Surfers are among the most eco-minded of athletes, with several pro surfers doubling as eco-activists. This makes sense, since surfers see and experience the effects ocean pollution and sea level rise up close. But, what about the sustainability of their sport, specifically the surfboards? It turns out that surfboard manufacturers have not been proactive in terms of making their products environmentally friendly.
That is until Firewire decided to take the lead in providing their eco-athletes with eco-surfboards. To learn more, GSB spoke with Mark Price, a former pro surfer who is CEO of Firewire and the driving force behind their commitment to sustainability.
GreenSportsBlog: Mark, I think our readers are going to love the Firewire story and your story. So let’s get going. How did you get to be the CEO of Firewire?
Mark Price: Thanks Lew, great to chat! Growing up in Durban, South Africa, I’ve been a surfer all my life. I turned pro during high school and kept at it while at university. At that time, two-year compulsory military service was required, either before or after university. I had decided many years prior that the apartheid South African government was not a cause worth fighting for, so I left for the USA in 1979 at the age of 19, heading to Laguna Beach, California while I competed for two years on the world pro surfing circuit. Meanwhile, some friends there had started a surfing apparel brand called Gotcha I retired from pro surfing in 1981 and started working for them…
Mark Price, CEO of Firewire (Photo credit: Firewire)
GSB: What did you do there?
MP: I started in customer service and quickly moved up…And so did Gotcha, growing from $1.5 million in sales in 1981 to $100 million in 1989.
MP: It was! Thing is, despite our success — which was helped by the boom of “surfing culture” — I was burned out. So I got off the hamster wheel. After taking a surfing trip to France in 1989, I came back and resigned. Then I moved to Hawai’i before returning to Gotcha two years later.
GSB: That’s a lot of moving…
MP: You’re right. And, while living the pure surfing lifestyle appealed to me in theory, actually living that life was…kinda boring. I was in my late 20s at the time and I wanted to get back to business. So I went back to Gotcha one more time, trying to be less “work-aholic-y”. But soon thereafter the 1991-92 recession hit and we suffered because of it. Our appeal to the broader, mass market was no longer effective as the surfing culture boom was waning. So I got laid off in ’92.
GSB: What did you do then?
MP: I founded Tavarua Clothing, an apparel company that leveraged the image of the island of the same name in Fiji. That ended up not working out, so I subsequently landed a marketing director position at Rip Curl USA and then I was recruited to be head of global marketing at Reef Sandals.
GSB: So how did you end up at Firewire?
MP: I was at Reef Sandals for about four years when friends who had started Firewire in Burleigh, Australia — about an hour south of Brisbane on the Gold Coast — reached out. I was intrigued because they had a new surfboard technology and I was more interested in surfboards than sandals and apparel. Also the key players at Firewire had a strong entrepreneurial bent. And as mentioned, they were bringing a disruptive surfboard technology to market that was stronger, had increased flex and was much greener than traditional surfboards.
GSB: Talk to us about the Firewire technology…
MP: Great! Now this will get in the weeds a bit but it is important. Firstly, traditional surfboards have a foam core with a wood strip down the middle. Firewire boards are built with the wood around the perimeter, and the lightweight foam core is sandwiched between two thin high-density deck skins. In fact, the technique is called “Sandwich Construction”. The interior foam is very light — while the deck skins have a high compression strength and are used in the aerospace industry — both foams have less toxic chemical properties versus traditional surfboard foam.
GSB: What does the Firewire technology do for the board as a whole?
MP: Taking the wood out of the center and putting it on the perimeter, as well as using the lighter foam, reduces weight and increases the board’s overall flexibility, making it more responsive though turns.
The Slater designs SCI – FI, built by Firewire (Photo credit: Firewire)
GSB: That sounds like a major advance.
MP: It was — and it was an existential threat to traditional surfboard makers…
GSB: How did they react?
MP: As you might think — many of whom launched disinformation campaigns…
GSB: You mean they used “Fake News” and “Alternative Facts”?
MP: You could say that, but the product ultimately proved itself, surfers started to switch, and the business grew organically…
GSB: Did world class surfers start to endorse Firewire?
MP: Yes! Taj Burrow, who was one of the best in the world in the mid 2000s, switched to Firewire in 2006 and his winning percentage went up 40 percent!
Taj Burrow celebrating a victory with his Firewire surfboard (Photo credit: Costa Rica Surfing)
GSB: WOW! So I see how Firewire disrupted surfing technology from a performance point of view, but what about from the environmental aspect?
MP: Great question, Lew. So, first we have to get into a little chemistry. Before Firewire, traditional surfboards were built with polyurethane foam and laminate with polyester resins, both of which are far more toxic than our materials. Our boards are built with expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) and Epoxy bio-resins. Back in 2005, the University of Queensland in Brisbane conducted a study on the Firewire construction and found it emitted 50 times fewer volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than traditional surfboards. That year, we won an environmental award in Europe. Our approach is, #1, our surfing equipment has to meet or exceed existing performance expectations and #2, it must be competitively priced. We met those criteria; sustainability was the green cherry on top.
GSB: Sounds like Firewire is trying to follow in the footsteps of Patagonia!
MP: Oh, we are honored to be mentioned alongside them. One thing Patagonia does is constantly improve on their environmental performance and we strive to do the same. With that in mind, in July 2014 we switched from our regular epoxy resin to a bio-epoxy resin, which means that 100 percent of our production was then Ecoboard certified. No other global surfboard brand has met that standard yet.
GSB: Who manages Ecoboard certification? And how did surfers react to the Ecoboard certification?
MP: Sustainable Surf does a great job of managing the Ecoboard certification. As to the impact of the bio-epoxy resin and Ecoboard certification on surfers, you have to first understand surfing culture. Surfers are super-loyal to their brand of surfboard, so getting folks to switch is challenging. But, over time, we’ve seen more and more surfers ask for boards with Ecoboard certification from their respective brands. Which is great for Firewire as we hope to help tip the market towards less toxic surfboards. In 2014, maybe three percent of surfboards sold around the world were Ecoboard certified. Now, I’d estimate that eco-certified boards represent between 10-20 percent of all boards. We’ve also worked hard on our waste streams and that is about to pay off. By 2020, or maybe even sooner, we expect to be Zero-Landfill at our factory.
GSB: That’s incredible! How are you guys making that happen?
MP: Well, in 2016 we started to upcycle all of our foam dust using a densification process to create durable garden pavers which we donate to schools in Thailand. We’ve also installed them on the grounds of surfing great Kelly Slater’s artificial wave in Lemoore, California. The foam dust had previously gone to landfills. On a related front, in 2016 we engaged with a New Zealand company that developed a process that traps the cool, condensed air conditioner waste water and recycles it back through the unit, reducing our air conditioner power consumption by 40 percent.
GSB: I love it! So does Firewire measure its carbon and water footprints?
MP: Not yet but we are planning to do a Life Cycle Assessment/carbon footprint analysis in the next year or two. In the meantime, we know we are trending in the right direction because our energy bill keeps getting lower per surfboard built, our raw materials are ever greener, and our waste streams are way down. In early 2019, we will start using Re-Rez…
GSB: What’s that?
MP: It’s a really cool product from an innovative Northern California company, Connora Technologies. They take a reformulated epoxy bio-resin, put it in warm vinegar, which un-cures it and allows it to be reused. Aside from the environment benefits, we expect to save over $30,000 in the first year by reusing various consumables at our factory. And then there’s the traction…
GSB: What do you mean by traction? Can you tell I’ve never surfed?
MP: For the uninitiated, there is a traction pad on the rear deck of the board to steady the back foot. Traditionally, the traction pad is made of ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA), another compound that has a toxic, high VOC output. So we switched to an algae-based, foam traction pad in collaboration with BLOOM Foam that has become the #1 seller in many our key surf retailers.
GSB: You guys are going the extra, green mile for sure!
MP: Thanks Lew. That is now baked into Firewire’s DNA. We expect to become the first Fair Trade Certified surfboard factory in early 2019. And we’ve already reduced our waste per board manufactured by 20 times, from 0.4 cubic meters to 0.02.
GSB: This is an incredible story, Mark. We’re glad to share it with the GreenSportsBlog audience but how do you get exposure to, and build awareness with the broader surfing community?
MP: In 2015, surfing legend and 11-time World Champion Kelly Slater became a major shareholder of Firewire. He is an eco-athlete of the first order and brought a tremendous following to us. On the marketing front, we mainly use web-based marketing and social media to reach our target audiences. No TV advertising for us — it doesn’t make sense from an audience perspective. And our efforts are working. Among premium priced surfboards sold through retail surf shops, we are between the #1 and #3 selling board in the market depending on the particular store and/or region.
Surfing legend and major Firewire shareholder Kelly Slater (Photo credit: Esquire)
GSB: With Slater on board, pun intended, and with the eco-innovations you’ve instituted, I have a feeling Firewire will be able to consistently maintain that #1 position.