The ECOBOARD Project Founders On Eco-Certified Surfboard Materials & New SIMA Partnership

In September 2011, Michael Stewart and Kevin Whilden started Sustainable Surf on the premise that surfboards could and should be more eco friendly. A benchmark didn’t seem to exist within the industry providing guidelines to board builders about which materials would make the biggest impact in helping create a truly sustainable board.  Whilden and Stewart--drawing on their experience running sustainable product certification programs and best practices from Energy Star and organic food labeling--set out to create a tangible system for surfboards to be eco-certified.

Today, the non-profit charity organization headquartered in the heart of the Southern California surfing industry, and at the nexus of the green business culture in San Francisco, have developed the ECOBOARD Project, which today announced a partnership with SIMA to help expand its benchmark process across the entire surf industry.

“The surfboard is the core of surfing culture, and it is also one of the most toxic vehicles in action sports,” says Sustainable Surf’s Stewart. “We saw that new sustainable surfboard materials were coming of age, and that something was needed to help these materials enter the marketplace, for the benefit of all surfers, as well as the world's oceans.”

Sustainable Surf held a launch party for the ECOBOARD Project in November in San Francisco, which was used to educate surfers that they could start requesting ECOBOARD Project surfboards from major manufacturers including Channel Islands,…LOST, T.Patterson, FireWire, Stretch, Hobie, and Jon Wegner, to name a few.

“We believe that every company should strive to reduce the eco-impact of its products to the greatest degree possible, without sacrificing quality, performance or charging a significant retail premium,” says Firewire CEO Mark Price. “In addition, there is a considerable amount of education required at both the manufacturing and consumer levels about what moves the dial in this regard, and by how much. Sustainablesurf.org is an important step in that direction and we believe that over time they will be instrumental in moving our industry towards measurable greener practices.”

Price also pointed out that the debate over  using eco-friendly materials and then shipping a product is not a valid one, explaining that freighting a product represents only a fraction of the carbon footprint versus the actual materials used in constructing the board. For its boards, Firewire uses bio-resin and/or recycled foam, which dwarfs the impact of the freight component, says Price. The ECOBOARD Project is trying to highlight those practices, and used its recent launch party as a way to showcase the non-toxic/non-VOC nature of the materials during a glassing demo of the Shaun Tomson Warp Model board from Channel Islands, held smack in the middle of the crowded party.

Several professional surfers are also interested in sustainable surfboards, like Kelly Slater, who recently visited with the Sustainable Surf crew for an information session on Channel Islands’ ECOBOARD offerings and the materials they plan to use in future construction. “He seemed pretty stoked on all of it, especially the full bamboo deck skin, which he asked good questions about,” says Stewart. “Kelly seemed to know a lot about board building and materials himself, and we’ve since heard rumors that CI’s building him some boards from the materials in our ECOBOARD Project Benchmark, so that should be interesting to see in a couple months if he takes them on the road.”

We caught up with Stewart and Whilden to learn more about how surf shapers can sign up to get involved in the program, how the benchmark process works, the ECOBOARD Project’s retailer education plans, and how the process of using eco-certified materials works for manufacturers.

What is your main goal?

The main goal of the ECOBOARD Project is to transform the surfboard building industry to be more sustainable. Ultimately, we believe that sustainable surfboards can become one of the world's leading examples of sustainability technology.

Surfing and sustainability have many parallels. All surfers believe in a clean ocean environment, and ECOBOARDS will help protect the ocean whenever a surfer buys a new surfboard. We bring a science-based approach to determining what surfboard technology has a significant and meaningful benefit for reducing the impact of surfboards.

Finally, we believe that sustainable surfboards can become a rapidly growing market for surfboard builders, and we hope the ECOBOARD Project will help support local, sustainable surfboard shapers and brands.

Do you just operate within the surf industry or does the system span across multiple types of categories and manufacturers?

Right now, we work only within the surf industry, but we do have plans to expand our program to skate and snow because these sports are so interconnected across the action sports industry. We have done carbon footprint analysis on skateboards before, and our door is open to talk with skate and snow manufacturers now.

Our door is open to talk with skate and snow manufacturers now.

ECOBOARD Founders and Kelly Slater

Kevin Whilden, Pro Surfer Kelly Slater, and Michael Stewart in Monterrey, California. Photo: Nick Allen

What is the process behind certifying a product under the Eco-Board system?

The centerpiece of our program is the ECOBOARD Project Benchmark. The Benchmark defines specific sustainable materials that can be used to make an ECOBOARD. Any surfboard shaper or brand can simply use at least one of these materials to make a board that qualifies as an ECOBOARD.

The Benchmark quantifies reduced impacts to the ocean environment and to surfboard builders. The primary impact to our oceans and waves comes from the lifecycle CO2 emissions of a product, because as CO2 emissions increase , a significant portion gets absorbed into the sea. The effects of this are already turning our oceans more acidic, which threatens coral reef extinction. Additionally, increased atmospheric CO2 levels are causing sea levels to rise rapidly, which threatens to cause a "permanent high tide" environment at most surf breaks globally; including at many of CA's most famous surf breaks like Swami's, Trestles and Rincon (and all points in between).

The primary toxicology impact to workers can come from direct exposure to chemicals like styrene, which is categorized by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen", and toluene di-isocyanate (TDI), which is a serious lung irritant that has been shown to cause chronic asthma.

We work with surfboard material manufacturers to get their materials listed under our program. There is an open and defined process for how new materials can qualify, and we hope that this program will spur innovation in the surfboard material industry. Currently only two materials have qualified: recycled EPS foam from Marko Foam, which has a 60% post consumer recycled content, and Entropy Resins -Super Sap plant-based epoxy resin which has a 17% biological content made from the waste of biofuel and paper production.

A complete list of ECOBOARD materials and the qualifying criteria is located on SustainableSurf.org. The blank and the resin produces 95% of the impact of a surfboard, so our criteria are focused on those components only. Shapers can sign up to get more information and learn how to get involved in the process at http://www.sustainablesurf.org/ecoboard/sign-up/become-a-shaper/.

Which brands are you already working with?

We hope that every surfboard brand will join the ECOBOARD Project. When they do, they will get listed on our website as offering sustainable surfboards to customers. They will also get a stack of ECOBOARD Project lams that they can use on their surfboards made with materials that meet our Benchmark. Each lam has a unique serial number on it, and surfers can then register their board on our website when they get it. We plan to work with potential program sponsors to offer cool incentives (aka-free swag!) to surfers as an added bonus to register their board.

So far, we have signed up Channel Islands, ...Lost, Firewire, Stretch, Hobie, T.Patterson, Bing, Dewey Weber, Mandala, E-Tech and many others. A complete list of brands is available at http://www.sustainablesurf.org/ecoboard/shapers

Most brands offer ECOBOARDS as a custom order option only, but we have heard that at least one brand on the list may switch to producing 100% ECOBOARDS by the end of 2013. Our goal with designing the Benchmark was to make it very easy for brands to make a switch to sustainable surfboard materials.

It's a testament to our program design that so many leading brands have already joined our program.

Follow the jump to see the ECOBOARD in action and for more…

Here’s a look at Hawaii pro surfer Torrey Meister ripping up the Cali coast on an ECOBOARD Project surfboard:

How are you working to educate the retailer about this program, and what examples or case studies can you discuss here that have been successful in the education process?

We are still in the early stages of working with retailers on how to best sell ECOBOARDS. We plan to offer workshops with sales staff on the ECOBOARD options and benefits. We have piloted this process with Proof Lab surf shop in Marin CA, and they have recently ordered ECOBOARDS from Lost and Channel Islands.

Retailers that sell ECOBOARDS can register on our website and surfers can search for their local retailer that will sell them an ECOBOARD. We believe that surfers themselves will help educate shops as they order custom ECOBOARDS themselves.

Finally, pro surfers are now riding these boards and the feedback has been incredibly positive from all levels. Seasoned professional Mike Losness, one of the first test pilots we worked with, actually got the first ever ECOBOARD Project labeled board (#001) made for him by iconic San Clemente board brand T. Patterson, shaped from a recycled eps foam blank. After his first couple sessions at Lowers and T-Street, he said, " Sorry, but I couldn't tell a difference, it just felt like my usual great board from Timmy." We thought that was the most perfect answer we could have asked for.

Young gun Hawaiian pros like Torrey Meister are telling us his "Roberts" ECOBOARD is a go-to board for him in CA waves. Seasoned neo-soul, world traveler Chris Del Morro recently sent us an email from abroad , saying his "Bing" ECOBOARD has been super fast and poppy, and "strong as an ox."

We expect more of the same as more WCT & QS pros ride these boards, and as that word gets out there in the media, that will help drive desire by the average surfer much quicker.

What is your eventual goal in working with SIMA? How many brands do you hope to have participating in the Eco-Board model?

Our goal is to get every surfboard brand to at least offer ECOBOARDS as a custom option, if not switch to 100% production. SIMA is the most important trade group in surfing and they are the logical partner to expand the reach of the ECOBOARD Project. Their endorsement lends significant credibility to our program

The world is moving rapidly towards green chemistry and recycled materials, partly because of consumer interest and partly because of pending regulations from governments that prevent the use of toxic materials in consumer products. Surfboard manufacturers in California in particular need to be ready for the day when traditional polyester and polyurethane are more tightly regulated.

SIMA is particularly interested in helping manufacturers introduce sustainable materials into their production methods, so their business won't be harmed if these regulations are suddenly enacted. Most folks in the surfboard industry remember the panic that occurred the day Clark Foam closed down. At the time, alternative blanks were not in common use and surfboard makers had to scramble to stay alive.

What does it mean for businesses who agree to these standards? How do they have to reshape their production process or make other changes in shipping, etc.?

We have worked very carefully to minimize the changes in production needed for brands to make ECOBOARDS, and to provide multiple options to meet our Benchmark. Some brands might use only recycled foam blanks, while others might only use a bio-based resin. It is very easy for a brand to join our program and start producing ECOBOARDS.

The ECOBOARD Project is also a clear path forward for sustainable innovation in surfboard production. For example, Firewire has a new technology called Technograin, which significantly reduces the amount of foam and resin needed through the use of sustainably grown paulownia wood. They get the same surfing performance with approximately 40 -50% reduction in the overall use of foam and resin.

Why does the ECOBOARD Project list glass shops and laminators?

Not every surfboard glassing shop uses epoxy resin because the techniques are different than polyester resin. So if a surfboard shaper wants to use a recycled EPS blank, they could use a little help finding a good epoxy glass shop. In particular, we want to highlight glass shops that use bio-based epoxy resins. This makes it easy for any shaper to produce an ECOBOARD by having it glassed with bio-resin — including a surfboard shaped from foam not listed on the ECOBOARD Project Benchmark.

A list of laminators that use bio-resin is here: http://www.sustainablesurf.org/ecoboard/laminators

Also, we would like to highlight some companies that are developing advanced sustainable glassing techniques. E-Tech Glassing makes the coolest designs with bamboo veneer that increase durability and look amazing. A more durable board has a much reduced impact on the environment. E-Tech made the Lost and Channel Islands boards in the photos above, and they have some other interesting technology in the works.

Other innovators like Jon Wegner have been working on wood construction techniques and alternative designs that can eliminate fiberglass, foam, and resin. It’s an exciting time to watch sustainable surfboard technology evolve, and in some cases come back full circle to the original sustainable designs created in the last thousand years.

What are the overall advantages for the brands and retailers in implementing the ECOBOARD Project model?

Global demand for sustainable products is growing rapidly. Citizens and consumers want a product that has reduced impact on the environment and has a great story to tell in how it got that impact reduction. The ECOBOARD Project provides an independent consumer-facing label that designates reduced impact. This should help both retailers and brands sell products that meet this demand.

Any closing thoughts?

As an ocean-centric environmental organization with an educational mission - Lets be FRANK - buying a new ECOBOARD Project labeled surfboard isn’t going to solve all of the ocean's (or world's) environmental problems. But it's a significant first step in the right direction for both consumers and producers, and while one surfboard might not make a huge environmental impact, the collective impact of a global industry absolutely does.

So here's our simple vision – IF WE CAN CLEAN UP THE SURFBOARD, WE CAN GREEN UP THE SURFER TOO…

More specifically, if we can change our surfboards to physically embody the ideals of sustainability, then we can likely change ourselves, our business models, and our environment for the better too - which ultimately means a better surfing experience.

And that seems like a pretty great reason all by itself.

We will learn from that process, and can then apply that experience to tackle much larger issues that we confront as surfers - like reducing energy & water use, eliminating toxins & pollutants, building strong local communities - all while enjoying our one-of-a-kind, watery planet.