– Originally posted on The Guardian –
What can be done to stop the wave of waste entering our oceans becoming a tsunami of trash? According to campaign group Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) (pdf), at least one thing is clear: we need to build greater producer responsibility across the supply chain and hold principle polluters to account. So what are surfwear companies, so closely reliant on both thriving sales and thriving oceans, doing to set the standard?
The OSPAR Commission claims some 8m pieces of litter (pdf) enter the oceans and seas daily. For the UK, this means local authorities spend approximately €18m (£14.2m) (pdf) each year removing beach litter. With the level of marine litter consistently rising year on year, this cost is only set to rise.
There’s no one culprit, but it’s undeniable that the rise in single-use plastic – think food packaging, the stuff holding your newspaper supplements together and, of course, the polybag encasing the t-shirt you just ordered online, is a big factor.
Retailer responsibility has generally stopped at the shop door, but there are companies setting an example by taking responsibility for their product and packaging beyond the point of sale. It’s little surprise that some of the retailers leading the way are surf companies, whose whole business model is predicated on healthy oceans and happy swimmers.
Extended producer responsibility (EPR) can take many forms, including innovative product and packaging design, explicit end-of-life instructions, and financial incentives for recycling. Finisterre, the cold-water surf company for example, designs built-to-last clothing made from responsibly-sourced fabrics, and innovative packaging made from compostable corn starch that keeps non-biodegradable plastic to a minimum. Despite the extra cost and time required to design such packaging, Finisterre is clear that to do otherwise would be counter-intuitive:
“If you’re going to the ends of the Earth to get a product as responsible as you can”, says Ernie Capbert, brand director at Finisterre, “then to wrap it in shit defeats the whole purpose.”
For Finisterre, designing long-lasting apparel reduces both the volume of clothing that end up in landfill – approximately 350,000 tonnes of used clothing is disposed of in the UK every year – and the proliferation of single-use packaging. By integrating more circular economy thinking into their business model, Finisterre recognised the value of offering a repair service and now hires a milliner who repairs and patches garments.
Not only does this extend the product lifecycle, it creates brand awareness in the process, says Capbert: “Customers get patches and repairs in different colors, which tell stories about how each one came to be – it’s marketing money just can’t buy.”
So how can this be taken further? Keen to avoid any waste from its products, Riz Boardshorts, a London-based surf brand, uses a 360-degree sustainability process they call ‘Rizcycling’. The shorts its sells are made from 100% recycled-and-recyclable fabric. Because fabric recycling points can be hard to find, Riz incentivises customers to send shorts back by offering a 25% discount off a new pair – all posted in recycled-and-recyclable cardboard.
Not content with a closed loop, its next step is to run a crowdfunding campaign for investment to turn plastics found in the ocean and on beaches into shorts. By doing this it is working towards reducing the introduction of any new materials into the manufacturing process.
Adam Hall, sustainability manager of Surfdome says, “customers now expect action from a conscientious industry and it is our challenge to deliver that for them.”
In leading by example, surf companies are showing others in the clothing industry what’s possible. To date, the majority of the fashion industry has treated its effect on the environment as an uncosted externality. Surf companies such as Finisterre and Riz are demonstrating that doing good by the environment is also good for business.
Thomas Callan is a freelance researcher specialising in social and environmental policy