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Shaun Tomson on Sustainable Surfing

By Cameron Brown on March 5, 2015 in The Quiver with 0 Comments

Shaun Tomson, 1977 World Champion of Surfing, is one passionate human being. I remember years ago, I breezed through one of his books on a road trip with my parents. I was captivated by the stories of his youth in South Africa, his professional surfing career, and his pioneering of surfing Oahu’s North Shore.

Last month I emailed him a question about sustainability in the surfing industry, and explained that he could answer in as much or as little detail as he would like, and that as deep as he was willing to go into the subject, I was intent on learning from what he had to say.

In an attempt to be respectful of his time, I made sure to only ask one question:

For a more sustainable surf industry to be the top priority of mainstream surf culture, what needs to happen?

Not only did Tomson respond promptly, but he went into great detail about the subject (hence the passion), and followed up his response with a brief phone call the following morning.

As an introduction, he warned me that, “Sustainability is a rather fuzzy topic these days…” Indeed it is, which is precisely the reason I want to talk about it.

Tomson sees it as consisting of three parts:

Economic

The organization needs to generate profits for its stakeholders in order to survive – in 1970 economist Milton Friedman famously said that the only social responsibility of business is to increase profits and he was right. While his statement has been soundly dismissed over the years I believe it is valid, as the meanings of the terms social responsibility and profit have broadened to encompass true economic sustainability.

Community

The organization has a responsibility to the community in which it operates to pay fair wages, to pay fair prices, to adhere to human rights standards, and to uplift through adherence to positive values.

Environmental

The organization is committed to maintaining the quality of the environment for future generations – clean water, clean air and protection of natural resources. The organization is committed to creating products that limit environmental impact.

While I disagree with Milton Friedman’s statement that increasing profits is “the only social responsibility of business,” organizations undeniably need to make profits to survive.

Tomson’s thoughts on communities and environmental issues are perfectly congruent with John Elkington’s concept (developed in 1994) of “The Triple Bottom Line” illustrated in Nick Power’s A Surfer’s Guide to Sustainability.

To elaborate more on the subject, Tomson posed and answered two additional questions.

1. How can the individual companies in the surfing industry be more sustainable?

By committing to these 3 aspects of sustainability and also by examining their individual purpose and character. I like 2 words from the ancient Greeks: telos meaning purpose and ethos meaning character. I believe each organization needs to review both its purpose and character – what makes each company different, what makes each company special and what is their ultimate goal beyond simply quarterly profits and increasing market share. When the industry began it had strong purpose and strong character, and it was fueled by stoke. Today it has veered towards a focus on economic sustainability only. I believe the purpose of the surf industry is to share stoke and connect people to the ocean through innovative products.

There are two things I love about this answer:

  1. He points out the imbalance that is currently present in the industry, which prioritizes economic over societal and ecological sustainability.
  2. The way he attaches significance to organizational purpose and character.

In a recent article on Medium, Anne Loehr discusses “The Future of Work: Creating Purpose Driven Organizations.” In the article she provides this neat little graphic by www.imperative.com.

While this graphic focuses more on an individual employee level, it screams purpose and character, and streamlines with the key concepts brought up by Tomson.

2. Why should companies engage in sustainability initiatives?

There are 2 reasons – a business case and a normative case. The business case describes the theory that doing good is good for business – it has been proven that customers, suppliers and employees like to be involved with companies that do good. The normative case illustrates that being socially responsible is the right thing to do – it is a duty and responsibility of the individuals in the organization that make up the ultimate collective decision.

The majority of companies in the industry attest to both the normative and business cases. The question that remains is to what extent?

One of my greatest curiosities is to figure out how to influence mainstream surfing culture to care enough about having a more sustainable surf industry that they are willing to take huge action, and demand change. That was the answer I was fishing for in my email to Tomson.

I believe that the first step to finding that answer is for more companies to adapt transparency in their business practices, so that individual customers can make educated decisions on whether or not to buy a company’s products.

Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles is the perfect example of this.

While he didn’t exactly address this in his response, Tomson held nothing back in his answer because he clearly cares about the topic. The current status of sustainability in the surf industry eludes me and the vast majority of us on “the outside.”

Imagine what it would be like if, like Patagonia, the industry let us in. If transparency was the status quo. Would we continue to support and respect the industry giants in the way we do now?

Or, would we find that the very industry who promotes a lifestyle around the ocean, is contributing hugely to it’s demise?

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