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The Corporate Link: The Impact of Commercial Activism

This is the last in a three piece series by contributor Scott Paynton. In this final installment Scott discusses how both business and the individual can lend a hand to lower our over all impact from consumerism. As always, we welcome your comments and ideas.

In the past two articles I discussed systems theory in relation to how we as individuals, in combination through our connections with each other, impact those around us and our environment through our individual and combined behaviors. Simply put, all of our actions have an impact. I argued that we all must change our consumer behaviors as well as those behaviors that relate directly to the carbon footprint we leave. Individuals, in combination with other individuals, can do a tremendous amount of good. For example, Californians saved $100,000,000 last year simply by switching to energy efficient light bulbs. Waves - The Corporate Link - Phoresia.orgWhile I have focused on individual and collective surfers, for this article I want to talk to a particular group that plays an incredibly important part in the system. This group has perhaps the greatest ability to influence the ways we consume and use products.

More and more, multi-national corporations are demonized as the one group that is practicing some of the most environmentally damaging behaviors. Images of smoke stacks, waste, pollution, etc. fill the magazines and airwaves. Seeing these images, it’s easy to understand the global impact these organizations have. As a response to many of the worst offenders, a multitude of grassroots organizations devote themselves to challenging the practices of these corporations to try to hold them accountable for their actions. It’s essentially an “us vs. them” mentality over environmental sustainability and economic profitability. Even though we may not like to think about it, many large-scale surfing companies are engaged in practices that ask us to continue consuming at the expense of our precious resources and fellow humans. It’s ironic that a sport like surfing, one that is relatively friendly to the environment, is largely driven by companies that have the potential to cause great damage to the environment.

However, a relatively new phenomenon has been happening in the past couple of decades that I like to call commercial activism. In fact, the companies that sponsored our trip are all part of this movement whether they know it or not. In essence, this movement operates from the belief that there does not have to be an inherent conflict between economic profitability and sustainability. Instead, these companies operate under a business model that promotes an ideology that argues that it is certainly possible to accomplish both with imagination and creativity.

In western societies we tend to view the world in dichotomies of “either/or” statements. Everything is framed as good or bad, black or white. But, what happens when a company decides to be the one engaging in environmental activism through its business practices in order to create positive change? I would argue that Patagonia can be credited with starting the idea of commercial activism. From the beginning, Patagonia’s strategy was simple: Only buy supplies from people willing to produce them according to Patagonia’s environmental and social ethic. Thus, if a supplier wants to sell its goods to Patagonia, it must do so under the strict environmental standards set by Patagonia. Engaging in this practice, Patagonia has a positive environmental impact by pressuring suppliers to produce their goods in environmentally friendly ways. On the other side of this chain, Patagonia then sells its quality products to us by producing environmentally friendly products that last a long time, reducing the time between our need to consume another Patagonia product. Patagonia, as the middle of the consumption chain, impacts both the practices of suppliers as well as the practices of consumers. This is a very powerful place for organizations to operate. Again, all of our actions produce either a positive or negative impact on the whole, and corporations are no different. From the beginning, Patagonia has engaged in environmental activism through its business, not by ceasing to do business (I need to state that I have never worked for, or been sponsored by, Patagonia).

The companies that supplied gear for our trip are following this ideological viewpoint, using their business practices to engage in a form of environmental activism that impacts both suppliers and customers. Companies like Homeblown US, Finisterre, Wavetribe, Trunq, Matuse, Simple, and Matunas are all manufacturing products that start with environmentally friendly materials produced by environmentally friendly suppliers. In the case of Homeblown US, they ARE the environmentally friendly supplier, providing an ecologically friendly surfboard blank to shapers. Even though I as a consumer don’t make these choices at the beginning, I finish a chain of decisions when I choose what products to buy. While consumers can make a big difference by choosing to buy sustainable products, manufacturers and retailers really have the power to promote sustainable practices by demanding that suppliers supply materials that are produced in sustainable ways, as well as sell sustainable gear to retail outlets. Retail outlets, as part of the corporate link, can choose to stock their stores with gear that is sustainable, thus sending a powerful economic statement to suppliers and manufacturers to produce goods that are sustainable. In fact, when you look through magazines like Surfer’s Path, you’ll notice more and more surf shops that are stocking primarily sustainable gear. It seems that this practice is more common in the UK, with retailers following suit here in the US. The more companies are willing to send this message to those that manufacture supplies or retail items, the more it will influence my choices as a consumer.

Large organizations like Patagonia and IKEA have learned that they can be environmental activists by utilizing their purchasing power when they choose suppliers. But, the real activists are the smaller companies like the ones that supported our trip. It is through their business actions that we are seeing true changes. These smaller companies have provided an alternative to us as consumers by manufacturing gear that is an alternative to the gear produced by larger companies. Likewise, the success of smaller companies pressures larger ones to be more conscientious about what they manufacture and sell. Hell, even Wal-Mart has begun to sell “green” lines in their stores. Regardless of what one might think about the true intentions of this practice, it never would have occurred unless smaller companies decided to produce and sell goods under a strict environmental and social ethic, proving that profitability and environmentally friendly practices actually can join hands.

What can we do to continue this trend? First, as a consumer, buy sustainable gear when you have to buy gear. Even if it’s a bit more expensive, it’s cheaper in the long term on you, future generations, and the environment. Second, as a consumer, demand that your surf shops carry sustainable gear from sustainable companies. By doing so, you can support your local shop and economy while doing good. Also, the more our local shops demand sustainable gear, the more retail suppliers will follow suit in order to compete. Third, demand that larger surf companies join the movement and develop sustainable products. This needs to be a genuine effort. Surfer - The Corporate Link - Phoresia.orgA company that produces one environmentally friendly boardshort can’t really argue that it is a sustainable company. For those of you who work in the surf industry, be the voice that demands that your companies do everything in their power to produce or sell sustainable gear. Simple Shoes has been a good example of switching to sustainable manufacturing practices. If you work for a surf gear manufacturer encourage those who make the decisions to buy from sustainable suppliers. If you work in a surf retail store, order gear from sustainable manufacturers to give your customers true options. If you are a shaper, choose blanks, glass, and resins that produce a low environmental impact. My Ned McMahon board was shaped with bio-foam, covered with bamboo cloth, and glassed with eco-friendly resin, and I love it.

While we as consumers can have a great impact through our actions, we need to be aware of where we can focus our attention in order to create the greatest changes. Thus, let’s focus on companies that have a two-way impact on both suppliers and customers in ways that can truly change the face of surfing gear while protecting the environment.

Scott T. Paynton is a professor of Communication at Humboldt State University, with an emphasis in organizational communication. During his free time you can find him surfing at his local breaks.

• Category: contributors, scott, social responsibility

6 Responses »

  1. Sustainable practices are neat for those who can afford them.

    To make an impact in the industry, someone needs to mass produce something that is both affordable AND environmentally friendly (bio-EPS?)– Something that will make business sense to the pop-out manufacturers and appeal to the custom-made crowd.

    Until then, environmentally responsible equipment will continue to be a boutique item for well-to-do or earth-conscious surfers.

  2. Affordable is a relative term that is often used as the excuse for not pursuing the ecological choice. For instance, I’ve heard many people say organic is not affordable. The price of organic produce is only high in comparison to the subsidised produce from large industrial farms common in the U.S. The amount that we (U.S. ers) pay for our food as compared to our income is among the lowest on the planet.

    Affordable, when we’re talking about non-essential items like surfboards, should not be an acceptable excuse to purchase items not in line with your own moral standards. If you want to purchase something because you want it more than you don’t want to impact the environment, that’s fine, be honest with yourself.

  3. If you’re an average kid or working slob, or a noob, you’re probably not going to buy the biofoam board w/bamboo stringers because it’s probably too expensive, ESPECIALLY for a non-essential item. My point was that, for the surf industry to make a real difference, there needs to be “green” equipment that can compete with normal equipment so as to get the dollars of those that don’t think of the environmental costs. It looks like it’s on the way with EPS, but until then let’s acknowledge that even in wealthy America not everyone can budget moral priorities.

    And sure, let’s talk about subsidized US goods and moral priorities. Take into account all the expensive things that a typical surfer needs for surfing:
    A.) A residence close to the coast
    B.) A car or a bike, but most likely a car and all the expenses that entails
    C.) Time to spare for surfing (time is money)
    D.) Surfboard and wetsuit

    Surfing’s not a sport for the masses, and I argue that it is a sport for the wealthy; and I mean wealthy by US standards. Lots of surfers talk about the spiritual, connecting-with-nature side of surfing, but how often do we acknowledge the prerequisites that allow us to surf; cheap oil, sprawling coastal real estate, a global economy run by us, for us? There are lots of environmental and social costs that have enabled us to pursue our preferred method of leisure, regardless of who made your board.

    Were morality to become the deciding factor in Americans’ economic decisions, the world might change drastically…US out of everywhere!!!

    Sorry to get all class warfare-y, it just slipped. My last thought: if you want to be truly green, only buy used boards and ride them until they are sand. It’s economical, and zero impact because the environmental costs have already been paid.

  4. Hi Bleez,

    Thanks for the comment. I wanted to point out that although I agree with some of your thoughts on our collective “morality,” your claim about the cost of one surfboard versus the other is incorrect. Biofoam blanks are equal in price to standard poly blanks. EPS is the more expensive of the three. The final cost of a board also includes paint, finish, fins, and the shaper’s fees. Yes it is probably better from an environmental standpoint to buy used equipment. However, for those who pursue surfing seriously, a custom board is the best option in terms of performance and quality. One of the most common misconceptions about buying more sustainable products is that they are more expensive. This is not always the case and should be researched individually for each item.

    We are very lucky to be able to purse an activity like surfing. There is absolutely no doubt about that. Should we just say f*#k it everything is going hell anyway so I’ll buy what’s cheaper? I don’t think that I’m in the position to moralize on that for anyone but myself. But I do believe that each individual choice I make has repercussions unseen.

    Sincerely

    Ricardo

  5. Hey Bleez, thanks for the follow-up. Not sure where you are pricing Biofoam boards but the biofoam board I had made last year (http://www.phoresia.org/?p=166) cost the same amount as a standard poly board. Actually the shaper I got it from (Tom Neilson) offers the option of a standard poly blank or biofoam blank on his orderform with no price differentiation between them.

    The expensive things you mention that a typical surfer needs are already part of our infrastructure. They would exist even if surfing did not. I agree with your take that surfing is a sport for the “wealthy”, wealth being a very subjective term in this context. We are fortunate to have the free time and mobility to pursue such a self-serving sport.

    The used board option is a good one, and buying used is a good practice for most things in life from houses to cars to clothes to lessen our impact. The big problem with getting used surfboards though is that most boards aren’t made to have a lifespan that promotes re-usage. Most new boards these days are glassed so that after a year of use they are literally falling apart so that any inherent value they have is lost and don’t have much a usable lifespan left. That’s a lot of what we try and push here, just get a board that’s glassed a little bit stronger and it makes a huge impact in the lifecycle of that board regardless of the construction methods.

    Honestly, in the grand scheme of things surfing and it’s by-products are such a minuscule facet of our production and consumption problems but as a whole I think surfers are much more aware of the environmental impacts our lives have on the ocean only because it is our playground and when it is sick, it makes us sick so we have a very self-serving interest in protecting it and making sure it remains accessible.

    Fortunately in surfing there is very little class warfare, being that the ocean is the great equalizer and humbles most everyone quite easily.

    edit: LOL, me and Ricardo both replied at the same time basically saying the same shit. Protective much? Honestly, questioning the validity of sustainable practices is good, to ask whether options truly are a step in the right direction or just greenwashing to move more product.

    David

  6. Ricardo, I think your last sentence and my idea about ‘morality in economic decisions’ were expressing the same sentiment.

    Dave, the board you linked in your reply looks about identical to my current board, except mine’s set up to ride quad or tri (no, I don’t think it’s a gimmick).

    I have to concede that I have not researched biofoam and I’ll defer to your knowledge on that subject. My statement was based on the facts that I read a little about it, saw some cheap blanks on the internet, but had not seen any biofoam boards in shops that were priced on par with regular boards. For future reference, know of any shapers in California who charge the same for bio as for polyester?

    I think we’ll have to disagree about used boards. Sure, most shortboards are glassed super thin to save on weight, but if you shop patiently and know what to look for, used boards are a great resource for trying out new designs or expanding your quiver. My go-to board for 2 years was one that I bought used. I was living a block from the beach, so it got plenty of use. The guy I gave it to still surfs it.