The GSB Interview: Mark Price of Firewire; Leading the Way on Sustainable Surfboards

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 Firewire

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.

GSB: Impressive!…

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.

 

Slater_SciFi_LFT__deck1

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

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.

 

Kelly Slater Esquire

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.

 


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GSB News and Notes: Waste World Cup; Sailors for the Sea’s Christina Thirkell on Selling Green-Sailing Partnerships; Paddle Boarding for the Planet

Welcome to an eclectic GSB News and Notes, featuring the 2017 Waste World Cup, an interview with green-sports partnership seller Christina Thirkell of nonprofit Sailors for the Sea, and the first GSB appearance of Paddle Boarding as eco-athlete Donica Shouse “paddles for the planet.” 

 

UK’S WASTE WORLD CUP HELPS RAISE MONEY FOR WASTE SERVICES IN THE DEVELOPING WORLD

The 2017 Waste World Cup – the British waste industry’s premier football/soccer tournament (they have other, lower level tournaments…who knew?) – takes place on September 1 at the University of Northampton. The event supports nonprofit WasteAid UK in their efforts to raise funds for waste services in developing countries.

According to an August 3 story by Steve Eminton in Let’s Recycle, the “UK’s leading independent dedicated website for businesses, local authorities and community groups involved in recycling and waste management,” this year marks “the 15th anniversary of the mixed-gender waste industry football tournament.”

Reigning champions and British waste management leader Bagnall & Morris returns to defend its crown against 23 challengers in the one-day, six-per-side football fest. Other British waste management industry stalwarts that will try to take down B&M include Hadfield Wood Recyclers, Red Kite Waste, Smart Solutions, and Valpak (not the US coupon company, but a UK environmental compliance firm of the same name.)

 

Bagnall Morris Waste World Cup Let's Recycle

Bagnall & Morris won its first Waste World Cup crown in 2016 and is out to make it two in a row on September 1st (Photo credit: Let’s Recycle/Bagnall & Morris)

 

Set up by waste industry professionals, WasteAid UK’s vision is to create a world with equal access to waste services for all. The nonprofit has an audacious goal: To increase spending on waste management from 0.3% to 3% of all international aid.

Mike Webster, chief executive at WasteAid, told Eminton that: “Yet again we are overwhelmed by the waste sector coming on-side to support better waste management for all. Two billion people don’t have any kind of waste service[s] and we are facing a global crisis, with climate change and marine plastics among the symptoms of our lack of action.

“Our goal is to help people deliver low-cost and local waste management, wherever they are. Adopting a community-scale approach to waste management helps score the hat-trick of improved health, better jobs and a protected environment.”

 

CHRISTINA THIRKELL: SELLING CORPORATE PARTNERSHIPS FOR SAILORS FOR THE SEA

GreenSportsBlog: Christina, you are a rare bird — for now, at least — in that you make your living educating and presenting corporations on the benefits of green-themed partnerships/sponsorships on behalf of Sailors for the Sea. How did you carve this niche?

Christina Thirkell:  I am an ocean lover and spent my childhood summers in Maine and in Marblehead, MA where my grandfather owned a marina next to the Boston Yacht Club. So I was hooked on the ocean from age four.

GSB: Did you go into sailing or boating as a career?

CT: No. I gravitated towards the advertising agency world with my fascination with brand marketing. I worked on a broad base of accounts in the sports and active lifestyle categories, including Converse, Danskin Brands and Ben Hogan Golf, just to name a few. Then I pivoted to the client side, picking up responsibilities in addition to marketing, including investor relations and public relations at a leading technology analyst firm, Giga Information Group.

 

Christina Thirkell

Christina Thirkell, partnership consultant for Sailors for the Sea (Photo credit: Christina Thirkell)

 

GSB: WOW! That’s a perfect background for your current role at Sailors for the Sea — a sailor with an appreciation for the ocean who understands what big brands want and need. So did you go into sponsorship sales after your tenure at Giga Information Group?

CT: Not right away. I had a strong desire to work in the non-profit arena. I was introduced to a financial executive in Boston who had started a golf event, raising funds at the time directed for cancer research to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. He had started the Expect Miracles Foundation, with the mission of rallying the financial world to support the fight against cancer. It was small operation at the time. No website, no marketing, no staff.

GSB: Whoa…

CT: So I joined with the goal of building the brand, almost from scratch…

GSB: …That’s a big goal!

CT: I developed the website and handled all of the communications, messaging, programing and fundraising development. We took the Foundation from $200,000 to $13 million in nine years and expanded it from Boston to New York City and California. By the time I left the organization, we had over 100 corporate financial sponsors including the big firms such as JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Legg Mason, John Hancock, Northern Trust and American Century Investments.

GSB: Congratulations! You were playing in the big leagues and playing well! So then what happened?

CT: Thank you! A few years ago I started following Sailors for the Sea and was really blown away with their mission…

GSB: …Which is to unite boaters and sailors to protect the ocean…,

CT: Yes…I also found myself excited about their branding, their outstanding programs like Clean Regattas, along with their foothold in the sailing and boating community. I expressed my interest in working with them in any capacity. A few months ago, the President reached out as they were looking for a consultant who could launch their corporate sponsorship and engagement program

GSB: Very cool! How is it going so far? And what kinds of companies are you talking to?

CT: So far, so good. It’s early days, but the reaction has been positive. In early June we developed a robust sponsorship platform that allows companies to showcase their commitment and support to ocean health while simultaneously reaching the sailing, boating and marine market. At the end of June, Sailors for the Sea traveled to the Green Sports Alliance (GSA) Summit in Sacramento and received the GSA’s Environmental Innovator of the Year Award for the Clean Regattas program. Clean Regattas is the only sustainability certification for water-based events and over 1,000 regattas have used our program. In addition, the GSA was an amazing learning platform for us as we saw how a variety of companies are developing and integrating sustainability-specific programs into their overall marketing and business plans. In terms of partnership categories, beyond sailing, boating and auto, we’re also working on the luxury and financial services categories as our demographics are in line with theirs, and many brands within those categories have sponsored sailing and boating initiatives in the past.

 

Sailors For Sea Antigua

Sailors for the Sea’s Caribbean Representative, Renata Goodridge installs a water filling station at Antigua Sailing Week. By supplying water stations, regatta organizers are able to greatly cut down on the single-use plastic water bottles as part of the Clean Regattas program. (Photo credit: Sailors for the Sea)

 

GSB: What about brands in categories that have, shall we say, a green tint? I’m thinking of the Patagonias of the world, the Unilevers.

CT: Absolutely. Corporations that are walking the green walk need trusted, powerful outlets through which to talk the green talk to their key prospects. We can help. And we are trusted — Sailors for the Sea is the only non-profit organization that focuses solely on the boating and sailing communities to engage them in ocean conservation. And those communities are sizable.

GSB: I love it! A trusted voice and a great audience fit for many categories. I know you just started but have you landed any partners?

CT: I’m proud to say we have our first two corporate sponsors on board, MJM Yachts and Helly Hansen – Newport. With both companies, we offer a connection to the boating community that also ties in environmental stewardship and demonstrates their support for ocean health.

GSB: That’s great to hear, as I know that sponsorships are generally not quick sells. I hope and suspect that non-maritime companies — like financial services and auto — will take notice and will be next to come on board.

 

DONICA SHOUSE PADDLE BOARDS FOR THE PLANET

GreenSportsBlog has anointed several environmentally-minded athletes “eco-athletes”. But we’ve never come across an athlete who uses that term to describe her/himself.

Until now.

In an August 17 interview in SUP Magazinethe journal that covers “everything related to stand-up paddling,” Donica Shouse told Rebecca Parsons that she is indeed an “eco-athlete” who “draws joy from competition, but above all else she paddles for the planet.” Shouse walks the green walk as she “rides solely for eco-conscious companies, adheres to a plant-based diet, and runs a sustainably minded company alongside her husband.”

You couldn’t script a better path to eco-athlete-dom. Shouse, who grew up in Oregon, told SUP that she her family had a beach cabin where she learned to surf. And, by college, “I was active in Surfrider and elected surf club president at Oregon State where I got my first taste of environmentalism and the effects of our choices. I graduated with a B.S in Natural Resource Education and minor in Environmental Science. All my favorite things growing up fit perfectly into my love of surfing and protecting the ocean.”

Shouse visited Hawaii in 2003 and has never left, marrying her husband Abraham. They started Paddle Hawaii in their backyard.

 

Donica Shouse Paddle Boarding Abraham

Donica Shouse, paddling for the planet in Hawaii (Photo credit: Abraham Shouse)

 

More from the Sup Magazine interview: “My husband now has a wood shop in Kona. He recently partnered with Sustainable Surf to certify each piece as part of the eco board project. We hand harvest bamboo shafts and then Abraham crafts them into functional art—paddles, surfboards, skateboards and more. Paddle Hawaii has become an umbrella that also includes our photo/ video business, Star Shot Media. We have a ton of fun capturing peoples’ special moments, be that in love, adventure, or both.

 


 

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