Ryan Harris has been shaping surfboards for two decades now and he’s carved out a pioneering role in the industry by pursuing a zero-waste operation. To do that, he’s had to think outside of the box when it comes to traditional board building. Excess resin gets turned into things like coasters and wax combs. Excess foam from blanks make new hand planes. He once made a surfboard — a functional, well-performing one — out of used masks, used straws, and scrap carbon fiber. Even dust and tape in his sanding room don’t go in the trash, they are upcycled and used in some other creation that he’ll make functional. In an industry full of toxic materials, he leaves no room for waste.
‘This is something that other industries could totally get behind,” he told us in 2020, “because every product that is made has a waste stream.”
It turns out Harris is putting that belief to work by turning his operation into an all-around sustainable lifestyle brand. For one, he’s always dreamt of having his own clothing label. And two, as he puts it bluntly, the fashion industry is far worse than the surfboard industry.
Now in the midst of a new launch, we jumped on the phone to catch up and share some insights on how he got here and what advice he’d give to younger businessmen and women coming up in the surf industry today.
So, what is this big new change to your business that you’ve been working on?
It’s been a long-term goal of mine to not just be making surfboards. I think part of that is my (background of working at) Nike. Seeing such a big brand and being immersed in that, I wanted to have a lifestyle brand. So this is that next chapter, just kind of pivoting.
Rewind back to those Nike days and how it got us to today. What were you doing there?
I worked directly under my mentor out of school as an intern and I eventually got into design and didn’t like it. I thought I had my dream job and I bailed. That was in 2000 and I didn’t even last six months. I immediately moved down here (to Los Angeles).
That’s right, I never knew until recently you actually moved to Los Angeles because you wanted to give an acting career a shot.
Nobody knows. That’s because I gave it two or three years. I ran out of patience and I was so obsessed with shaping that every audition I went on, I was like, (sighs), “I should be shaping right now!”
Ironically, 20 years later I’m in commercials (Dockers, White Claw, Genesis) to be myself, collaborating with brands on their sustainability efforts.
So, I know this shift for your business has been in the works for a while in planning stages. Was there one conversation or ‘a-ha’ moment that nudged you to think “Ok, I’m doing this now.”?
I booked a gig with White Claw to make eco boards at a music festival overseas. We got some samples of eco-friendly tee shirts, and I didn’t think it was economically feasible to do it at that point. But my designer said, “No, you can do this. I think you should absolutely give it a go.” And after seeing the first sample run I knew I had to.
So then bullet point it for me. What does all of this involve now?
Well, I’ve developed a reputation of being this eco-board pioneer, changing the approach to the way surfboards are made in a traditionally toxic industry. The fashion industry, by comparison, is way more wasteful than surfboards. So the idea is to take the same circular system approach to the fashion industry that I’ve had with surfboards.
The long-term goal: I want to be able to use waste from surfboards in clothes.
Ok, so looking back now after 20 years, what’s the one piece of advice you’d give a young shaper or a young designer looking to go into business now?
One hundred percent, I would have majored in business in college. I still don’t consider myself a businessman. I consider myself an artist who’s had to learn to run a business.
If you’re trying to start a brand, it’s really hard. You also have to have a following. It took me 20 years to really establish my place in the surfboard industry and I did that by bringing something completely different. And I stuck to it. That also got me all the gigs that had nothing to do with making surfboards. I did something different that was cool and it was good for the planet. And I became an expert at doing it (building eco-friendly boards).
So, A: you have to be good. B: you have to do something different. You can’t do the same thing as everyone else or you’ll get lost in all the different brands out there, especially in shaping. The shortboard market is so saturated.
Editor’s Note: Learn more about the ECObyRy launch campaign here.