Leading by example: Firewire Surfboards & global climate change

Passion can be a powerful tool for change, and surfers have a strong incentive to protect their sport…

Surfing is in danger as a result of climate change

Surfing has its roots in human interaction with the natural world. However, there is an inherent conflict between the toxic process of manufacturing surfboards and the preservation of surf-spots around the world. Specifically, ocean acidification and rising sea levels resulting from climate change threaten to destroy many of the world’s natural surf breaks1,2. According to a study out of Stanford University, 34% of surf-spots in California will be endangered or threatened due to drowning by 2100, forcing the growing 1.1 million surfers in California to crowd into the surviving spots3. The impact on surf communities could be substantial via loss of real estate value for homeowners and economic value for local tourism4. Economist Jason Scorse conducted a study in Santa Cruz that determined houses next to surf breaks were $106,000 more valuable on average than nearby comparable houses, and, in Puerto Rico, a study determined that tourism, mostly surf-related, generated $52 million annually for Rincon4. While the surfboard industry is small, projected to grow 10% annually from 2015-2020 to $1.3 billion, the global adventure tourism market is much larger, expected to grow 46% annually from $0.6 trillion to $3.7 trillion over the same period5,6.

While most surfboard companies today still manufacture surfboards in a highly toxic process, Firewire Surfboards (“Firewire” or the “Company”) has established itself as a leader in sustainable manufacturing7. Management at Firewire believes that climate change poses an existential threat to humanity, to their sport, and to their business and views its product as part of the problem and potential solution7.

Firewire is leading by example

The ECOBOARD Project was created in 2012 to provide independent, third party labeling to educate consumers on which surfboard companies are focused on carbon footprint reduction, increased use of renewables, recycled inputs, and reduction of toxicity in manufacturing8. Today, Firewire is the only global surfboard company to produce every surfboard in accordance with ECOBOARD certification7. Firewire is a high-performance sporting brand; therefore, while the Company aims to produce less toxic surfboards, it strives to maintain the highest level of performance7. Below is a video of 11-time world surfing champion Kelly Slater using an ECOBOARD9:

The standard poly surfboards today are made in a toxic process using polyurethane foam, polyester resin, and acetone7,10. In the short-term, Firewire maintains its leadership position in sustainable manufacturing by using bio-resins, sustainably grown timber, 20% recycled foam core, zero acetone, and 50x less volatile organic compounds7. Per the below, ECOBOARDs produce on average ~30% less CO210.

The Company is also ISO9000 certified, reflecting its repetitive, consistent manufacturing outcomes7. Over the short-term, Firewire will be rolling out its use of REREZ recyclable epoxy resin in its surfboards7. REREZ can be removed from its boards with a concentrated vinegar solution and used to produce new products, like surfboard fins7. In the medium-term, the Company is aiming to achieve ISO140001 certification for environmental management, reach carbon neutrality, achieve zero-waste by 2020, and earn fair trade certification7.

Next steps

In order to further address climate change, Firewire should focus on aspects of its manufacturing process that can further reduce pollution, putting more concrete action steps towards its lofty medium-term goals. First, they should continue to pursue solar options where possible throughout its headquarters and manufacturing facilities7. The Company should also aggressively pursue additional sponsorships beyond Kelly Slater to further dispel the performance fallacy of the ECOBOARD7. Firewire should relocate its manufacturing facilities from Asia to reduce transportation emissions per board (see below for CO2 per board)10.

The Company should look to find ways to partner with the surf tourism industry, like having the boards at prominent surf hotels and hostels with displays to educate consumers. Firewire should partner with the World Surf League to do advertising and education at events. Today, ~90% of professional surfers still use standard, poly surfboards7. Firewire should continue to strive for the highest quality and durability of its products to justify higher pricing7. In doing so, the Company should help smaller manufacturers, who might have a more difficult time justifying the higher costs associated with a sustainable supply chain. Finally, Firewire should consider the role it can play in promoting mental health as a way to further educate consumers on the importance of the sport. Organizations like Operation Surf are proving out the mental health benefits of surfing: the organization’s wounded veteran participants have exhibited decreases in PTSD symptoms by 36%, decreases in depression by 47%, and increases in self-efficacy by 68%11.

Remaining questions

As the surfing world evolves, Firewire should consider the role it will play in surf parks (see below video12). Should Firewire partner with these organizations to spread the sport? It is tempting for surfboard manufactures to view artificial waves as a force to counteract climate change’s impact on natural breaks.


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(1) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, “How does climate change affect coral reefs?” https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/coralreef-climate.html, accessed November 2017.

(2) Gregory Thomas, “Surfonomics quantifies the worth of waves,” Washington Post, August 24, 2012, https://www.washingtonpost.com/surfonomics-quantifies-the-worth-of-waves/2012/08/23/86e335ca-ea2c-11e1-a80b-9f898562d010_story.html?utm_term=.1b5af4658958, accessed November 2017.

(3) Dan R. Reineman, Leif N. Thomas, and Margaret R. Caldwell, “Using local knowledge to project sea level rise impacts on wave resources in California,” Ocean & Coastal Management 138, (March 2017): 181-191. Accessed via ScienceDirect in November 2017.

(4) Paul Kvinta, “Surfonomics 101,” Fortune, June 5, 2013, http://fortune.com/2013/06/05/surfonomics-101/, accessed November 2017.

(5) “Global Adventure Tourism Market 2016-2020,” Technavio, https://www.technavio.com/, accessed November 2017.

(6) “Global Surfboard Market 2016-2020,” Technavio, https://www.technavio.com/, accessed November 2017.

(7) Firewire Surfboards, “Sustainability,” https://firewiresurfboards.com/sustainability/, accessed November 2017.

(8) The ECOBOARD Project, “We’re All About It,” http://www.sustainablesurf.org/ecoboard/about/, accessed November 2017.

(9) Slater Designs, “Kelly Test Rides the Banana in FST by Greg Webber,” Vimeo, published April 25, 2016, https://vimeo.com/164126615, accessed November 2017.

(10) The ECOBOARD Project, “The ECOBOARD lifecycle study,” http://www.sustainablesurf.org/ecoboard/lifecycle-study/, accessed November 2017.

(11) Amazing Surf Adventures, “Operation Surf,” http://amazingsurfadventures.org/programs/operation-surf/, accessed November 2017.

(12) Kelly Slater Wave Co, “Looking into the Future,” Vimeo, published May 27, 2016, https://vimeo.com/168364510, accessed November 2017.


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Student comments on Leading by example: Firewire Surfboards & global climate change

  1. I’m surprised that more surfers don’t use eco-friendly surfboards, as it seems they would be uniquely attuned to the direct threats against their passion and in some cases, profession. Do Firewire boards offer a different level of performance that would prohibit amateur or professional surfers from using them, particularly from the reduced use of resin in its boards? If not, why do you think more surfers haven’t adopted using these boards? Are there other prohibitive factors that Firewire should address, such as high price points, limited retail availability and distribution, or a long production lead-time? Are there ways the company could improve their production process and supply and distribution chains to customers in order to increase its market share?

    I agree with the idea that Firewire should target sponsoring more surfers to get higher levels of visibility. As is the case with many extreme sports, I think that in surfing, professionals have the ability to dramatically influence the demand for specific goods and brands through sponsorship and endorsements. This, coupled with the production of special edition or custom boards for certain occasions could generate a lot of positive buzz for the company. I also think that Firewire should tap into the rapidly growing adventure tourism and overall tourism markets – it could target partnering directly with travel and tour organizations like TripAdvisor and PlacePass to get connected with the many companies that offer, or could offer surfing activities, tours and trips. It’s still unlikely, however that Firewire could displace existing board manufacturers through these efforts. I’m therefore left wondering, should the company instead attempt to change other manufacturers’ behavior and create a new, more environmentally-friendly industry standard for producing surfboards? Or does Firewire care more about its unique competitive advantage in the marketplace than creating a sustainable environmental change in the industry?

    1. In terms of performance, there seems to be a perception in the market that Firewire boards do not offer a high enough level of performance to professional surfers, many of whom still use the poly boards. I think there is a fear among professionals that performance will be sacrificed for the good of having an environmentally friendly board, providing a difficult decision matrix given their livelihood is related, in part, to the performance of their surfboard in competition. This is important for the amateur surfers because their perception of quality is affected by professional surfers, who help dictate what is cutting edge by what they use in competition. For amateurs, there is also the issue of higher price. Today, these boards cost more to manufacture because they are environmentally friendly. For example, the packaging Firewire uses is ~5x more expensive than using bubble pack and cardboard as they did before [7].

      I agree that targeting adventure tourism is key here. I believe Firewire cares about their competitive advantage, but I tend to think they care more about the impact of the industry on climate change. As such, I think they can continue to take a leadership position, which should in turn help their business as well by keeping their name at the forefront of this movement.

  2. Jack has done a great job in outlining Firewire’s efforts to mitigate climate change risk: 1. Optimize its manufacturing process, 2. Educate consumers on climate change risk and well-being, 3. Strive for high quality and sustainable products. However, I think that Firewire could further increase its efforts by leveraging the latest 3D printing technology advancements. First of all, 3D printing emits less smoke and toxic fumes than traditional manufacturing. Those emissions can also be better contained and scrubbed out with filters. 3D printing’s benefits go beyond carbon emissions, with the biggest gains in logistics and manufacturing. Indeed, by getting 3D printers closer to its customers, Firewire could reduce shipping. Furthermore, with 3D printing providing much more flexibility, boards could be produced locally according to actual demand, hence reducing the number of goods shipped by railroads or ocean vessels. This could have a considerable impact in climate change mitigation, since transportation accounts for about a quarter of all carbon emissions [1]. Moreover, 3D printing enables a more efficient manufacturing process through additive manufacturing, by combining materials into a product one layer at a time. As such, only the material strictly required for the final product is actually used, in opposition with traditional manufacturing which relies on subtractive techniques, where an initial rough shape is sequentially reduced to the desired dimensions. The traditional manufacturing processes create indeed a lot of waste, often discarding more material than needed in the final product. For example, Samsung, LG, Panasonic, and other companies are moving to 3D-printed to produce their OLED video screens, hence optimizing their OLED screens manufacturing process and hence avoiding the waste of rare and expensive light-emitting chemicals during production [2]. This could be a good way for Firewire to position itself as leading pioneer in sustainable surfboards manufacturing!

    [1] “Transport, Energy and CO2”, International Energy Agency, 2009, accessed November 2017.
    [2] “LG to ‘print’ more affordable OLED TVs from 2017”, Avforums, October 28, 2016, https://www.avforums.com/threads/lg-to-print-more-affordable-oled-tvs-from-2017.2060728/, accessed November 2017.

    1. This is a great idea, Bahia. I would say that the only thing that worries me on the 3D printing front is losing the craftsmanship of surfboard manufacturing. Perhaps, 3D printing could be used only for the already automated parts of the production process.

  3. This article was such an interesting paradox. The surfers who are “consuming” the surfboards are endangering their own surf-spots in the long term. It was very interesting to read about this connection. I believe Firewire is doing a great job in trying to address this issua, but the impact that surf – as a standalone sport – can have in climate change is fairly limited. If I was Firewire I will try to seek partnerships with other sports such as water-skiing, kitesurfing, sailing, etc.. (or even going further with more traditional sports) in order to create an impactful campaing that raises awarness in people about the consequences of their own products. One example I can think of is water-skiing. Eventhough there is debate whether water-skiing has a neutral, positive or negative impact on climate change, alliances can be formed between different sports to raise awarness, promote acological products and eventually safeguard their “playing fields”

    1. Great idea in terms of coordinating with other sports. I think the difficulty for Firewire is in maintaining its branding as a surf company. Firewire would want to be careful not to harm their brand by associating too much with other sports. One thing to consider would be first attacking the stand up paddle board market, which is very closely related and growing in popularity.

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