Original article published 2 October, 2021
[10 minute read]
Could the humble surfboard provide a design template to inspire areas outside of the surfing world? Will history reflect on surfboard creators of this era as pioneers in successful experimentation with materials? Our latest article digs deeper with exclusive contributions from surfboard experts around the world who responded to our call for opinions on this topic.
There's a growing feeling of peer pressure (for some it's excitement) creeping into the minds of those working in the surfboard industry, because who wouldn't want to be first in creating the ultimate planet-friendly, mass-produced surfboard. The rise of the Eco-Board is upon us and there's no turning back.
Sustainability standards in surfing started small and was mostly driven by US-based pioneers Sustainable Surf who formed in 2011 and are still doing stellar work. Fast forward a decade and there's no escape from the green movement. It's becoming an essential arm of every major surf brand, and if you haven't jumped onboard then you've already lost ground. The passion and pace of this shift could be due to a multitude of reasons: consumer and market demands, peer pressure, media messages on climate change, concerns for future generations, or a sum of all those parts. Regardless, it's here to stay.
Let's rewind a little. It's fairly well known in the surfboard industry that materials and technologies haven't changed much in the decades following the late 1950s. The turn of the century brought new challenges, mainly in the form of tougher environmental regulations. Clark Foam, the global market leaders of polyurethane foam surfboard blanks (the central foam core) was facing increasing pressure from stringent California State and Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards. Clark Foam closed in 2005 and it rocked production lines around the world and forced new ways of thinking.
There's a recurring debate in the inner circles of surfing regarding any potential regulation of surfboard components (in an environmental context) which has been highlighted recently in this recent article by Varuna Surf, in which comparisons are made to the steps taken in Formula 1 motor racing.
Damien Cole, Co-Founder of Varuna Surf, Australia:
"We're in a really critical time in history in terms of the way we, as a collective, produce and consume our goods, and the surfing industry is no exception. Surfing’s dirty little secret is that the majority of our industry is an outdated and toxic one. Considering we've been shaping boards using the same toxic and oil-based process for over 75 years, we're overdue for a serious overhaul. But the beauty of the 21st century is that innovation is around every corner and we're starting to see it in surfboard manufacturing.
We’ve seen surfing launched into the mainstream over the last few years, leading to a massive increase in surfboards and surf accessories. This has inevitably led to surfing's traditionally small “backyard industry” to become a huge environmental problem, which has meant surfers now face a strange paradox. On the one hand, feeling that connection to our oceans, beaches and planet every time we sit out the back waiting for a wave, taking in the magic around us. On the other hand, we are part of the problem as we continue to buy more toxic boards, more toxic surf products and more toxic wetsuits.
Thankfully, as surfers we have a chance to lead the charge in planet-first practices and have the most to benefit from it too. We're finding that natural materials perform just as well, if not better, than their oil-based counterparts so long as you can get a little creative with design. So excitingly enough, this trajectory has every opportunity to change the landscape of business beyond surfing. However, this is happening incrementally and usually from select individuals and businesses who are passionate about protecting our oceans.
What we need is larger, influential surfing organisations like the World Surf League (WSL), Channel Islands and Lost to take a leap and lead the charge in our sustainable revolution by overhauling their manufacturing processes and having a minimum sustainable requirement for their athletes’ equipment. With the impending climate crisis on our hands, it’s critical that every single decision we make as individuals and as a growing surf community prioritizes the planet first and foremost, so that future generations enjoy the feeling of sharing waves with friends at their local spot, just like we’ve all been so fortunate to have done."
Is there another global sport or activity - other than surfing - that's so intrinsically connected to the ocean? Perhaps we're biased as surfers, but it does seem like we spend more time in the sea than anyone else. The sustainability movement is being passionately driven by those in the surfing world who are ready to take that connection to the next level. As you read this, there are tremendous efforts in innovation coming out of France, where a number of forward-thinking surf brands have spent the past few years pumping out exciting surfboards packed with green features, using experimental materials and new manufacturing methods.
Collaborations can combine specialty fields and help speed up a transition to a place where niche materials are more widely adopted. Joint projects naturally have the benefits of reaching a wider audience by merging networks, but also demonstrates a collective solidarity and type of behaviour that the world is arguably in need of right now. A promising collaboration caught the eye in Europe last month in which YUYO Surfboards (France) combined with R*Concept (Spain) and Basaltex (Belgium) to create a stunning surfboard (see below) made with a 3D-printed core of recycled PET plastic, a basalt cloth and finished with a plant-based resin that can be recycled. 3D-printed cores (without foam) is a trend we're seeing more of from the likes of YUYO and Wyve (both France) and Lucid Rides (USA), all of whom we've chatted with recently, in a bid to learn about developments happening at the junction between technological advances and sustainability. The possibilities with one-piece, 3D-printed products (outside of surfing) is limitless. Recycling becomes problematic when different materials are blended, so the notion of a product being made from one material, all of a sudden makes recycling easier. For example, this shoe by Adidas does exactly that.
Romain Paul - YUYO Surfboards, France:
"Thanks to their special relationship with the oceans, most surfers are highly concerned about sustainability and environmental issues. This encourages new developments towards sustainability in surfboard manufacturing - such as recycled and bio-sourced materials, zero waste policies and local production."
When it comes to taking the necessary steps to move forwards as a shaper, California-based Ashley Lloyd sources her EPS (Expanded Polystyrene) blanks from Marko Foam that contains recycled material. Ashley also deals with US Blanks, who use solar energy to power their factory. For the glassing process, she uses Entropy Bio-Resin, a plant-based epoxy. Flax cloth, a feature that's becoming more common in the industry for its green credentials and performance qualities, helps her to replicate the weight and feel of a traditional longboard and eliminate the need for fibreglass.
Ashley Lloyd, Ashley Lloyd Surfboards, USA:
"Surfing in general has always been a place where practice and experimentation with our creations come together beautifully. In surfboard shaping, it is a practice. I pre-meditate what I am going to shape and do my best to obtain that goal, while putting on the edge of vulnerability - the idea that you never truly know how it will work and make your soul feel, until you begin the process. I believe that other places of manufacturing could look to what lights-up people. The makers, the consumer, what feels good? And who is behind it? Why are we doing it?"
A raft of modern-day technologies has come from military applications and space travel, which bodes well for this inspired-by-surfboards narrative. Radars, computers, and microwaves (in the literal sense) are technologies developed for, and during, World War II. Not to mention the medical advances of that tragic period, with the introduction of penicillin, anti-bacterial treatments and vast improvements in blood transfusions and skin grafts. Space travel on the other hand, has provided technological introductions such as air purifying technologies, anti-icing measures (now used on trains), virtual reality and even MRI scanning. With these examples in mind, let's nominate the surfing industry - namely surfboard designers and shapers - to take on a responsibility (and privilege) to be referred-to in the history books as pioneers and catalysts for positive change.
If surfboards can inspire the world, look no further than a small island off the north-west coast of France. There's a fascinating case study in alternative, organic materials that's modestly taking place in Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands in the UK. The stars aligned when Hervé Surfboards and Charlie Cadin, both based in Jersey, joined forces with Sustainable Surf in order to pioneer what could be a world-first surfboard made with seaweed foam. Charlie's no stranger to seaweed after winning the Vissla and Surfrider Creators & Innovators Upcycling Contest in 2020 with a different variation of seaweed surfboard. It's worth noting that seaweed is often a problematic issue in Jersey, where tractors will rake beaches to collect it. This new type of eco-foam could be applied outside of surfing in literally any situation where the usual suspects (polyurethane or polystyrene foam) is found. The potential here is massive.
Charlie Cadin, Cadin Surfboards, Jersey, Channel Islands.
"I definitely think the materials in sustainable surfboards are pretty transferable, and it would be cool to see flax and other natural fibres and resins used in the boating and marine industry, especially as they use huge volumes of materials. I feel like all it would take is for one team to change what they are doing, then the whole culture of boat design would change with it."
[Discussing his latest seaweed foam surfboard]:
"The board is made with a seaweed-based foam blank that I’ve made, with a laminate stringer made from masks. The seaweed foam is still a serious work in progress, and I'm just trying to make it more consistent and predictable to shape."
If a path forward for humanity involves renewable, plant-based materials rather than non-renewable oil-based forms, then surfboards of the future could have an expiration date due to the organic properties involved. This is already happening elsewhere, thanks to German designer, Laura Muth, who's created a revolutionary shoe made from hemp and dandelions. Every part of this shoe is home compostable and is made with regional, modular materials that can be freely combined and switched. Check out this fascinating short video to learn more.
This is a concept we've been exploring here at Wave Changer ever since we formed. Expiration dates on products due to their natural materials, just like food items in the supermarket. Combine this with an appealing returns scheme and a suitable disposal plan, both need to be clear and simple for the consumer to ensure it's a realistic transaction. Financial incentives (to return products) seem to be necessary if the modern consumer is to comply. If systems of reward ensure that we take the depletion of our natural resources seriously, then so be it.
Mobilising a functional relationship with nature, chiefly by using natural materials, is enhanced by integrating locally sourced materials and engaging local community members. The aforementioned Varuna Surf is a shining light with their refreshing approach to surfboard production. They use permaculture methods to plant balsa trees in tandem with native plant species. It only takes four years for balsa to fully mature, so once it’s harvested, the native plants are left behind to flourish and thrive. This regenerative practice leaves behind a restored ecosystem rich in biodiversity, generating economy for local farmers, encouraging self-reliance and advocating sustainable practices. Impressive stuff.
Timber surfboards have been around since the very beginning of surfing, so it's no surprise to see a renewed interest in the type of surf craft that have been reliable for centuries. Donald Brink, of Brink Surf and Vissla Creators & Innovators, is touted as the 'Surfboard Scientist' due to his intense relationship and devotion to materials and progressive designs. Do yourself a favour and find ten minutes to enjoy this wonderful short film in which Donald recreates a hand-built wooden craft from generations past.
Donald Brink, Brink Surf, South Africa / USA.
"Building boards start to finish everyday has me involved and fascinated by every element with great delight. I still think the process is extremely archaic. Forming a soft core and skinning with a durable composite. We are a small industry and always borrow tech elements from overlap communities. Aerospace and boat building are prominent examples. I dream of a single material that is shape-able and tune-able. Imagine a future where you work with a shaper and have a mobile bay refining rails at the beach with direct feedback and immediate change. A hard, waterproof, flex-correct and recyclable product. Shape, paint or not, and surf. Once we get there, then it’s clear other industries will benefit."
Rodrigo Matsuda, Lasca Woodworks, Japan / Brazil:
"I think the manufacturing of surfboards can contribute vastly to other areas outside of our industry. I strongly believe in the importance of a well-planned product life cycle. Raw material origin, the production of the surfboards, correct maintenance, durability, suitable disposal and ultimately caring for the natural environment because we depend on nature - so that we can always surf. We cannot just think about production, we have to think about everything around us. Living and loving what you do can change the world."
The problem with timber surfboards, for now, is that they presently do not match the performance qualities of a traditional PU or EPS foam and fibreglass board that's used in elite contests. However, that could change as we experience fast-paced developments in material science and a return to natural materials.
We can identify two standout areas to address in all forms of manufacturing (in a sustainability context), and that is to make best use of plastic (and also other, not-so-planet-friendly materials) that are already in circulation, such as the YUYO surfboard project, but also simultaneously develop and rollout plant-based materials and alternatives to petroleum-derived products, as per the Varuna Surf model. And let's not forget our emotional connection to surfboards - or any product that we create and consume - which reminds us of Ashley Lloyd's philosophy on providing something that lights-up the user, harnessing a sense of emotional connection to your purchase.
A final reminder to continue fueling enjoyment levels while developing ideas. Opportunities from start-up and design contests provide participants a platform to build from. Capitalise on the abundance of art, music and diversity from around the world and keep the door open to collaborations - as there is so much to learn from other industries, cultures and ideas outside of our bubble. Hopefully the surfing world can return the favour. Innovators in the surf industry - as featured in this article and beyond - are demonstrating such a high standard of ideas that it will come as no surprise if other industries take a peek into the shaping bay.
Thank you to Damien Cole, Romain Paul, Ashley Lloyd, Charlie Cadin, Donald Brink and Rodrigo Matsuda for your valuable contributions. Love your work.
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