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Product, Service & Design Innovation
How to Intervene in a System:
A Practical Case Study of the Sustainable Surf Movement

“We’re going to talk about systems change,” began Pam Wilhelms, owner of Wilhelms Consulting Group. Wilhelms moderated a panel of changemakers that have driven sustainability in the surf industry. “We don’t change by top-down, we change by finding leverage points,” she said.

“We’re going to talk about systems change,” began Pam Wilhelms, owner of Wilhelms Consulting Group. Wilhelms moderated a panel of changemakers that have driven sustainability in the surf industry. “We don’t change by top-down, we change by finding leverage points,” she said.

Wilhelms set the framework for thinking about system-wide changes. Her goal is to drive business to more living-system models rather than machine-system models. Just as evolutionary shifts occur in small niches first and then spread across species and families, so do business shifts. She pointed out that she had intentionally chosen three diverse brands for the panel; a privately held startup, a big corporation and a third-party nonprofit all working in different ways to change the surf industry.

Michael Stewart, co-founder of non-profit Sustainable Surf, kicked off the conversation by explaining how the surf industry was broken. He pointed out the disconnect between the origins of surf culture in old Hawaii and the current surf culture which is “by and large, unsustainable.” According to Stewart, surfing is a compelling lens through which to view climate change, ocean acidification and ocean plastic proliferation with new eyes.

Derek Sabori, VP of Global Sustainability at VOLCOM — which is now a part of the Kering Group — spoke of the “spiritual intoxication” that comes from connecting with nature through sports such as surfing, skateboarding and snowboarding. That connection drove his efforts to bring sustainability into Volcom’s core mission. Through its work with Sustainable Surf, Volcom sponsors “Deep Blue” surf events around the world that aim to reduce emissions, waste and water as part of its EP&L. The brand is also working to reduce the use of PVC in its products, as well as sourcing paper and packaging sustainably.

“I started in the margins, and slowly worked sustainability into the core of the company,” Sabori said. “We definitely started on the fringe; the stories and [surf] events we were doing didn’t have much to do with our brand because we didn’t have much to talk about yet. It became more meaningful and official as the brand adopted it.” After seeing the success of the Sustainable Surf events, Volcom has begun to incorporate sustainability into smaller, internal events as well.

“We want to engage with people and remind them that business doesn’t have to be separate from your personal values – you don’t leave your values in the car when you go to work; we’re all humans that make up the business,” Sabori said.

Kyle Parsons, president of footwear company and B Corp Indosole, represented the startup component. His growing brand manufactures shoes out of recycled tires in Bali to sell in California. Parsons drew inspiration from the Balinese culture of resourcefulness — the “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” mantra. He wanted to bring that mentality to manufacturing in California — or “Balifornia” as Parsons referred to it.

Currently, over a billion tires end up in landfill, he added. The first step was to find a manufacturer that was willing to help source used tires, sanitize them and then cut them for the shoe. After digging through landfills, Parsons’ second thought was to keep tires from going to landfill in the first place so he approached Balinese mechanics and looked for abandoned tires around Bali. The next step is to scale the business and deliver the sustainable shoes to as many people as possible.

“We are challenging the integrity of the system. There are a lot of big footwear companies out there, but there’s a lot of redundancy, they use the same manufacturers; same shoe, different brand,” Parsons said. “Our goal was to inspire change and create our own product, our own process. So far we’ve saved around 40,000 tires from the landfill and our mission is to save one million.”

Finally, the second half of Sustainable Surf, Kevin Whilden, spoke for their other partner, Firewire Surfboards CEO Mark Price, who was ill and unable to attend. Whilden pointed out that surfers have a particular interest in ocean health; rising sea levels swamp out surf breaks and ocean acidification destroys coral reefs, which also create some of the world’s best surfing waves.

Firewire is one of the most sustainable surfboards and one of the top three surfboards on the market right now, in terms of both price point and performance. Firewire began by trying to reduce toxicity in surfboard production, which involves super toxic products such as Styrofoam, epoxy resin and fiberglass, but until three years ago hadn’t considered reducing its carbon footprint. Now it uses a plant-based resin that can be stripped with low-acid vinegar and reused, a technology that’s moved to treat circuit boards, as well as mushroom-grown foam.

They were told over and over again that nobody was going to buy their design, that surfers were married to the traditional, white board. Yet, Whilden said new materials certified by Sustainable Surf were incorporated into 500 boards in 2013 and in a staggering 20,000 in 2014.

When Firewire began selling the Timber Tek board, the company thought it would be a small percentage of its market, but it has blown up to nearly half of sales. Firewire’s boards are also being used by pro surfers and winning competitions.

“Ultimately, surfing is a fun way to address climate change and ocean threats — anything looks fun if you put a surfer next to it,” Whilden said.

Wilhelms closed with six important areas to consider when leading systems change:

  • Narratives, paradigms, mental models
  • Challenge the integrity of the system, offer pictures of hope
  • Create a whole system’s view
  • Connect people to core values
  • Create new measures for the new system
  • Help people see their agency in the system

“20 percent of kids say surfing is the number one sport they want to learn — that speaks to the power of surfing to inspire change,” Whilden concluded.