Over the past 15 years I have been researching what sustainable development and sustainability mean and how these terms are translated into real world programs, initiatives and policies.  I have done this at the United Nations, at the national and local government level. I’ve looked at the sustainability of 2012 Olympics in London this year as well as exploring community and individual responses to risks such as climate change.  As a surfer of over 20 years, mostly in the cold and fickle waves of the South West of England, it was only a matter of time before I started exploring sustainable development in the surfing world. What follows is a small introduction to sustainable development, surfing, and an emerging area of research.

Sustainable development remains a contested and ambiguous concept. It has been described as an oxymoron — that no development, by its very nature, can be sustainable. Others say that it means all things to all people and so, ultimately, means nothing.  Perhaps the most serious accusation is that it is a term that does nothing more than legitimise existing modes or production and consumption, and as we all know, they don’t really work.

Considering all that, I am still a proponent of sustainable development. I believe it is the most important term of the 21st Century and provides a focal point around which different cultures, different religions, and different sectors can come together and discuss the multiple and complex impacts humanity is having on our planet.  Its basic definition, from the Bruntland Commission’s 1987 report ‘Our Common Future’ (WCED 1987) says it is “development that meets the needs of current populations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This definition was again enforced at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.  It was at this summit that Agenda 21 (UN 1992) was borne, considered by many to be the blueprint for sustainable development.

In the 20 years between the first Rio summit in 1992 and its most recent incarnation, the meaning and context of the concept has altered significantly.  Initially focused on the environment, now the term is broader and focused on three pillars: “the triple bottom line” of environment, society and the economy. Recent work, including my own, now emphasises the complexity of the definitions and focuses on a “systems approach” to sustainable development exploring governance and the role of multiple stakeholders.

With this heavily abbreviated history, definition and emerging perspectives on sustainable development established, let’s talk a bit about the fusion of surfing and sustainable development.  With an estimated 10 million surfers in 120 countries and an industry worth in excess of six billion dollars, surfing is a significant player on the international stage in many different areas.  Its effects range from impacts on local communities living close to world class waves, through the rapid rise of surf tourism, to the impact of the production and consumption of surfing related products, shorts, wetsuits boards etc.  As with other sector of society the language of sustainability is being used to grapple with the multiple issues that relate to surfing.

Of course, what the term means within the surfing world will inevitably change depending on what area is being looked at, and so it should. Considering this, I want to urge an interrogation of the term and what it’s being applied to.  This interrogation starts with a very simple question: How is sustainability being used and in what context? It means looking very carefully at ‘sustainability claims’. It means understanding, for example, what is meant by “sustainable surf tourism,” understanding the impacts and processes, asking the right questions and challenging the established status quo. It’s about accommodating diversity, conflict and different visions. What it absolutely should not mean (and this refers back to the most serious criticisms of sustainable development) is business as usual under
a shiny new label.

I have only begun to explore these questions and I start modestly.  But I cautiously see some genuine and exciting changes within the surfing world.  There are a number of internal and external variables I could point to but I’ll leave you with two of the strongest examples. Firstly, the mediums for the serious exchange of ideas, thought, and commentary within the surfing world have significantly evolved and/or grown up. The creation of the website, The Greener Blue, with a specific focus on surfing and sustainability is a good example of this.  Secondly, a very visible change is the increasing effectiveness of non-profit organisations that specifically focus on sustainability.  The organization, Sustainable Surf, in particular and  its programs related to market transformation within the surfing industry is an example of changing towards a more sustainable model of doing business.  Their Waste to Waves program has been successful not only from a recycling perspective but also in moving the debates around recycling and pollution in surfing into the mainstream media, eg: Forbes.  The greening of the San Francisco
Rip Curl Pro and the subsequent partnership with the Association of  Surfing Professional leading to the sustainability initiatives at the Volcom Fiji Pro through the Deep Blue Surfing initiative are yet more examples.

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  • This is super exciting. Thanks to Dr Greg Borne for formally introducing surfing to sustainable development and outlining a few of the recent key developments in this space. I also see a paradigm shift here. I hope that all the facets of the surf industry from manufacturing to retail, travel and media, and the professional sporting component, as well as the surfing community all take this opportunity to coalesce around this burgeoning social movement. The time is right: There is unprecedented interest in sustainability and concern about the sustainability of surfing; today’s youth seem prepared to make fundamental changes to the way they do things to achieve sustainability; thought leaders in the surf industry are finally taking these issues seriously and taking action; the academic community is more interested than ever in surfing and its impact on the world – note two research Centers dedicated to this established in San Diego and Plymouth in the last 12 months – an unprecedented number of non-profits are working on micro and macro issues of surfing and sustainability all over the world. What is really cool is that the barriers between environmental and social activists and the surf industry are beginning to come down. The researchers, non-profits, university Centers etc are actively engaged with the industry to point out poor performance (as has always been the case) but increasingly also to collaboratively find solutions. If the surfing public gets behind these changes, organizations, and change leading brands great things will follow – see and their partnership with Volcom during the Fiji Pro to support Give Clean Water and the Loloma Foundation who do great community work in Fiji.

    The San Diego State University Center for Surf Research is in full support of our mate from across the pond, Dr Greg. We look forward to collaboratively establishing a community of researchers, change makers, and interested folks in this space. See for what’s happening at SDSU.

    Dr. Jess Ponting
    Director, San Diego State University Center for Surf Research

  • A big Shaka out to our advisory board member Dr. Greg “Patches” Borne for laying out the foundations of sustainable development (…“development that meets the needs of current populations without
    compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”), and why it’s critical to shift to this new model. Our nonprofit organization Sustainable Surf is proud to be involved in the emerging  trifecta of  Media / NGO’s / Academia collaboration that aims to make surfing synonymous with sustainability. As Dr. Jess Ponting (SDSU – CSR) points out below, the time is right; we couldn’t agree more, except to say that it’s right NOW!

    Michael Stewart
    Co-founder Sustainable Surf

  • Hi.

    It’s great to see the
    triple bottom line of sustainability getting a mention in this article. Also
    good to see the Bruntland definition getting another outing. From my perspective, (37 years high
    school teaching, 45 years surfing. 40 years of environmental activism and
    sustainability education etc etc), I have come to the view that social
    sustainability is the key element in the sustainability trifecta. That is why I
    approached Dr Dave Jenkins, SurfAid International’s founder, back in 2002 and
    said I wanted to start a Schools Program for the organisation. I believe that this
    pioneering surf-based NGO spawned the current growing wave of surfer consciousness
    and philanthropy. It also provided the opportunity to use individual and
    collective acts of humanitarian concern to educate future generations on why
    the future of our planet depends on how people act as global citizens. The
    basic and well-known premise is that we are all in this together folks! We are
    on this one little blue planet whizzing around in space and if we are lucky we
    will get around 80 years here. How we act individually and collectively during
    that time determines how the planet will continue to develop. This is where
    social sustainability becomes the key element. A sustainable society is one
    where its people perceive their individual and collective roles in terms of
    their relationships with others. This means living by a set of personal values
    that reflect social justice and equity, respect for cultural diversity,
    optimistically believing that you can make a difference, supporting
    sustainability in all forms and having empathy with others. These values
    statements happen to be the generally accepted characteristics of good global
    citizenship. In these times of unprecedented global communication we can all
    combine to ensure that the next generation takes the right values to the
    negotiating table when deciding how this particular resort or that prime surf
    break or that waste product will be dealt with. As Dr Greg Borne implies, if
    decision makers are only informed by the “business as usual” set of values then
    development decisions will turn out the same. If their values reflect greed,
    exploitation, short-term self-interest, cultural annihilation, environmental
    vandalism and disrespect for basic human rights then it won’t matter what
    economic or sustainable development model they are presented with. Their final actions
    will be the same. Educating our little niche surfing group on the fine points
    of sustainability is a worthy task. Older citizens can change their ways but
    the young are still forming their ways so education about the big world-view
    issues at a school level will add to the overall picture being presented in
    this article. I too commend all the players out there who believe they can make
    a difference. We live in exciting and important times and education at all
    levels is the key to getting lasting change. My last bit of pontificating is to
    endorse the Sanskrit message on the Indonesian coat of arms. It says “Unity in
    Diversity”. That says it all for me. Keep up the good work everyone.

  • Tara Ruttenberg

    Thanks for the article, Greg. I think your point about interrogating what sustainability means within the surfing world is spot-on. I come at this thing from a similar angle as you – looking at the links between surf tourism and sustainable development, and I agree that the ‘sustainable surf tourism’ nexus is in need of serious critical debate regarding what is meant by sustainable and how we can come up with practical solutions that don’t just reproduce the problems we’re seeking to solve – namely the ills of the global growth economy and its many manifestations in surf tourism and beyond. This no doubt includes taking a deeper look at things like surf philanthropy for development, sustainable surf tourism certification schemes, best practices for surf schools and tour operators, sustainable surf tourism management models and surf-related educational travel. Within these categories, there seem to be some fundamental inconsistencies between what we’re preaching and what we’re practicing as far as sustainability is concerned. Business-as-usual and calling it ‘sustainable’ isn’t getting us anywhere; it’s time we think outside the box, specifically outside the market capitalist / Western-ways-of thinking boxes we still seem to be stuck inside. This debate has made its way quite powerfully into the sustainable development discourse and practice – it’s high time sustainable surf tourism (in its many manifestations) faces the same sort of rigorous interrogation.

    I think I’ll have a go at it myself – perhaps given our similar research interests you might be keen to collaborate?

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