Imagine Surfboards: How a Green Outlook Catches Profit Waves

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.

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.
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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