Sustainable Surfboards - Results

10 Oct 2007 0 Share

1.0 Introduction
2.0 Methodology
3.0 Results
4.0 Discussion
5.0 Conclusions

3.0 Results

3.1 Surfer Survey Results
Fifty surfers were surveyed on their surfing habits, experience, surfboard buying habits, awareness of the environmental impacts of surfboard construction, and their interest in an E-F SB. These surveys were conducted on the beaches and beach parking lots around Byron Bay and in the parking lot of Noosa Heads. Of the 50 surfers surveyed, 46 of 50 claimed to surf at least 1-3 times per month. The average number of boards owned was 3.37, and the average price paid for a surfboard was $507.83.

3.1.1 Awareness of Environmental Impacts

More than half of surfers surveyed indicated they were “aware of any environmental issues in regards to surfboard construction.” The responses to this question were further analysed by surfing experience. See Figure 4.

3.1.2 Age & Location Demographics

One can see that the majority of survey respondents had been surfing for more than three years. This is not to say that the majority of surfers were older. In fact, I broke up the age categories into 4 choices: 18-25 yrs., 26-35 yrs., 36-45yrs., and 46yrs+. Of the 50 respondents, the majority were from the 18-25 yr old bracket, and the least were from the 36-45 yr old bracket. See Figure 5.

I also asked people where they were from, giving them a choice of three categories: North Coast NSW, Elsewhere in Australia, or Overseas.

.3 Market Assessment

One of the goals of my survey was to assess the market’s demand for an environmentally friendly alternative to the modern surfboard for sale. After establishing their awareness of environmental impact issues in regards to surfboard construction and general buying habits, I established the market demand for an E-F SB through a series of three questions. First, they were asked whether they ‘believe there is a need for an environmentally-friendly alternative to the modern foam, glass, resin surfboard?’ Because I expected a variety of answers and wanted to be able to easily quantify the results, I chose to scale this question from 1 – 10.

Only 4% of respondents don’t believe there is any need for an environmentally friendly alternative to the modern foam/ glass/ resin surfboard, and 36% of respondents believe there is only somewhat of a need for an alternative. If one can assume that those who chose a 7 or above believe there is currently a need for an alternative, E-F SB to be offered, then that means that 50% of surfers polled desire the surf industry to offer an alternative to the modern foam/ glass/ resin surfboard. One should note here that this figure roughly corresponds to the 54% who are aware of the environmental impacts of surfboard construction. Incidentally, the average for people who responded that they were aware of environmental issues in regards to surfboard construction is 7.74. The average of respondents who indicated that they were ‘unaware’ of any environmental issues in regards to surfboard construction is 6.04.

In order to gain a firmer understanding of the desire of the market to have an E-F SB, surfers were polled on whether or not they would end be willing to spend more on an E-F SB. Although any E-F SB would necessarily have to be priced competitively to sell in a market where there is a large variety of quality and second hand boards for sale, I used this question to gauge the level of demand there is for an E-F SB. After asking the respondents the average amount they spend on a surfboard, the surfers were asked ‘Would you be willing to pay more for an environmentally friendly surfboard?’ Only four surfer respondents answered ‘No,’ to this question, three didn’t give an answer, and the remaining 43 were given four choices of the range in which they would be willing to spend.

In percentage terms: 8% wouldn’t pay any more money for an E-F SB. 86% would pay $10-50 more. 60% would pay up to $100 more. 34% would pay up to $150 more and 20% claim that they would be willing to spend a premium, or more than $150 more for an E-F SB.

Because one of the biggest issues with the modern surfboard is the fact that they break relatively easily, generally from the impact of a wave or being ridden into rocks, I was curious to know how people would rate durability when making a purchasing decision. In order to determine the importance respondents give to durability when choosing a board, surfers were asked to rate the following categories from 0 – 5, with 0 being listed as ‘Not Important’ and 5 as ‘Priority.’ The question read ‘After finding a board shape you like, what are the most important aspects of the board?’ The categories listed, each with a 0-5 scale next to them, were: Graphics, Weight, Shaper/ Company and Durability. Although the rest of the categories are relevant to other aspects of this study, the insistence with which many shapers and surfers pointed to durability as an environmental issue, in that it increases waste streams, is why durability will be examined here. Every one of the fifty surfers surveyed answered this question and the average ranking of durability from 0 – 5 was a 3.86. In comparison, graphics averaged 2.06, weight averaged 3.58, and shaper/company averaged 3.

The only open ended question I asked was “Is there any incentive that would get you to ride an environmentally friendly surfboard?” This question was the only one which confused some people, who were unclear as to what I meant by incentive or generally unsure of an incentive which would get them to ride a board. However, of those who did respond, the majority’s response was something along the lines of ‘if it was good for the environment, that would be sufficient.’

.2 Surf Industry Interviews and Correspondences

I interviewed four surfboard shapers: Rodney Dahlberg is involved mainly in shaping surfboards; Mike Young shapes, builds and repairs surfboards; Cal Liddle is predominantly involved in building foam boards, including all construction post-shaping; and Tom Wegener shapes and builds wooden surfboards. I also interviewed Jimmy MacMillan, surf school manager and surf writer. Additionally, I interviewed Chris Tola, a Director of the Surfrider Foundation Australia. I corresponded with two people involved in alternative technologies and the production of a more sustainable surfboard. Ned McMahon is GM of Homeblown US, a surfboard blank manufacturer who offers BioFoam, a foam which is comprised of 50% agricultural products. Chris Hines is the Sustainability Director of the Eden Project in Cornwall, England, founder of Surfers Against Sewage, recipient of the Surfer’s Path Green Wave Award for environmental achievement in the surf industry and innovator of the Eco-Board. I gathered opinions and information on the areas of awareness of environmental impacts, market assessment, barriers and incentives to production of an E-F SB.

3.2.1 Awareness of Environmental Impacts

With an average of 30+ years in the surf industry, the people I spoke with were all aware of environmental issues in regards to surfboard construction. However, their awareness ranges from a simple understanding of the detrimental effects foam dust can have on workers’ health to an acute understanding of each chemical involved in the surfboard construction process. The biggest concern addressed by those interviewed was the issue of controlling dust. This is a big concern as dust is a by-product of foam shaping and sanding, two vital parts of surfboard construction. In this category we can also include the environmental impact of the fumes given off during shaping, sanding, and laminating. Although these problems can be mitigated for the shaper through the use of a activated-carbon filtered mask, the environment stands to lose. Another commonly voiced issue was the idea of the seemingly disposable nature of the modern surfboard. As Rodney Dahlberg put it “people are used to disposable goods.” (pers. comm. 24/7/07) Cal Liddle echoed this sentiment, explaining that he is entirely capable of building a more durable surfboard (out of carbon fibre for example), but people don’t want to pay for it. Although shapers admitted if they made an extremely durable product, it would hurt business, they agree that durability is a big issue in modern surfboard construction. Jimmy MacMillan estimates that an active surfer expects a board to last only 4 months to a couple years. (MacMillan 2007, pers. comm.,) Because surfing is generally a lifelong sport, this would mean the average surfer would be contributing between 20-60 boards to the landfill in his/ her lifetime. Surfboards can be repaired, but certain damage is irreparable. In general, those interviewed highlighted the issue of dust and excessive waste as the biggest environmental issues of surfboard construction.

I would add to that list the issue of ‘surfboard miles.’ Because surfboards are relatively voluminous and lightweight and many boards are shipped thousands of kilometres to be sold, the carbon emissions generated by their transportation must be enormous. Unfortunately, many companies import blanks (even lighter and more voluminous than the finished product) and export the finished product, further exacerbating this carbon footprint. This issue does not seem to be on the radar of most of the industry officials I spoke with, but is currently being combated by Homeblown in a twofold manner: through the founding of blank manufacturing plants in major surf areas, including Cornwall, England; San Diego, California and Jeffrey’s Bay, South Africa they are able to ship raw materials to the factories which in turn can produce a product for the local market, reducing the environmentally costly shipment of blanks.

3.2.2 Market Assessment

The general consensus of the people I spoke with is that the market is not interested in an E-F SB. In fact, even Tom Wegener who is producing wooden surfboards with a very limited environmental impact claims that “I don’t even market them(the surfboards) as it (environmentally friendly) because it’s not a marketable factor.” (pers. comm. 2/5/07). Similarly, a look at the Firewire website indicates that environmental concerns are not part of their marketing campaign. Additionally, not one shaper reported that any customer had asked them to produce an environmentally friendly surfboard. Although Wegener reported that people mentioned that they ‘like the fact that it is environmentally friendly,’ none has stated that their reason for purchasing one of his boards was for environmental considerations.

Essentially, all interviewees agreed that the market is contented with the current foam/ glass/ resin surfboard on offer, specifically the PU surfboard. It is being offered at a price range that the consumer sees as fair and performs to a standard acceptable to satisfy the consumer. Although shapers can build a better, more durable surfboard, the costs associated (which would necessarily be passed onto the consumer) would not be a saleable item. All shapers report that the majority of the boards they sell (90% or more) are Polyurethane blank boards. It perhaps should be no surprise that the industry and consumer are locked into this technology as it has been the predominant model for surfboard construction since the 1960’s. There are other alternatives on offer, including EPS/ Epoxy surfboards such as Tuflites and South Point Epoxy, Polyethylene surfboards from BIC, and the balsa-railed Firewire boards, but all of these boards crowd a very small segment of the buying market. However, the proportion of surfers willing to try this new technology seems to be increasing.

3.2.3 Market Movers

Curious to know the best route to effecting change in the buying habits of the average surfer, I spoke with some of the interviewees about who or what they believe are the vital elements of any market shift towards buying a sustainable surfboard. Many, including Tom Wegener, Cal Liddle and Jimmy MacMillan pointed towards the media as hugely influential in market habits. There are a lot of surfing magazines on the shelf and the majority of them are geared towards the market defined by the short boarder who rides a lightweight board and follows the Top 44 competitive surfers. Any shift towards an E-F SB would have to have the support of the top surfing magazines. However, Chris Tola warned of a strictly top-down approach, explaining that any effort to get people riding an E-F SB would have to incorporate a ‘team approach’ to the issue, with all shareholders involved, to ensure that the consumer doesn’t feel like the market is just pushing some new item onto them. (pers. comm. 4/5/07) The pro surfers would be the other half of the equation, because as Cal Liddle lamented, pro surfers have the ability to both drive and restrict research and development, “Whatever we do, if the pro surfers don’t take it on…”(pers. comm. 27/4/07)

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