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Walking the Talk
As 2022 Season Closes, World Surf League Reports Progress of ‘We Are One Ocean’ Initiative

In 2021, WSL launched WAOO to protect and conserve surf ecosystems around the world. Over the 2022 tour season, it collaborated with community organizations, indigenous groups, surfers and others on activations including replanting native coastal vegetation in Hawaii, removing plastic pollution from Indonesian waterways, and restoring coral reefs in Tahiti.

There used to be a sandy beach at San Clemente. It belongs to the ocean now.

The Southern California town hosted the Rip Curl World Surf League Finals in September. WSL athletes and staff found all that remains of the once-iconic San Clemente beaches is a meager strip of coastline fortified with riprap to protect against rising sea levels, higher tides and storm surges.

By the end of the century, nearly half of the world’s sandy beaches are expected to be lost to erosion. Coral reefs, essential to the planet’s health and surfing alike, are projected to decline 70-90 percent by 2050 if global warming isn’t limited to 1.5°C.

As the world’s premiere surfing organization, the WSL takes threats to surfing personally. These dire threats to the ocean also align with WSL’s Three Pillars: Plastics pollution, climate change and coastal restoration. As the ocean goes, so goes humanity; and an unsurfable ocean means an uninhabitable planet. What’s at stake is painfully demonstrated almost in real time by the disappearing beaches of San Clemente.

“The ocean is our arena, it’s our office — many of us would describe it as home,” Emily Hofer, Chief People and Purpose Officer at WSL, told Sustainable Brands®. “We believe that the future of surfing depends on the health of the ocean; and it’s our duty to ensure that the ocean is protected for surfers to come.”

In 2021, WSL launched its global We Are One Ocean (WAOO) initiative to protect and conserve surf ecosystems around the world through coastal restoration, climate action and reducing plastic pollution. Over the 2022 Championship Tour (CT) season, WAOO collaborated with grassroots community organizations, indigenous groups, surfers and a coalition of over 100 organizations to lead ocean protection and conservation initiatives at each stop along the Tour. WAOO activations included replanting native coastal vegetation in Hawaii, removing plastic pollution from Indonesian waterways, and restoring coral reefs in Tahiti.

By the 2022 season close, the WSL says WAOO will have:

  • Reduced emissions by almost 50 percent from the 2018 baseline year;

  • Educated 35,000 global youth on cultural and environmental stewardship;

  • Removed 100 tons of plastic from Indonesian waterways;

  • Conserved almost 350,000 hectares of coastal land — including prime surf ecosystems at Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica and Grajagan Bay, Java, Indonesia (famously known to those in the know as “G-Land”).

Leveraging sports for environmental action

WAOO leverages WSL’s outsized influence to educate and inspire surf fans and athletes about ocean protection and conservation.

“Sports have the power to inspire hearts and minds,” Hofer said. “Anything related to protecting the ocean or the earth is a really good way to leverage sports and the inspirational power of sports.”

Water and winter sports provide a front-row seat to the effects of climate change and ecosystem destruction; and stakeholders from both are mobilizing to protect the future of their sports. Because it’s not about an unseen threat or far-off cause — but the undeniable reality of a favorite glacier melting or a beach eroding out of existence — sports can uniquely mobilize practitioners quickly and at scale.

"All big changes start with a single step," said WSL CT surfer and WSL PURE ambassador Lakey Peterson. "I believe in the power of coming together and working together to create positive change. I think it's the first step of what can really have a big impact globally."

The operational impacts of water sports

Whether based in Michigan or Indonesia, surfers go where the surf is up; so, travel is the biggest environmental impact of the sport. WSL mitigates this by only sending essential staff to events. For the unavoidable emissions associated with travel, WSL offsets it with carbon-sequestration projects focused on repairing and restoring natural ecosystems and renewable energy resources. WSL also partners with Stoke Certified to track and report the emissions footprint of every aspect of its operations, from travel to office work. Stoke also helps WSL craft a portfolio of renewable resources to offset its footprint.

Before WAOO, WSL launched PURE — a program with internal commitments to enhance League sustainability practices — in 2016. Since 2018, WSL has reduced real emissions without offsets by 49 percent, thanks to a radical transformation in travel policy and staffing. The League says it was responsible for over 16,000 tons of emissions from 2018-2021; and all of them have been offset with nature-based climate solutions.

WSL has prohibited single-use products at its events since 2019. Inevitably, there’s still some waste; and WSL works hard to align with the appropriate operational partners for the best recycling and composting partnerships in each region it operates.

More than a venue: Bringing in the community as well as the crowd

“One of the most important pieces is that we work very closely with communities to select the grassroots organizations that really are working on things that matter,” Hofer said. “Each project is different. That’s where we find it so exciting. And yet they’re all having their own long-term impact in each market.”

WSL brings athletes into local activation projects — instilling on-ground understanding and stakes in protecting a fragile ocean, and empowering famous athletes to utilize their renown to inspire greater action at scale.

Our athletes have a tremendous voice,” Hofer said. “They’re so authentic and passionate about this work. Micro grants and influencers shine a light on these grassroots organizations for our fans around the world. This impact certainly goes beyond a single event, shining light on [local projects] and amplifying their stories.”

As part of WAOO, WSL PURE grants help support local non-profit work improving the health of global ocean ecosystems and the people who depend on them.

WSL PURE grantees include cultural organizations such as Nā Kama Kai and Native Like Water — cultural organizations bringing indigenous surf perspectives to youth — and conservation organizations including ReGeneration Surf and Surf Conservation Partnership, working to protect and restore coastal ecosystems.

WSL understands that all of the coasts where its athletes get barreled are steeped in indigenous wisdom and understanding — resources the planet needs now more than ever.

“We try to integrate these native local practices to help members of our programs to fully understand their heritage as stewards and how they might bring these traditions back into 2022,” Hofer said.

Hofer ways WAOO will continue its activations at each stop along the 2023 CT seasons, as well as support new grantees for greater impact on ocean protection and restoration.