Original article published 5 August, 2020
[5-10 minute read]
Something exciting is happening in France. Look closely and you’ll see teams of forward-thinking surfboard creators who are ready to challenge the status quo for the benefit of Planet Earth. We asked the same five questions to the brains behind three leading French surf innovators: NOTOX, Wyve Surf and YUYO, to reveal their thoughts on industry hurdles, their predictions for the future, and who or what inspires them.
What would you like the global surf industry to look like in five years from now?
Mylène Wang – Wyve: We think the surf industry will keep growing because people realise how outdoor sports can improve their physical and psychological health. So we want surfing to be a more accessible passion for humans in all their diversity. We truly believe that the global surf industry can be a true example, and even a leader, for sustainable innovation and performance. This implies more Research + Development and a more local supply chain in the surf industry. In 5 years from now, we can already act upon a lot of these topics! (as well as making France win the Olympics with our best surfers).
Louise Dever – NOTOX: A minimum wage for the workers. Recognition the worker is handling flammable and carcinogenic materials.
Pierre Pomiers – NOTOX: The surf industry has to abandon the abnormal benefits it makes over the exploitation of low cost countries; these are places that can hardly deal with adequate worker’s health and security as well as the production waste. And as consumers, we all have to get used to paying the real price for our toys if we expect things to evolve in the right direction for our own future, because we need Mother Earth more than she needs us.
Romain Paul – YUYO: With more than 5% of global sales, France is the third largest boardsports market in the world. Now 70% of the members of the EuroSima (the European Surf Industry Manufacturers Association) is made up of very small businesses. This shows how the big historical players are being challenged by small and local initiatives. This goes along with a change in consumption habits: customers are looking to make a more conscious purchase and have products that make sense. This is how we would like this industry to look in five years from now: small scale and sustainable businesses; run by people who care about human beings and natural ecosystems. This change is already happening but we need to stick together. All of us who commit for a greener surf industry: we need to unite and act as a global collective.
In your opinion, what is the biggest hurdle stopping Eco Boards and Eco-friendly materials from becoming mainstream and more widely adopted?
Sylvain Fleury – Wyve: I think that Eco-boards are going to be mainstream if they can compete with traditional surfboards. That means being high-performance, affordable and manufactured in a scalable way at the same time. For now, young companies are not mature enough to gather these three elements and historical companies have no interest, nor the resources, to transform their value chain.
There is still confusion about eco-friendly equipment. Some people will judge the materials, while others will evaluate the durability of the board. There is a need to communicate about the whole lifecycle of the products. I think people would be more inclined to buy eco-friendly products when we are able to involve them in the life cycle (i.e. showing them the manufacturing process, offering recycling solutions etc.)
Pierre – NOTOX: It is simple: visit Alibaba manufacturer's page and you will see that, as a "traditional" brand or shop, you can buy customized surfboards for roughly 100€ (AU$165 / US$120) and sell them for roughly 500 to 600€ (five to six times more). There’s no way to maintain such indecent margins with more eco-friendly materials or more sustainable processes. So, let us say that mass retail is the key problem, because it forces all of the manufacturers’ population to keep cost as low as possible in order to have a chance to compete. In our case, we sell direct and no problem, we spend a lot on a conscious way to build boards and we manage to live.
Romain – YUYO: The adoption of new technologies in the surf industry is a very slow process. Most surfboards are built today with the same materials that were used in the 1960’s. It’s hard to say if this is a matter of trust, tradition or just a consequence of globalisation and big business. What we know is that the surfing world is very community-based. This makes it harder for new ideas to make their way. The price is another big issue. You can’t compare the cost structure of a local business in France making custom sustainable surfboards with a big manufacturer producing numerous series of boards in a country with cheap labor force. Finally, the access to information is essential to raise awareness. Still very few people know what their surfboard is made of and in what conditions it is built.
Louise – NOTOX: The consumer has been conditioned to pay less for a board that can be thrown away. When the consumer is happy to pay more, the worker is happy to accept more money and will value themselves more. When the manufacturer starts charging more they can start purchasing 'fair materials' that are more expensive.
Could you see a future where surfboards are made locally to reduce the carbon footprint from offshore manufacturing?
Pierre – NOTOX: Yes definitely: it is what we are doing with Lou (Louise Dever) and NOTOX Australia. Our products are reaching the highest eco-board standards, but is it a solution to compromise those eco benefits to allow global shipping of those boards? No! That's why we are involved in training local people to manufacture – strictly following our patented standards – and make locally what is sold locally: it seems so obvious but trust me – that relies on requiring a lot of energy from both sides.
Romain – YUYO: This is the present for us! This is what our workshop in Montpellier is all about. We do everything here: conception, design, manufacturing and sales. We have rethought the whole process of building a surfboard to make it as sustainable as possible. We use only recycled or natural materials, we have chosen our suppliers as close as possible, we produce almost no waste thanks to additive manufacturing, everything is made on demand without stock and we handle the end-of-life of our products. Concerning the recycled plastic we use, we will soon produce it ourselves internally with locally collected plastic trash. This is the big project we are working on right now. Our plan is then to duplicate this micro-manufacturing facility in other places where there is surf and plastic trash (and there’s a lot). So yes we do believe that a shift is operating in the industry nowadays from big centralized offshore production sites to small manufacturing facilities answering local needs in a more sustainable way.
Louise – NOTOX: Yes. However, we need to be able to source the materials locally. Australia is so invested in the cotton industry they cannot afford to make the change to growing more sustainable crops, such as flax or cork.
Mylène – Wyve: Of course, we really believe in the local model. For now we have built our first micro-factory in Biarritz, but to efficiently reduce our carbon footprint, we cannot produce in the same place for people living far from France. This is why our goal is to build micro-factories close to the main surf spots, in order to print our surfboards close to our clients. It is also a way to create great jobs for passionate surfers, which results in better quality.
Who has been your biggest inspiration in your journey so far?
Mylène – Wyve: We are very inspired by sustainable brands in the outdoor sport industry such as Patagonia and Picture Organic Clothing.
Romain – YUYO: Surfers are our main source of inspiration. Stéphane Iralour for instance, the pioneer big wave surfer from the Basque Country, inspires us a lot. He believed in our project from the very beginning and his advice has proven to be more than valuable! Apart from Stéphane, every surfer who has tested our boards, whether they are a pro or amateur, has provided us with precious feedback and insights. This gives us faith, credit and helps us continually improve our boards.
The people we work with are also a great source of inspiration. We share our workshop with friends working in very different sectors (cooks, sound engineers, logisticians) but with the same human and environmental convictions. And finally, some brands like Patagonia or Picture Organic also inspire us and show us alternative and sustainable ways.
Louise – NOTOX: Ha, no one. I look at the people as a whole and see we are stuck. I am inspired by the failings of the people as a whole. What I find inspirational is when someone accepts receipt of higher payment and feeling valued.
Pierre – NOTOX: I would say Yvon Chouinard (Patagonia founder) inspired me at the beginning, but ultimately all entrepreneurship stories are so different that we had to find our own way and to believe in it, never changing it such as many opportunist brands. The result today is that we are now the inspiration for some people, but what give us real pride is because it confirms that our way of behaving is positively impacting the future... so let's stay humble and as "true" as possible.
Final question... which can include anything, with or without surfing. What one invention or idea have you seen recently that gives you hope for the future of Planet Earth?
Louise – NOTOX: All of the small changes people have been making, e.g. KeepCups, bamboo take-away cutlery, rye drinking straws, cloth shopping bags and electric bicycles.
Sylvain – Wyve: The organization called Precious Plastic definitely gives me hope for the future! Thanks to simple low-tech processes and their huge community of makers, thousands of people are making high-value products from plastic waste. For me it is one of the best examples of collective intelligence serving the circular economy.
Romain – YUYO: I recently had a chat with Ruben Verdadeiro who created Eco Pro Traction Pads made of cork in Portugal. Cork is 100% natural, elastic, impermeable, lightweight, biodegradable, reusable and recyclable. An eco-friendly alternative to EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate) commonly used to make traction pads.
What Ruben has done is great and this is a perfect example of combination between eco-conception, breakthrough innovation, performance and design. No doubt that we will see more and more of his products in most surf shops around the world.
Pierre – NOTOX: Probably the hardest step to reach (but also the most promising) is "global frugality" and "a huge evolution speed decrease". What do we really need? More smartphones? More crap food? More useless gadgets? More air travel and holidays in tourist hot-spots? No: we “just” need to live healthy and happy. All of that is up to each one of us; and this is our most powerful solution.
Merci pour l'interview Mylène, Louise, Romain, Pierre and Sylvain.
Inspired? Re-thinking your next surfboard purchase? Check out the links below to find out more…