The Good Dr. Is In – Dr. Jess Ponting, The Center for Surf Research

Re-post from the Volcom New Future Blog – “Word on the Street: Dr. Jess Ponting

The Center for Surf Research (CSR) has proven itself as a powerful gateway for surfers, students, and organizations.  In their own words it is ‘THE international hub for research on sustainable surf tourism and issues of sustainability affecting the industry and broader community.’  The man pioneering it all is Dr. Jess Ponting, a surfer himself, who wants to pave the way for a new generation of surfers and travelers that are committed to a sustainable future.

I shot Dr. Ponting a few questions to get some opinions and updates for our Word on the Street Series:

(AE) CSR has been sort of ‘under the radar’ lately, but it seems like a lot of things are on their way – One of them being Stoke Certified, an organization working in partnership with CSR. It is scheduled to launch its official website this year.  Stoke Certified will be the world’s first sustainability certification program to cater specifically to the surf tourism industry.

Is it the first of its kind? Is it modeled off of another industry?

(JP) Yes. The Center for Surf Research is the first research center of its kind to focus specifically on the sustainability of surfing, and in particular surf tourism.  Several programs have existed in the past, and some endure, modeled on Plymouth University’s surfing program, which really prepares students to work in the surf industry. Similar programs have existed in Australia, France and Spain as well. None of these have had a research/sustainability focus and none have addressed surf tourism. CSR was not modeled after another industry, surfing and the challenges and opportunities its presents are quite unique.

What was your motivation?

(JP) I love travelling to surf new places. Travelling with surf being the guiding force of a trip, it takes you to amazing places that most tourists never experience, it allows you to interact with local people on an equal footing in the water, and forces you to care about the quality of the local environment and the wellbeing of the local people you are forging relationships with. I’ve seen surfing be a negative influence in many areas it has moved into, particularly in the less developed world. I think that we can do better if we take the time to learn from mistakes and draw from existing knowledge on sustainable tourism development. I want surfing to be a positive influence wherever it goes. That was the motivation.

What is the toughest part of unveiling things that are the first of their kind?

(JP) Getting people to buy in to your dream when all you have to show them is bunch of ideas, some on a piece of paper, some still in your head. Getting high-level university administration to take the study of surfing seriously has been an ongoing challenge as well, but I think we are winning that particular battle.

Last time I checked, the Tavarua Island Resort was looking to obtain the first Sustainable Surf Tourism Certification.  I know from reading the Volcom Fiji Pro posts that they were already under way, and considering their footprint in many different categories.

(JP) The first surf resort in the world to be certified sustainable by STOKE Certified is the Matanivusi Resort on Fiji’s Coral Coast – it is a fantastic property with great access to Fiji’s lesser known, but equally awesome breaks, like Fiji Pipe and Frigates Passage. We’ve been working with Tavarua for three years now on sustainability considerations and they have been wonderful partners in helping us develop and trial our certification criteria. Their official status right now is ‘Benchmarked’ which means we have a full understanding of where they stand from a sustainability perspective, all that remains is for them to schedule an evaluation and become certified. Tavarua are particularly strong in the areas of social and cultural sustainability in addition to their financial support of local communities over the years, and particularly their approach to staff retention (basically there is no staff turnover at all, none). They are a sustainability leader.

I also found, on your website, The Sustainable Stoke Catalogue which has not been released yet but is described as a fully featured material analysis and performance review of all “eco-labeled” products available on the market for surfers each season.  That sentence packs a punch and the work behind this project is unimaginable. Can you give us the inside scoop!?

(JP) The Sustainable Stoke Catalogue is still just an idea. We decided to prioritize the development of our study abroad program with Groundswell Educational Travel and theSTOKE Certified program. Groundswell is now fully operational and will be running three sustainable surf tourism trips over the winter break to Fiji, Costa Rica, and Peru, which will yield 3 units of GE Credit in Cross Cultural Interactions in Sustainable Surf Tourism from San Diego State University. STOKE Certified is being launched before the end of 2014. Once these programs are established we will circle back on the development of the Sustainable Stoke Catalogue.

You are the Co-Editor of what looks like an amazing book that will be published soon – Sustainable Surf – Transitions to Sustainability in the Surfing World.   The book has been said to explore the cutting edge of the surfing world’s transition to sustainability.  What was that process like? With such a heavy topic, where does one start? Does the book establish an all-encompassing transition?  In essence, is there one overbearing principle that ties together the many transitions?

(JP) The process was intense. We (co-editor Greg Borne and I) gathered more than 40 thought leaders in surfing and had them write about what they though sustainability meant in the surfing world and what they thought the biggest opportunities and challenges were. We then collected all the contributions and locked ourselves in a room for two weeks analyzing the themes and came out with a logical structure for the book, and an introduction that ties everything together. We have an incredible range of contributors that include a host of world champions including Rabbit Bartholomew, Shaun Tomson, Fred Hemmings, Cori Schumaker, to the heads of the surf industry including the president of the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association Doug Palladini, former CEO and current Chairman of the Board of Quiksilver Bob McKnight, Volcom’s Sr. Director of Sustainability Derek Sabori (Yay), and a host of other stakeholders including the founder of Surfrider Foundation Glenn Hening, SurfAid Founder Dave Jenkins, Surfers Against Sewage founder Chris Hines, Sustainable Surf co-founder Kevin Whilden, National Surf Reserves founder and World Surf Reserves inspiration Brad Farmer etc., etc.

The book really starts the conversation amongst thinking surfers as to what the key challenges to sustainability are in our world. It allows a variety of view points to be held simultaneously and establishes, for the first time, a landscape of opinions and ideas to emerge. We hope this can be the basis for a clearer understanding of the issues and opportunities and allow for collaboration on sustainability initiatives moving forward.

You were just featured in the special edition of Surfer Magazine titledOceans Under Siege as an ‘Agent of Change’ – a surfer committed to protecting our oceans.  Oceans Under Siege featured the frightening reality of climate change and showcased the opinions of people making a noteworthy impact on the environment.  The magazine covers the effects of pollution on our oceans and beaches, the aftermath/cleanup of Japan’s nuclear disaster, and Dustin Barca’s fight against GMO’s.  It’s great that Surfer Magazine covered the world’s environmental issues and their relation to surfing; however, there was never a discussion (good or bad) on the major surf brands and the products they produce and their actions for a sustainable future.

What are your thoughts? Do you think Surfer Magazine passed up an opportunity to applaud surf brands that are truly committed to the environment and ‘call out’ surf brands that aren’t?

(JP) Surfer Magazine exists at the pleasure of the companies who advertise in it. They are not in a position to openly criticize and expose poor practice or appear to support one brand over another. That’s why we need publications like Sustainable Stoke to step back and allow this discussion to take place outside the scope of corporate branding and advertising. I think it’s great that Surfer takes its opportunities to highlight good practices and change makers, but realistically it is not the right vehicle to ‘call out’ surf brands.

Speaking of brands, you’ve worked with a few over the years through your involvement with Surf Credits, namely the Volcom Fiji & Pipe Pro. What’s that been like and has it been successful and well received?

What role do surf brands play?  Are they an effective mechanism for a promoting a sustainable way of living?

(JP) Yes we’ve worked quite a lot with Volcom, but also with Vans, Oakley, Quiksilver and Spy, the latter two have actively supported our study abroad programs and research agendas. Volcom has supported our student interns and the SurfCredits program which has unfortunately become inactive since the change in ownership of the ASP and a lack of engagement between the ASP and the Corporate Social Responsibility platform that SurfCredits provides. On the whole the brands we’ve worked with have been receptive, it’s a matter of figuring out where the synergies are. Collaborations have to work for the brands as well. I think they can be an effective means of promoting a sustainable way of living, but work still needs to be done on figuring out how to build that into company messaging in a way that positively impacts sales and doesn’t blowout the bottom line.

During my internship here at Volcom, I’m to understand how we can (or if we should) effectively convey a sustainability message to our consumer. Ultimately I’m trying to form an opinion on whether or not our sustainability actions & messaging really matter to the consumer when it comes time to choose whether or not to buy from Volcom. 

In your opinion, how do we best engage the consumer?  Do they really care? Do they want to hear it? What level of sophistication are they at?

(JP) Great question. I tend to err in favor of the consumer being interested in sustainability. Now the demographic I work with is a little different to that of surf brands. I’m primarily dealing with surf travellers; the key demographic of surf brands is considerably younger. Having said that, I think it’s incumbent on organizations like the Center for Surf Research to work hard to develop a market for sustainable products as well as work with industry to develop the products themselves. STOKE Certified is all about doing this in the surf and snow spaces, initially in tourism, but more widely as well. CSR’s study abroad program, Groundswell Educational Travel, is also big on educating college-aged surfers about sustainability not just in tourism models but also in surf related purchasing behaviors more broadly. NGOs like Sustainable Surf are also working hard along these lines with their Deep Blue Life program – I think these efforts are super important as without consumer demand, the surf industry is a little hamstrung when it comes to putting sustainable products on store shelves.

Your Center for Surf Research at San Diego State University aims to facilitate a revolution in surf travel so that it benefits the communities where it happens.  You have probably devoted more time than anyone to understanding the surf industry, namely surf tourism, yet you aren’t directly involved with one surf brand.  Personally, I think this puts you in a great position to provide a valuable and somewhat objective opinion…

Because of your stature, if you were to ask challenges of the brands, what would they be? Something they could they be doing?  What are they doing that they could be doing more of? What’s something they should stop doing in your opinion?

(JP) In addition to committing to move surfing products towards sustainability over time (in the way that Kering, for example, is insisting that Volcom moves in that direction and is providing them with metrics and methodologies for that process), I would like to see brands engage more meaningfully in corporate social responsibility programs that support organizations engaged in creating demand for sustainable products. I would like to see more thought put into what results from corporate marketing strategies in terms of impacts in surfing destinations – you’re starting to see this with Volcom’s approach to staging surf contests, with the sponsoring brands who were adopting SurfCredits before the 2014 WCT season. It would be nice to see surf brands assume a more public role in tackling the global environmental issues that will threaten our sports (surf/snow) – I think that surfing is well placed to be a driver of social change once we all get pissed off enough that climate change is going to mean that our favorite reef breaks disappear, our breaks will be in permanent high tide, our snow seasons shorter. Once we start taking that seriously we’ll begin to demand better from ourselves and from others to protect what we love.

From Volcom: Special thanks to Dr. P for taking the time. To learn more about Axel’s experience here, go to the Center for Surf Research’s Blog for a reciprocal piece they did on him!