsuits are usually made from is a big problem. So I believe that the epoxy revolution for surfboard equipment is really important because it's a more durable material and can be combined with other bio-materials and less carbon-intensive manufacturing. But it’s so important that we research, develop and support more sustainable and longer lasting materials that have low carbon impacts. Yulex - which is a naturally grown rubber - is a fantastic step for wetsuits. And so many surf companies are now using biodegradable or recyclable packaging. Also the products themselves are becoming more sustainable. It’s about supporting the circular economy, which is not just recycling, but using renewables and keeping products in use through repair.

I think it’s really important to recognise the power brands have. Business is a fast route to change, often quicker than government, and of course societal change, which can be much slower. In my role working for an online action sports retailer we know we can take action. Plans alone can be hot air, so we try to find the most innovative ways to reduce the greatest amount of carbon emissions possible (we’ve reduced our carbon emissions by 93.5% since 2018) and steer consumers and brands towards more sustainable practises. And as a business that acts, in 2015 in just one quarter we made a 75% reduction in our plastic packaging. We made that decision and we acted quickly. Yet 70% of global carbon emissions are still from the business sector, so business must act fast to change this, and that’s a huge step towards bigger systemic change that can be helped by voting the right people in power.

What can we do as surfers to become more sustainable?

Easkey Britton: As a consumer I think it's important to choose equipment that is durable and going to last and be maintained. So learning to take care of your equipment is really important. But many surf communities are already leading environmentalists, so it's important to get engaged with your local communities because they are already doing impactful global work, like Surfers Against Sewage and Save The Waves. Organisations and influencers with power within surfing can also do so much more to celebrate diversity and support grassroots developments. I am seeing the surf therapy projects thriving at the moment and becoming more mainstream. And what's key is developing a level of ocean literacy and awareness to be embedded in these from the beginning. If surfers and water users start to think like this, then themes of sustainability come naturally and organically, and communities not only get that good feeling from surfing, but a deeper ocean connection, and a demand for ocean preservation.

Adam Hall I think the first thing to do is pause. For every decision you make there is a more sustainable choice. Pausing and thinking twice should be ingrained into our mentality. Every consumer decision is a form of voting that supports something. So why not vote well and support the right things, the right products, the right brands that you believe are doing good work. And when it comes to surf travel, I think it’s important to try to travel less, but for longer, storing up your holidays so you take less flights, but develop a better connection with the places you visit. There are a lot of ways to look at how sustainable a surf tourism offer is now, such as the STOKE (Sustainable Tourism and Outdoors Kit for Evaluation) certification, which has been developed to measure how surf and snow tourism performs with reference to carbon footprint, local impact and waste management.

Beyond this it’s good to get involved in charities, join a beach clean, and make your local MP aware of the challenges your surfing environment is facing. You have to stand up. We have so much more power in our society than many other parts of the world. We are blessed with this voice, so we can then influence other areas on our behalf in coastal regions that don't have as much political power at grassroots level. I think we need to protect our surfs zones by supporting schemes like World Surfing Reserves and National Surfing Reserves. This isn't about increasing crowds, but managing places well and using education, awareness and guidance to attract people from all backgrounds to care about places. Be vocal, get up and get involved.