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Imagine Surfboards: How a Green Outlook Catches Profit Waves

3p Contributor | Wednesday May 27th, 2009 | 28 Comments

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By Kevin Whilden
Imagine Surfboards has developed new surfboard manufacturing techniques to build more “ecologically friendly” surfboards at reasonable cost and with superior performance on the waves. The boards are made from recycled polystyrene cores (e.g. used coffee cups), “glassed” with bamboo cloth, and have bamboo fins. Imagine has started winning major awards for its innovative designs and sales are skyrocketing. It appears that ecological surfboards have that “cool factor” which can wield significant influence on the market place, and the surfboard company’s suppliers are improving their environmental performance as a direct result of Imagine’s green approach.
Surfing is one sport that desperately needs to make being “green” more “cool.” It is immensely popular, with USA sales alone estimated at $7.5B in 2006. However, sustainable branding and ecologically friendly products are notably absent from the surfing industry, which is surprising considering that pollution and sea level rise directly harm the very waves upon which the industry thrives. It seems like a no-brainer for the industry to rapidly move to a more pro-actively environmental stance, but risk-averse major surfboard manufacturers are still promoting 1960′s board construction technology that is highly toxic to workers and the environment — because that is what sells best. It seems that the bigger the profits, the bigger the resistance to change. We have heard that one before.
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Granted the most ecologically friendly surfboard is a plank of wood made by hand in an artisan’s workshop – as the ancient Hawaiians did it — but wood boards aren’t cheap, light or capable of being mass produced. Imagine’s technology has a clear environmental improvement over the mass-produced surfboards that dominate the marketplace as well as the one-off custom boards produced by artisanal surfboard shapers. Compared to standard surfboard construction, Imagine’s recycled polystyrene technology has superior resistance to dings, has better flex properties, and is a waterproof material. Ask any hardcore surfer if they wouldn’t like a board that doesn’t get waterlogged whenever it is damaged (surfboards always get damaged sooner or later). The bamboo fabric also is a significant improvement over traditional fiberglass, because its natural fibers have superior elasticity and strength. Bamboo-cloth boards are stronger and feel “snappier” under foot. Imagine’s bamboo fins also improve performance for similar reasons, and look great. Moreover, the outstanding durability of Imagine’s boards will reduce the need for surfers to buy replacement boards.
Imagine has managed to achieve the goal of any sustainable manufacturer.
They’ve reduced their ecological impact and improved product performance as a direct result of using sustainable materials. However, while they are as yet too small to change an entire industry from the top-down they have changed some of their suppliers’ behaviors. Like their major competitors, Imagine produces their boards in Asia to be commercially competitive. But Imagine has worked closely with their factories to improve their environmental performance. They’ve instituted strong recycling programs, eliminated toxic solvents, and improved worker conditions.
Imagine also conducts a full lifecycle impact analysis of each of their product lines, and then buys NGO-endorsed, USA-produced carbon offsets to make their products carbon neutral. It costs Imagine about $2.50 per board to make them carbon neutral on a lifecycle basis – and this includes the carbon emissions from overseas manufacturing and shipping. Corran Addison, CEO of Imagine Surfboards, says, “At that price, it’s almost criminal to not buy offsets and make carbon neutral surfboards.”
There aren’t many sustainable products in the market that are as fun to use as a surfboard. As Imagine’s sales grow above industry averages, the rest of the surfing market will hopefully play catch-up and clean up their act.
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About the author: Kevin Whilden is a clean tech entrepreneur and green business consultant living in San Francisco. Kevin and his business partner, Michael Stewart, conducted the lifecycle impact analysis for Imagine Surfboards.


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  • http://www.greenbusinessinnovators.com Patrick Dominguez

    Thanks for this article – it makes sense that a sport that is so intensely connected with nature and the outdoors would move toward environmentally materials. Good to see this trend!

  • Ashwin

    “Granted the most ecologically friendly surfboard is a plank of wood made by hand in an artisan’s workshop…” — I’m not sure if I agree with this statement. I wonder if Imagine’s path is ultimately more sustainable, using recycled or repurposed materials rather than the possibility of virgin wood to fabricate a new deck by hand in a workshop…

  • Ashley

    I hope the “big manufacturers” realize what a slap in the face this is to them.

  • jinan@surfkahuna.net

    Good on you brah!!
    If you are interested in wood burning surfart on your bamboo surfacing before laminating the boards, check my work out on http://www.surfkahuna.net
    I’ve been drawing on surfboards since Kelly’s Cove circa 1967.

  • Kath

    Super cool.
    Finally somebody who thinks about what is good for the planet (and the customer!!) before thinking about the money. Any way im sure that at the end that little company will be more prolific.
    I would definitly buy one. But what about the leash , pads and wax? Is there any eco product on the market?

  • http://www.hiboardsports.com Drew

    I own a surf shop in North Carolina and had been following Imagine for about 6 months and had some contact with Corran before I decided to place an order for our shop. We are excited to receive our first stocking order of Imagine surfboards and I expect big things from them! After all the talking the surf community has done for years we finally have a surfboard that isn’t a toxic disaster!

  • LArry

    It is products like that of Imagine that make me worry manufacturers` are using the “eco-friendly” clause as a marketing ploy.
    Where is the accountability that the foam is actually “recycled polystyrene cores” considering it is manufactured in China where environmental standards are so often under scrutiny and inferior to those within the EU or even North America?

  • Joe

    Boycott Chinese made boards. you are putting a lot of hardcore surfers in the unemployment line

  • YakkR

    @Joe: Boycott Chinese made boards? Might as well boycott just about every product on the market. They’re all made in China.
    Until the inequities in pay and healthcare are evened out, companies will always seek the most competitive manufacturing solution.
    Kudos to Imagine for at least TRYING to modernize the surf industry (unemployment line or not).

  • shaperX

    I guess we should all cave in and let China take over. Aw heck who cares about little 14 yr old hands making our crap anyways. I guess the market should determine everything. Companies always know best and have everyones interest in mind. Modernize the surf industry? From the look of their shapes (and Ive seen them) Id say a step backwards. One thing is for sure, if you are a green company, I guarantee you are not operating green in China. Ive seen the operations there and at Cobra (I was actually asked to train people in Thailand, but declined when I saw the operation). Acetone is thrown out to evaporate, etc…cheap labor is one thing, they dont have an EPA and health codes keeping things in check there. Green is such an overused term to sell product period. If making the industry more responsible and green was the goal of Imagine, and profit wasnt the main motive, they would be doing it here. I can smell good PR a mile away. Go Joe. Buy American.

  • Charles

    Blaming China for surfings woes is as dumb as blaming china for the lack of waves in summer. Making boards in China is no worse than in the USA. Do you know that Patagonia did a calculation of carbon emissions to make their clothing in Asia vs the USA and then ship them to the final retail store and it was the same! Do you know that you can train any factory, as Patagonia has done, to operate in a responsible and ecological way. And it sounds like Imagine is taking the steps to make sure the manufacturing there is done environmentally correctly. Did you also know that there is a massive “recycling” industry there (due mostly to the economical benefits, not ecological, but it comes to the same thing) of most polymer products (plastic, polystyrene etc) and that this is lacking in the USA. Whether a board is made in N Carolina, Sydney or Peking, either way a California shaper doesn’t get the work. But then again, I’ve never seen a California shaper who gave a rats as$ about even making the smallest effort to change the way he does things – PU blanks (not recycled or recyclable), fiberglass (my god, should we even get started on this) and polystyrene resin (is there even anything worse for workers and the environment???). And are any of them buying carbon offsets to go neutral? So as long as your local shapers are going to live in the 1960′s thinking that “business as usual” is acceptable, then my support goes to companies like Imagine who obviously seem to care.

    • Malibu Barbie

      “polystyrene resin?”
      there goes your credibility . . . all the way to China. Um, I think you mean polyester resin.

      So . . . exactly how many Cali shapers have you seen? Sounds like you’ve done a lot of homework. Or not. Buy as many carbon offsets as you want, there are many people who believe that purchasing offsets is one more way of polluting, but feeling no guilt, because you “purchase” offsets. Yay, capitalism. Business as usual.

  • YakkR

    Precisely. Go Charles! Buy Green!

  • Corran

    Hey guys – Corran from Imagine Eco here. Great article and great thread. It’s awesome to see that the work we’re doing, and more importantly are trying to do, is getting recognized. Being environmental is not a destination – it’s an ongoing challenge beset with all sorts of obstacles, and problems from the most banal to seriously complicated ones. All sorts of things come into play, and we constantly are having to weigh up the “lesser of two evils”. After all, even though we are trying really hard to make environmentally friendly boards, we are still in industry, with all that comes with that (thus the carbon offsets we buy). Hard decisions about whether to make the recycled blanks in China (because we cannot make extruded, NON OUTGASSING ones made in N America) and then ship them here, make the boards and then ship the final board to Japan, or Australia, or California, or make the blank and board there and then ship it to the final destination direct. When making them here we couldn’t recycle the off cuts and shavings on the floor – in China the shavings are recycled right back into a new polystyrene block. Do we clean a paint brush with acetone, or is it better to recycle the handle, throw away the bristles and use a “new one”? Is it better to turn the lights off when no one is in the room, or leave them on all the time and tripple the lifetime of the bulbs which are not eco friendly to make? These are all hard decisions to make, and as we go so we learn how to make better ones. In the end, what the surfer cares about is a board that performs well, and looks and feels like a surfboard should. What I care about as much is that this boards environmental footprint should be as small as possible. They are not perfect in this regard, and our quest to be more eco friendly continues. It’s a hard thing to do, and hopefully this is just a beginning. It’s sad to see however how little the rest of the industry cares, from the biggest companies like Channel Islands not even making the simple step of getting carbon offsets, let alone taking real steps to change how they do things, to the local shapers who have mounds of toxic waste outside their shape shacks, and have more resin dribble and waste on the floor than we have in an entire board. These are the things, and this is the attitude, that we are hoping will change so surfing can one day be proud to make boards, not embarrassed about it.

  • l’anglais

    From what I’ve seen in the past few days, Corran’s China-made boards don’t paddle well in China…I’d rather surf a car door than that Imagine garbage.

    • loser

      haha dude go surf your cardoor down at Habitat…how do you spell douche?

    • poppy

      Internet bashing? seriously? Grow some balls. And what have you done for the surfing industry?

  • l’anglais

    In addition, I think it’s ironic that Corran spouts off about being “eco-friendly”, meanwhile, he’s always using his sea-doo to surf, as opposed to paddling….like everyone else. Are you using some kinda “eco-friendly” gasoline in your machine Corran?

  • JD

    l’Anglais? Who are you? Some frustrated local surfer in Quebec who hates progress? You sound like some of the haters we have here in California!

    • loser

      I was about to say the same thing! some frustrated kid in Quebec for sure!

  • Malibu Barbie

    Imagine has managed to achieve the goal of any sustainable manufacturer.

    Really? I didn’t know recycled styrofoam was sustainable.

    Imagine’s recycled polystyrene technology has superior resistance to dings, has better flex properties, and is a waterproof material.

    Since when did styrofoam become resistant to dings? Or have better flex properties? And waterproof?!! This is complete BS.

    We all want a better board, and an environmentally friendly board would obviously be great, but let’s be realistic. Styrofoam is not environmentally friendly, even when it’s recycled styrofoam. Epoxy resin is not environmentally friendly or noncarninogenic, even without the VOCs. And manufacturing any product in a country with an abysmal human rights record, and then shipping it halfway around the world in no way qualifies as environmentally friendly.

    Quit jumping on the green bandwagon, you’re a long ways off. And while we’re at it, why don’t you put a local shaper to work, and a local glasser, sander and airbrusher?

    • Doug

      “Imagine has managed to achieve the goal of any sustainable manufacturer.

      Really? I didn't know recycled styrofoam was sustainable.”

      It is if its recycled. That's one of the definitions of “sustainable”. Another is to use natural core elements, but even this has its problems. They need to be grown and harvested. Recycling an already abundant supply of a given material is highly ecological and sustainable.

      “Imagine’s recycled polystyrene technology has superior resistance to dings, has better flex properties, and is a waterproof material.

      Since when did styrofoam become resistant to dings? Or have better flex properties? And waterproof?!! This is complete BS.”

      Actually, this is completely accurate. For example, a 3/4lbs EPS foam is flexier and has less impact resistance than a 2lbs foam. This can be compensated for by adding more or less outer layers in the laminate. Likewise, similar density PU will have different resistance to puncture, compression and of course flex, than the same weight EPS. Using identical weight EPS vs XTR (extruded vs expanded) polystyrene will also have very different results. This is of course all very basic level engineering. Whether Imagine has actually accomplished this I don't know, but its very simple to adjust the properties as they claim to have done.

      “We all want a better board, and an environmentally friendly board would obviously be great, but let's be realistic. Styrofoam is not environmentally friendly, even when it's recycled styrofoam.”

      Again an incorrect assumption. Recycling something like polystyrene would have a reduced carbon fotprint of about 70% to 80% from creating new foam (once the environmental cost of extraction and process is calculated). While its base is still petrochemical, the fact that 1) Its reused rather than discuarded into a landfill makes it environmental and 2) reusing an already present material over making a new one, even from organic or Bio materials is still more ecological.

      “Epoxy resin is not environmentally friendly or noncarninogenic, even without the VOCs.”

      Is any product 100% Eco friendly? Of course not. But resins like epoxy emit 50 times fewer VOC than the alternative polyester resin. Is Epoxy perfect? No its not. Water would be best, but then again you can't make a board from water can you. SO the Epoxy resin is the best available solution today. Even Bio Epoxy resins are only a 30% bio content. Ultimately some way of recycling to create the epoxy would be best, but I think we're a long way from that.

      ” And manufacturing any product in a country with an abysmal human rights record,”

      No disputing china human rights record, but you're mixing your topic. This is about whether the boards are eco friendly, not the working conditions of the employees.

      “and then shipping it halfway around the world in no way qualifies as environmentally friendly.”

      If a board is made in California and then shipped to the customer in England or Australia, how is this any different. All the large companies from lost to firewire to CI etc all make their boards somewhere and then ship elsewhere. The key is to be smart about it, make manufacturing centralized, and then offset the shipping (carbon credits is one way). Even a board made in California and shipped to Florida by truck is problematic. So unless you're always buying from a local shaper, and that shaper is ALSO doing all the thigns Imagine is doing, you're still better off getting the Chinese made board that's eco over the local made board that's not – carbon footprint against carbon footprint.

      “Quit jumping on the green bandwagon, you're a long ways off. And while we're at it, why don't you put a local shaper to work, and a local glasser, sander and airbrusher?”

      This is a completely different discussion. This is about making an Eco board. Convince your local shaper to make an eco board and you have a valid argument. I all for employing local labor, but this is a global economy and ultimately most of what I use, from my traction pad, board bag, leash, wetsuit and board are all made somewhere else. Then of course there is the computer you're typing on (made in china), your cell phone (made in China), your shoes (made in china), your car to drive to the surf (made in Korea?) or your bike to ride there (made in China). Why are you so willing for all this to be made in china, but not your board, and especially if the made in china board is more eco?

    • Corran

      Speaking of China, here is an interesting tid-bit for you. We are setting up a new factory in China, which was supposed to be online in November. It's still not online now. Why you ask? Environmental reasons. China is clamping down and imposing many (good) environmental (and social) laws on new factories. As yet, it does not apply to old factories, but all new ones are required to adhere to a very stringent code, which are similar, if not more stringent than many of the laws applied to Canadian factories. While this has slowed down the opening of our new factory, I agree 100% with these new laws. In addition, new “OSHA” style standards are being applied to the work environment to protect employees. In Shenzhen, motorcycles have been banned because of the pollution created by 2 stroke engines, and government subsidies are given to people buying electric scooters instead. China is far from being a Utopia, but it is also no longer the black dragon it was 10 years ago, or even 5. China, like the USA and Canada, have a long way to go in many respects (and it was China, the USA and Canada that were then primary problematic countries at the recent Copenhagen summit, so we are hardly in a position to scold China on these topics when our own conduct is so abysmal). Lastly, the way to encourage China to continue to change, is to work with them, not turn our backs on them.

      Corran

  • Ron

    Agree that boards need to be environmentally friendly, and this is def. a move in the right direction.

    However, many of this guys claims are a serious stretch.

    • Corran

      Hi Ron

      Corran from Imagine Eco here. I'd love to know which of our claims are a stretch?

      Recycled Polystyrene? This is nothing new. We just applied it to Surfboards. The technology has been here for more than a decade.

      Bamboo Fiber Laminates? Bamboo, Flax, Hemp and various other natural fabrics have been used in composites also for a good decade. Nothing new here. We just applied it to Surfboards.

      Vacuum Bagging. Again, 40 year old technology, and not even new to surfing and surfboards. We just applied it in conjunction with Bamboo Fiber and recycled polystyrene.

      None of this is a stretch, let alone a serious stretch. Its all available technology, well proven and well documented. Someone just had to apply it to surfboards, which we did, and hoping that others will follow our lead.

      This is real. Our planet is in dire straights. We need to be pro active in doing everything we can to reduce carbon emissions, and use sustainable methods in industry. Doing what we have done is a very small, but important, part in the much larger picture and reducing climate change, and saving our natural resources.

      Corran

      • Stewie

        Hey Ron – Gotta say that Corran pretty much just knocked your argument (what little of it there was…) on it's ass. Corran (and hopefully more companies like his) has simply decided to use the best tools currently available for making a solid surfboard, with the lowest possible impacts. It's not rocket science, it's will power combined with a vision for something better.

        Maybe YOU could put in a a bit more effort the next time you look to add your bit of expertise to a public conversation; I realize it's easy to throw rocks from behind the screen, but come on…

  • Stewie

    Hey Ron – Gotta say that Corran pretty much just knocked your argument (what little of it there was…) on it's ass. Corran (and hopefully more companies like his) has simply decided to use the best tools currently available for making a solid surfboard, with the lowest possible impacts. It's not rocket science, it's will power combined with a vision for something better.

    Maybe YOU could put in a a bit more effort the next time you look to add your bit of expertise to a public conversation; I realize it's easy to throw rocks from behind the screen, but come on…

  • Ogpresent

    i&i surf systems could i gt an adresse and phone nbr in order to check u guyz out.. thk loic bordas. 

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