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Run-Up to SB’12: An Interview with Kevin Whilden of Sustainable Surf


In our latest piece in the run-up to Sustainable Brands 2012, Kevin Whilden answers our questions around the implications of climate change on the world’s oceans and how the business community can help nurture a sustainability social framework to garner widespread change towards a more sustainable culture.

Whilden president & co-founder of Sustainable Surf, a company that works with key players within the surfing industry to dramatically improve the environmental performance of their products and services. 

What do you think is the most pressing environmental threat facing our planet today? (And what do you foresee the implications being if these threats are not addressed?)

Kevin Whilden: As a surfer, CO2 emissions directly threaten surfing itself. Ocean acidification and ocean warming will make coral reef ecosystems become extinct by 2050, and so much good surf depends on coral reefs. Also, sea level rise will create a “Permanent High Tide” condition at surf breaks, and any surfers knows that high tide generally swamps out the waves at most breaks.

As a scientist, anthropogenic CO2 emissions are the biggest environmental threat by far, and not just because of climate change affecting society. The biggest impact from human CO2 emissions occurs in the oceans, where ocean acidification is happening at a rate unprecedented in geologic history.  

This will harm the base of the food web, because half of the plankton in the ocean form their shells from calcium carbonate that is sensitive to an acidified ocean.  Ocean stratification is another impact of rapid global warming and this is one of the likely triggers of most major mass extinctions in geologic history.

What kind of revolutionary action needs to be taken to avoid global climate change devastation?

KW: As a global society, we need to reduce human CO2 emissions and learn how to enhance the biogeochemical systems of the Earth to naturally remove CO2 at a much faster rate. That’s the big picture, and we are quite far from it, although there were many ancient and native cultures that had this skill and the wisdom to use it wisely.

The immediate need for action is to develop a social framework that makes reducing CO2 emissions actually fun. Think about it. Very few people think solving this problem can be enjoyable, and it’s easy to ignore something that isn’t fun or immediately beneficial. Until that changes, it’s going to be hard to fight the special interests that want to prevent action on CO2 emissions.

We started Sustainable Surf to create a social group of surfers that can tackle CO2 emissions head-on while living a fun and healthy lifestyle. The solutions are well known, such as reduced consumption, conservation of natural resources, green business innovation, energy efficiency, and permaculture. Most surfers and surf companies are quite receptive to these solutions because it fits with the lifestyle, and many do them already. Ultimately, we believe that the surfing culture can become a global role model for sustainability. We are working with surf companies, pro surfers, surfing NGOs, academics, students, and surfers themselves to create sustainable solutions throughout surf culture.

How is sustainability key to business success? (What do you see as the cost/benefit of choosing to be a sustainability leader?)

KW: The surf brands that we work with view sustainability as highly desirable, but producing a sustainable product does generally cost more. This is a barrier when margins are tight, but also sales of sustainable products are strong because surf brands are quite good at marketing the story of sustainability. The surf culture naturally accepts it and wants it.

The challenges that we see are helping surf brands understand the full value of sustainability. Most brands could use help with evaluating the business benefits of the sustainability actions they take. For example, we were thrilled to see how much excitement employees of Reef had regarding our Waste to Waves program, which has significant value for employee retention, morale, and inspiration. We are currently working with some brands to develop comprehensive evaluation programs of their sustainability actions.

How can businesses take steps to be more innovative for sustainability?

​​​​​​​KW: The big leap that needs to happen is for businesses to become more connected with other stakeholders in sustainability, such as consumers, NGOs, academics, and even government. The communication and feedback between brands and these stakeholders needs to strengthen, since everyone has a role to play in protecting the resources that we love.

Innovative companies can gain a competitive advantage from this if they are good at evaluating how the sustainability market and stakeholders evolve. This will help them create more competitive products and stories that sell them.

What is sustainable consumerism? (And what role do you see brands playing in sustainable consumption, leader or follower?)

​​​​​​​KW: This is a great question. The simple answer is “give back more than you take.” History shows this is possible on a societal level. For example, Native Americans would clear small sections of the forest with fire in order to grow food and other useful plants. However this would also greatly enhance the biologic productivity of the forest ecosystem itself.  

Both humans and non-humans received an increased benefit. In this modern world, an informed “sustainable consumer” should look for products that create significant societal benefits. Fair trade products are a good example. However consumers have limited power to influence which products create societal benefits. Ultimately, brands themselves need to take the lead in creating an integrated strategy to develop societal benefits as part of normal business. They also need to develop relationships with their consumers that tell this story and engage the consumers in the solutions.  Surfing brands have an advantage in this regard because they are so good at lifestyle marketing.

Some good examples of this in the surf community are: 

  • Hurley’s support of the Ecology Center which trains local citizens on sustainable living
  • Reef’s support of Waste to Waves which engages people to recycle styrofoam into new products like surfboards and to reduce the amount of plastic that enters the ocean
  • Quiksilver’s support of the QuikScience Challenge which educates students on marine science and community service.
  • Volcom’s Give Jeans A Chance which encourages kids to donate their used jeans to then be refurbished and given to people in need.

All of the above programs are great, and they are the first steps toward an integrated strategy for brands to develop benefits for society while also developing private benefits for shareholders.

How can the business community come together to make real, positive change? (And what are the risks or advantages for those who decide to collaborate with competitors to help drive change, rather than try to go it alone?)

​​​​​​​KW: Simply put, the brands need to realize the true nature of the threat to what they love, and they need to realize that they are in the leadership role.  The employees of surfing brands have a deep connection to the sport, and the people are truly working in a field that they love. This will make it easier for them to work together to solve global problems and create benefits for the common good.

Surfing is threatened by global environmental change more than any other action sport. In my lifetime, coral reef ecosystems could become extinct and sea level rise could swamp out most surf breaks at high tide. If we act, we can help future generations experience the same beautiful, clean waves and healthy ecosystems of our time. Surf brands need to engage on CO2 emissions, since this is the primary threat to surfing. If all of the major companies collaborated on solutions, we could make some real progress on meeting this threat.

What role do brands play in the shift to a sustainable economy? 

​​​​​​​KW: The economy is a byproduct of the lifestyles with which we all live. Surf brands are powerful lifestyle brands with an inherent connection to sustainability. They have the power to help define and promote sustainable lifestyles, particularly for the youth. That can reshape the economy to some extent if it inspires our future leaders to live a sustainable lifestyle.

Whilden will participate in a panel that will explore the relationships between brands and NGOs and the translation of sustainable business value metrics through the lens of surfing at the Sustainable Brand 2012 Conference June 4-7 in San Diego, CA.

Image credit: Pexels

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