The Ultimate Guide to the Best Sustainable Surf Gear
It’s only logical to make your beach routine ocean-friendly.
The urgency of revolutionizing our systems of consumption and waste has never been more apparent. But as single-use plastic bans take effect in cities across the world and companies step up with pledges to change their ways, some are left wondering where they fit into this wave of action. Refusing a plastic straw doesn’t feel like enough, especially if you find yourself buying a plastic water bottle in a pinch the next day – and with so many environmentally destructive habits ingrained into our everyday lives, it can be difficult to know where to start.
Sustainable living is not a one-size-fits-all set of rules, but we all buy things. Short of ditching your car for a board rack equipped bicycle or switching to a plant-based diet, the best thing you can do for the ocean is to vote with your dollar. Investing in gear that's built to last and manufactured with minimum impact is guaranteed to make you feel more at one with the dolphins.
Consider what you truly need, and what might be frivolous. Exhaust second-hand options, and give your old gear some attention. (Did you know that Patagonia has dispatched a crusading wetsuit-repair truck to fix up suits of any brand for free?) When it’s time to make a new purchase, you’ll have saved money from taking these extra steps that can be put towards quality items you’ll love.
This guide will give you all the tools you need to make the choice that’s best for you and the planet.
Sunscreen is a necessity, but the wrong kind can damage the environment and can even harm your skin. Toxic sunscreens have been definitively linked to coral reef bleaching, a very serious issue that threatens thousands of species and millions of people whose livelihoods depend on healthy reef ecosystems. The state of Hawaii recently passed groundbreaking legislation to ban all sunscreens that contain the two offending ingredients: oxybenzone and octinoxate. This controversial bill will knock products from major sunscreen brands like Coppertone, Hawaiian Tropic, Neutrogena and Banana Boat off the shelves. It’s a massive step towards protecting coral reefs and promoting the innovation of healthier products.
The best way to protect your skin while playing in the ocean is applying a generous layer of mineral sunscreen, which is commonly zinc oxide based. The less it rubs in, the better! Chemical sunscreens soak into the skin and absorb UV radiation, whereas mineral sunscreens physically block the rays out. Besides being the healthy option, only the latter is truly effective in the water. A midday surf session will have your skin begging for a physical barrier against the elements. Don’t be fooled by the recent endorsements of chemical sunscreens by professional surfers— these companies are scrambling to preserve their profit margins.
Avasol is the industry leader in sustainable suncare with biodegradable and refillable packaging. It has a natural feel, smells great, comes in a range of shades, and works brilliantly when reapplied every few hours. Look for any sunscreen that is thick, opaque, and made from natural ingredients to find what works best for you.
Most wetties are made from neoprene, an oil-based, non-renewable rubber. As John Hubbard of Patagonia explained to The Guardian, the initial application of this material says it all: “The first versions of neoprene were actually used to line the bottoms of landfills, so what that tells you about its biodegradability is that it’s the worst.” On top of being energy intensive and non-biodegradable, many neoprene wetsuits don’t hold up over years of use.
The trick is finding a material that offers the flexibility, warmth, and performance of traditional wetsuits, without the high environmental cost. Patagonia has developed a plant-based rubber called Yulex, which they elected not to patent in hopes of encouraging widespread use. While other brands have yet to adopt it, Patagonia’s full line of Yulex wetsuits is available now, and have been proven to look, feel, and perform as well as neoprene – if not better. It’s more expensive than average, but that extra cost gets you a suit that will stand the test of time.
Other eco-friendly wetsuits have become available. Men's surf brand Vissla partnered with Surfrider for their Eco Seas line, which utilizes another renewable rubber. They’re helping to prove that renewable rubbers and recycled materials are the future of staying warm in the waves.
Synthetic materials make sportswear stretchy, breathable, and cheap, but it comes at a great environmental cost. Recycled nylon is a great way to repurpose plastics that would otherwise enter the waste stream, and it performs as well as virgin fabrics — some would even say it’s softer. One of the leading innovators in recycled fabrics is ECONYL® regenerated nylon, which is used by companies like Jeux De Vagues (luxury eco-bikini brand) and Outerknown (Kelly Slater’s men’s clothing label). They manufacture nylon from abandoned fishing nets, which constitute a huge source of marine plastic pollution at 1.28 billion pounds per year. Thankfully, this material has been taken up by numerous swimwear companies, though many of the major surf brands have yet to introduce it.
It’s not a perfect solution: like all synthetic fabrics, recycled nylon sheds microfibers — tiny strands of plastic that sweep into the ocean. Katherine Terrell, the founder of Jeux De Vagues, has been active in pushing for solutions to this issue. “It was eye-opening and alarming to see how synthetic fibers break down on a microscopic level,” she said. Right now, there’s no viable alternative, though there is potential: Terrell is excited about the developments in biopolymers she learned of at a Circular Fashion Workshop. In addition to supporting material innovation, Jeux De Vagues plans to launch a bikini recollection program which will allow them to observe and gather data on how their products shed microfibers. Their activist-brand, citizen-scientist approach is a model of business as a force for good.
The fashion industry is one of the worst polluters on the planet, and change has been slow. (If you haven’t seen the documentary The True Cost, add it to your Netflix list.) But by choosing recycled-fabric swimwear that’s made to last, you can do a lot to reduce your impact.
The first surfboards were made of materials sourced directly from the earth. In pre-Incan Peru, waves were ridden on reed fishing kayaks called caballitos de totora. Ancient Polynesians fashioned massive surfboards using planks of wood; elite chiefs rode models up to sixteen feet in length called olos, while commoners rode shorter, more manageable versions. This style, known as the alaia board, is still popular in some corners of the surfing world. Finless and sleek, it approaches invokes a different approach to waveriding, and is the most eco-friendly option out there.
When petroleum-based products like fiberglass, styrofoam, and plastics became widely available after World War II, the modern surfboard was born. These materials make for a far lighter board that’s easier to fine-tune, but the drawbacks are obvious: toxicity and non-renewability. Fortunately, manufacturers are coming up with alternative ways to create foams and resins with plant-based materials, such as agricultural byproducts, mushrooms, cork, and sap, or recycled junk. Wood is also making a comeback: Balsa and Paulownia are favored for their functionality, durability, and beauty.
Surfboards with reduced carbon footprints are already widely available. Sustainable Surf has introduced an EcoBoard rating program, which verifies boards that meet certain sustainability criteria. You can find their stamp on collections from tons of shapers, including Firewire, Channel Islands, Lost…, and many more. To see a full list of qualifying boards, visit their website. With ocean-friendly equipment under your feet, you’ll feel more in sync with every wave.
The responsibility to make ethical products more widespread is shared by producers, distributors, and consumers. Australia-based women’s surf shop Indigo + Salt is a leading example of the positive impacts one business can have on both ends of the supply chain. By stocking products from small businesses, operating plastic-free, and encouraging their partners to improve their sustainability practices, they educate suppliers and customers alike. They run on radical transparency: products that don’t make the sustainability cut are labeled as such. If you don’t live in Australia, fear not: they ship in recyclable packaging (and have their incoming shipments do the same).
Supporting your local surf shop and having conversations about their suppliers is a great way to get behind the movement. If you’re shopping online, requesting plastic-free packaging is worth a try. Change happens from bottom-up, top-down, and middle-out.