Striking a balance between sustainability and producing boards, hardware and all the rest, is one of the more pressing challenges facing our industry.
Companies are striving to become sustainable, a complex task when you consider the off-set from shaping, shipping and disposing of surfboards and products. But it's a need to better protect our environment that has spurred Firewire to push innovation. In 2014, the company released a line of TimberTek boards, a lightweight EPS core coated in a wooden skin, which has been given the ecoboard stamp of approval.
And although Mark Price, Firewire's CEO, says the company's got a way to go in terms of sustainability, here he explains how we can improve, gives his take on sustainability and his insight on how businesses of the future could look.
Interview by Gregory Borne.
What's your interpretation of sustainability?
We operate on the premise that the world doesn't have enough resources to keep growing the global economy indefinitely. We are chewing through finite resources, creating too much toxicity and running out of places to put waste.
Therefore from a macro perspective, sustainability for us is about right-sizing the overall level of economic activity in the world and changing the nature of that activity to improve/reduce inputs and waste so that the world can sustain itself into the future.
Are you sustainable in your everyday life?
Not yet. I think I'm similar to Firewire and certain other industries in that I'm a work in progress - for example we replaced our backyard grass with hardscape, because it makes no sense to live in a drought environment and use water to irrigate our lawns.
My wife has a hybrid electric car so we are doing the basic stuff but there's more work to be done both professionally and personally We've also installed a rainwater catchment system so that our vegetable garden can be watered without using municipal water as much as possible, and we have a large array of solar panels. My wife has a hybrid electric car so we are doing the basic stuff but there's more work to be done both professionally and personally.
You have said before that sometimes the business you don't do is more important than the business you do. Can you say a bit more about that?
As is well documented on the website Peak Prosperity, if we take the 'usual' economic projections based on 3 - 4 per cent compounded growth - are economists really saying that in 18-24 years, which is not that long, the entire global economy is going to double in size? Where is the purchasing power to buy all of those products, where's the additional energy to produce them, and where is all the waste going to go? There's a marketing term called 'market permission'.
As you have some success in one product category or service, the market gives you permission to offer a broader range of products, because consumers like your brand or product etc. I think a lot of companies don't have enough discipline when it comes to product extensions so they just start making more and more stuff because they were successful in a certain area.
What would a company of the future look like?
I think that the companies of the future will be the ones that specialise in a particular product or service and operate in the most sustainable way possible, thereby building an authentic relationship with their customers. Creating customers who really appreciate what they are doing, not just from a design and function point of view, but also in the way that the company actually does business.
In other words, it will become as important how you do business versus today's focus which is mainly on how much business you do. It's not a subtle shift, and it has important implications for how companies go to market.
How do broader organisations instil this sense of quality?
I think that a lot of pressure is going to come from the consumer because in too many cases, if companies are just left to their own devices they are going to work on that compounded growth philosophy producing as many products as possible and excessive waste and pollution in the process.
I believe that in the future a sea change will occur where the consumer appreciates the self-imposed limitations of a particular company and rewards them with intense loyalty and long-term financial sustainability in the process. Patagonia is an example that has also scaled successfully. However, in the case of the surf industry, and probably many other industries as well, you have to get out of the traditional public company business model because I believe that it is generally in opposition to long-term sustainability on a finite planet.
There seems to be more scope for what non profits are doing - why do you think that is?
I think it's a combination of things. On the one hand you have private citizens who are realising the enormity of the problem that we face and they want to do something about it. Although with a few exceptions, the surfing industry is not supporting our endemic Non Profits enough.
You've come from Gotcha, Tavarua, Rip Curl right through into Reef. How have things changed in the surfing industry since your days at Gotcha?
I think the biggest change probably applies to all industry and products. In the 80s the companies and the media, ‘conspired’ (that's probably not the right word) let's say 'worked together' to decide what consumer preferences would be. Brands ran ads and in return they received a measure of editorial support, and it was a fairly symbiotic relationship creating the wants and desires of consumers. It still does exist today, but its not nearly as impactful because it's the other way around now.
Firstly, the companies can go direct to the consumer without needing 3rd party media to reach them, and secondly, because of the power of, and information on the internet, the consumer is much better informed as to what they want and its now more difficult to dictate to them.
Surfing is aspirational - do you think this is a key point to the surfing industry becoming a leader for sustainability in other industries?
I think we must do an exponentially better job moving towards increased sustainability as an industry before we can influence others. There certainly are companies that are noteworthy but in general I think it's fair to say that we are still largely a group of businesses selling products in a manner not much different to any other industry.
But we should also recognise that it is challenging to make these changes because increased sustainability, at least today, does generally increase the overall cost structure.