The Rebirth Of Surf

The Rebirth Of Surf


A long time has passed since the surf movies of the 1960s created an ocean-cult mystique of wave-top rebellion. In the intervening decades, surf culture seeped out from the shadowy sway of California’s palms, amplified through the melodic drones of surf-rock, halcyon sunsets and the Endless Summer. Its influence is now far greater than beach bars and luaus.

Today, surfers are more reflective of coastal communities as a whole; they are techies and townies and college students and women. No longer dominated by bleach-blonde bros, surfing has evolved into a multi-billion dollar sports industry; ‘surfonomics’ reports place the sport’s global worth at more than $8bn annually according to Chad Nelsen of Surfrider, the southern California organisation aiming to improve coastlines around the world.

Because their playing field exists in nature, surfers were one of the first communities to understand the need to hug the ocean extra tight. They have been holding the torch for environmental causes for decades and many of these ecological concerns for a localised environment have become broader political causes that cross continents and reach deep into the heart of the metropolis. In short, surfing has challenged the very meaning of political activism, and the capacity of leisure to contribute to the politics of identity.

Now more than ever, sports like surfing are able to push social and environmental agendas at a grassroots level, while incorporating bigger-picture problems. By harnessing sport and pleasure, and channelling it into a cultural movement with deep social convictions, surfing has created a social tsunami that is sweeping across North America, and beyond. We take a closer look at how surfers have succeeded where other environmental organisations have failed.

This year, the California Senate introduced a bill to make surfing the official sport of the state. If passed, this means the Golden State will join Hawaii in this elite surf club. The bill doesn’t just cite the importance of surfing to California’s economy, but heavily focuses on the role surfing has played in planetary conservation.

Organisations such as Sustainable Surf are helping companies far beyond the surf community change their practices. ‘Adopters of surf culture, who may not necessarily even go into the oceans themselves, were an absolutely key demographic for us to build our movement,’ explains cofounder Michael Stewart. ‘By having sustainability at the core of all elements of surf culture, you’re broadening the net and creating wider reach.’ Brands have long tapped into the cultural clout of surfing to sell products, with Mini recently partnering with surfer Kalani Robb and Channel Island Surfboards to promote its new hybrid car. The goal of Sustainable Surf is to build these existing relationships into something more transformative and meaningful.

Once you get people thinking about their immediate environment, you can expand their awareness to think about sustainability beyond the beach,’ explains Nelsen. ‘You get people thinking about their lifestyle choices beyond the ocean: should I stop using single-use plastics and straws? How can I shop more sustainably? Travel more sustainably?’

Nelsen continues: ‘Surfrider is about civic engagement. That active engagement can be in anything you’re passionate about from healthcare and education issues, to the outdoors and climate change. This mindset is motivating and empowering to people who aim to make a change.’

London Girls Surf Club has the same aim; debunking the myth that you need to live next to the beach to participate in the sport. ‘People are always surprised that there are surfable beaches only two hours from London,’ explains founder Kylie Griffiths. ‘Surfing is so far removed from city culture that it can feel almost unachievable. We’re trying to break that stereotype down and show girls and women that anybody can give it a go.’

Beyond motivating groups who had never considered surfing a lifestyle option and providing them a space to find common ground with like-minded strangers, the group has started working  with Switchback, a British charity that mentors young men who have been recently released from prison. The aim is to help them avoid reoffending. ‘We wanted to partner with Switchback to show these young men other lifestyle choices and opportunities,’ says Griffiths. ‘We have just completed our first trip to Devon with a group of six young men on the programme’. By embracing diverse communities and getting more groups involved, the industry is bolstering its position as a powerful cultural movement.

Hand-in-hand with sustainability practices comes the notion of craft and responsible design. ‘The resurgence of craftsmanship, especially in a culture like surfing, will have way bigger implications beyond the product,’ explains Nolan Collins of Grain Surfboards, a Maine-based board company. ‘Craftspeople want to make products using quality materials that will last and be sustainable. This is about the materials we use and how much waste we generate in production, but also factors in durability and performance; we could make boards with less of a carbon footprint but nobody would want them if they didn’t last or surf well.’

In short, companies like Grain can create an object like a surfboard and then reiterate that it’s made using sustainable materials, flipping the message to show that saving the planet and the ocean is going to be the coolest thing its consumers have ever done. Combined with an association with the creative people that make up the surf community, it’s a compelling couplet. ‘The surf community has the secret ingredients that all other environmental non-profits in the past never really thought about tapping into: making products surrounding a specific culture cool,’ explains Sustainable Surf ’s other cofounder, Kevin Whilden.

It’s an approach that’s speaking to an ever broader audience; people who may never even dip their toe in the ocean. Saturdays NYC has built a brand that effortlessly blends laid-back West Coast lifestyle with an urban East Coast edge while, closer to surf ’s beach-bound heartland in San Francisco, multibrand store Mollusk is also taking coastal culture to a new audience. With an interior designed by cult artist and architect Jay Nelson, Mollusk sells surfboards, sure, but also a range of fashion and objects that embody surf ’s sustainable mindset. It also hosts in-store events, from talks to film screenings, helping to galvanise the nascent community.

From inclusivity to craft, sustainability to branding, surfing is providing inspiration across industries. In an age that puts a premium on healthy lifestyles, wellbeing, mindful consumption and harmony with nature, it’s enjoying a well-deserved resurgence that is speaking to city slickers and beach bunnies alike.

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