Sustainable Surfboards - Discussion

10 Oct 2007 0 Share

1.0 Introduction
2.0 Methodology
3.0 Results
4.0 Discussion
5.0 Conclusions

4.0 Discussion

The results section of this study explored the issue of developing, marketing and producing an E-F SB from the point of view of the average surfer, and those people actively involved with surf industry. It also took into account the opinions of Chris Tola from the Surfrider Foundation in order to understand where the issue of surfboard construction was prioritised in the scheme of Surfrider’s organizational goals. In order to understand the results, they will be categorized into the following subcategories: Awareness of Environmental Impacts, Market Assessment, Barriers to a Market Shift and Incentives to Production.

4.1 Awareness of Environmental Impacts

In order for the surf community to see the need for an E-F SB, the necessary first step has to be the understanding of the scope of the environmental effects of surfboard construction. According to my surfer survey, more than half of surfers (54%) are aware of ‘environmental issues in regards to surfboard construction.’ 40% of those surveyed said they were ‘unaware’ of any environmental issues. It is important to notice the correlation between those people who claimed awareness of environmental issues in regards to surfboard construction and the interest they have in an alternative to the modern foam/ glass/ resin model. Those who were aware averaged a 7.74 on a 1-10 scale, a clear expression of interest. This is a challenge to the surf industry to produce a viable alternative.

When I asked surfers to name any specific environmental effects, the responses were generalized at best. Many people cited foam and fibreglass dust and waste issues, some simply said ‘it’s all toxic materials,’ but few people equate ozone depletion and greenhouse gas emissions with surfboard construction. The fact that many voluminous, lightweight surfboards are transported thousands of kilometres around Australia and the world represents a huge quantity of carbon emissions, a contributing catalyst to global climate change. As Chris Hines stated, “If the foam is blown and the resin is produced in country then the carbon footprint is reduced. Worst thing is to move boards or blanks half way round the world.” (Hines 2007, pers. comm., 9 May)

In my conversation with shapers and people within the surf industry there was little talk of greenhouse gases of ozone depletion. The main issue concerning shapers and builders is personal health. Of course, this is understandable, but each of these builders needs to see the connection between their own personal health in the sub-environment they work within and the health of the environment as a whole. If they are forced to wear a activated carbon-filtered mask in order to protect themselves from the fumes while working and do not employ an equally effective ventilation system within their own workplace, the fumes they are protecting themselves against at site are released into the atmosphere and potentially harm the air they are breathing at home and away from work. Shapers and builders obviously should look after themselves, and the multitude of health issues related to many of the surfboard construction materials warrant vigilant health and safety practices, which must in turn act as an outline for protecting the environment outside the workplace.

In regards to awareness of environmental impacts, there is a very generalized knowledge of the effects of surfboard construction, but any attempt to gain support for an E-F SB necessitates an understanding beyond the toxic nature of the materials to a comprehensive knowledge of the compound effects surfboard construction has on the natural environment.

4.2 Market Assessment

There is disagreement over whether or not the market is interested in an E-F SB. According to my surfer survey, only 4% believe there is no need for an E-F SB whatsoever. However, 36% of those surveyed believe (at best) there is only ‘somewhat’ of a need for an alternative to the modern foam/ glass/ resin surfboard model. If I were a marketing representative, I would not expect those people to buy an E-F SB. However, this does leave 60% of the market more than ‘somewhat’ expressing a desire to see an alternative to the modern surfboard. Although this particular statistic does not define whether or not they would be willing to buy an E-F SB, it does represent a market demanding an environmentally friendly alternative to the modern surfboard. By looking at the efforts of people like Tom Wegener, who produces a line of surfboards that are all natural except for a coat of linseed oil, one could argue that there are already sustainable alternatives to the modern surfboard. However, Wegener still does not believe there is anything to be gained by marketing the boards as such. These boards certainly appeal to a niche market and it is more likely that the larger market is demanding a board that looks and performs in a similar way to the modern surfboard.

The industry should note that 86% of surfers polled said they would be willing to pay $10-50 more for an E-F SB. If that isn’t enough to eventually offset the costs of developing the new technology, 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. Tom Wegener has found that by offering an alternative to them modern foam board, customers are willing to pay a premium price for a handcrafted wooden board. Although there is more labour involved and the raw materials cost about 4x as much as the raw materials for a foam board, he has still been able to improve profit margins from when he was making foam boards. (Wegener 2007. pers. comm., May 2) Although any E-F SB that expects to compete with the PU model needs to cost-competitive, the first step is to get the product out there at any price to see who bites.

However, market research is not a guarantee of results, and I found there to be a lot of scepticism from the surf industry officials with whom I spoke. From Tom Wegener, who creates an environmentally friendly alternative surfboard and doesn’t believe environmental considerations are a marketable factor to other shapers who explain that no one has ever asked them to build an eco-friendly surfboard – there is little belief that the market is interested anything other than a standard PU surfboard. In reality, they may be right, surfers do not seem to take environmental externalities into account when purchasing a surfboard. The simple fact that none of these shapers has ever been asked to build a surfboard using sustainable materials is a telling statement. People may claim to be interested, but when it comes to spending the dollar, this claim is not substantiated. Though this should not be viewed as a condemnation of the idea.

With the exception of the Eco-Board prototype currently being developed by Chris Hines, there is no sustainable alternative to the modern surfboard that attempts to look and perform like a standard PU surfboard. Hines has maintained the basic structure of the modern surfboard, combining an agricultural oil-based foam blank with a 98% plant based resin mixed with either hemp cloth or fibreglass cloth made from recycled auto windscreens and house windows. The foam/ glass/ resin combination is clearly what the average surfer desires, it is up to the surf industry to offer an alternative which maintains this construction – at least to aid in the transitional market shift.

The message of many conversations was that the average surfer is content with the product they are receiving currently. This opinion is difficult to reconcile with

4.3 Barriers to a Market Shift

Any shift in market buying habits inevitably involves a period of consumer reluctance, and for the past forty years surfers have been reluctant to buy any board other than a PU based model. This represents an enormous challenge, not only for an E-F SB, but all the alternative technologies vying for a piece of the surfboard buying market. There are many alternatives to the PU board: EPS, Extruded Polystyrene, Poly Ethylene, Firewire, Salomon’s S-Core model, and countless others, but combined they all account for a very small market share. Therefore the first obstacle to overcome in a market shift towards a sustainable surfboard is a willingness to try new equipment. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Unlike ski mountains where competing ski companies offer free demos to prospective customers, the fragile nature of a surfboard leaves many surf shops unwilling to let anyone ‘test-drive’ a new board. Some companies, like Firewire Surfboards (firewiresurfboards.com) are currently offering limited demo days in California. This seems to be the exception, and without being able to test a new technology first, those surfers willing to take a $500+ risk and buy an E-F SB are going to be few and far between. Also, if given the opportunity to try out a board that’s constructed from something other than PU, make sure to first understand the difference between construction and design. Surfers shouldn't write off a new technology because it rides differently than the old board; understanding how the design differences effect the ride, and what qualities are effected by the construction is vital to adaptation to a new technology.

The second barrier is the reluctance with which the industry approaches new technologies. Chris Hines is using a 98% plant based resin that he claims is compatible with fibreglass. Additionally, he is able to purchase fibreglass made from recycled windscreens. Companies like HomeBlown are offering MDI/ Agricultural Oil based surfboard blanks, which are priced at the same price as standard MDI/ petroleum based products and are stronger than a standard PU blank. (Homeblown, 2006) By taking the time to source more sustainable materials, shapers can have a big positive impact with minimal change to their established business model, and perhaps even an improvement in product quality. However, this is easier said than done. My conversations with shapers led me to conclude that because so many shapers are only involved in small production, there is little money for extensive research and development. This means it is up to those shapers who do have the extra money to lead the way in R&D. It is also important that the established surf companies who are involved in the production of polluting technologies don’t make attempts to hinder the progress of any environmentally friendly technology that may cut into their business. Instead these vested interests should acknowledge that the effort to create a more sustainable surfboard represents an investment in a better future for more than those who are financially supporting the effort.

4.4 Market Movers

When asked who or what was necessary to shift the market towards interest in a sustainable surfboard, the most commonly voiced opinion by those I interviewed was that any E-F SB needs to have the support of the media and the professionals. The influence wielded by pros who fill the pages of surf magazines and appear on television and in surf films cannot be underestimated. Taj Burrow has stepped up to this challenge by riding an unconventional Firewire surfboard. He recently won a World Championship Tour (WCT) event at Bells Beach on this board. Now that Taj has shown the Firewire can ride better than standard PU boards, no one will be ashamed to paddle out into the line up with a Firewire. It also means that whereas before a consumer might not wanted to have risked buying a Firewire because it may not perform as well as his old PU board, after seeing Taj riding the board to success, the consumer is now more willing to give something new a chance. However, Taj is the exception to the rule, he was the first to ride an epoxy-based board in a WCT event, at Jeffries Bay in 2006. (Reyna, 2006) He remains the only surfer to ride an epoxy-based board on the WCT. (Tierney, 2007. p.1) The pros seem to be a necessary catalyst to change, and the magazines need to support this change. Until then, the conservative buying habits of the average surfer will never be overcome.

4.5 Incentives to Change

It is well established that the environmental and health effects of surfboard making are hazardous. This is the first incentive to change – personal and environmental health. However, as was mentioned before, with virtually no external pressure to properly regulate the associated environmental and health hazards of surfboard shaping, the choice to shift towards a sustainable surfboard construction is the decision of the shaper.

So what incentives should be offered? What incentives will incite change in the surfboard construction industry? Rodney Dahlberg believes nothing will change until the oil supplies are diminished and the petrochemicals used in so many materials of a surfboard are impossible to acquire. (Dahlberg 2007, pers. comm., April 27) Jimmy MacMillan and Chris Tola reiterated the notion that pro surfers need to take on the challenge of pushing the R&D of an E-F SB. (MacMillan 2007, pers. comm., 3 May. Tola 2007, pers. comm., 4 May) In addition, Chris Tola said that the incentive to change could come from state government funding. Surfing is a global sport with a global market, and Australia could lead the way in this development. Also, Tola mentioned that perhaps the incentive should come from a philanthropic push.

Another idea put forth was a marketing campaign that would distinguish between ‘petro-boards,’(i.e. petroleum based) and ‘eco-boards.’ (Hines 2007, pers. comm., 9 May) Although this could be deemed as a negative advertising, it could also be looked upon as an educational marketing campaign, promoting awareness of surfboard construction practices, which was already recognized as a goal in the shift towards establishing a market for a sustainable surfboard.

However, it seems the best incentive to producing an E-F SB is the most obvious: market demand. According to the law of economics, if the market demands, the industry will inevitably supply. Perhaps the only incentive the average shaper needs is a customer to walk through his doors and ask them for a more environmentally friendly board.

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