Surfing X Sustainability

Surfing X Sustainability

Surfing and sustainability. Sustainability and surfing. It is easy to assume that the two are distinctly separate. Surfing takes us across the globe searching for that perfect adventure while sustainability encourages us to lead a pro-environmental lifestyle to ensure future generations are able to meet their needs. So how are they linked? The intersection between surfing and sustainability is one that reveals a relationship between people and the natural environment.


Thinking back to the origins of surfing in Hawaii leads us to a surfing legend, Duke Kahanamoku. Born in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1890, Duke has often been hailed as the ʻfather of modern surfingʼ who resurrected surfing as we know it as the sport began to spread across Hawaii to mainland USA, Australia and New Zealand.

Duke Kahanamoku

Duke Kahanamoku

It was during this time in Hawaii that surfing was very much connected to the ancient Gods with many surfers chanting for the deliverance of big waves and safety in the water. An interaction between surfers and ancient Gods represents the relationship between humankind and the natural environment, for it reflects the desire to become harmonious with the water. The dependency of surfers on the natural environment implies a strong feeling of attachment with the ocean, suggesting surfers are more likely to feel passionate about protecting their environment. Although in some cases this protection may be expressed through localism (the practice of territorialism over a surf spot), the awareness can be incredibly positive.


Being in the water most days surf coaching, I am constantly confronted with the issues of plastic pollution in the ocean that continues to threaten coastlines across the globe. The continual exposure I have to this environmental problem means I find it almost impossible to ignore, and I think those of you reading who spend a substantial amount of time in the ocean will share this feeling. If youʼve already read my previous post on plastic pollution you will have read the slightly terrifying statistic that across the globe every single minute we collectively buy 1 million plastic bottles, 1 million disposable cups and 2 million plastic bags. This is a hugely alarming statistic, although becomes even more alarming when the average person uses a plastic bag for just 12 minutes. 12 minutes of use versus 500 years + degrading in landfill (or in the ocean). Ask yourself, how long do you use a plastic bag for? How long does it take you to drink your morning coffee in a disposable cup or to drink a bottle of water?


It is apparent here that the rise of single-use plastic in our everyday lives is a rise of consumerism encouraged by convenience. Rising demand means rising production and as a result, the global market of plastic products is forecasted to have reached USD$1.2 trillion by 2020. The huge profitability made from this production of plastic poses the question of who loses when we exercise our consumer power and stop demanding plastic? The invention of celluloid (plastic) by John Wesley Hyatt in 1869 had the goal of replacing elephant ivory that had been used previously for the manufacture of items such as piano keys. Hyatt himself ironically claimed that his invention would ʻeliminate the need to ransack the Earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcerʼ. The environment does not only suffer from the prevalence of plastic itself, but from the amount of oil needed to produce plastic. According to National Geographic, 8% of the worldʼs oil production is used to make plastic, but this figure is expected to have risen to a staggering 20% by the year 2050.


If this is a problem of consumption, then we need to reflect on our individual consumption habits. I can sense you may be wondering how one individual will make a difference when we are a planet of over 7.7 billion people, but that is exactly the point. Collective change is a reflection of individual change. What if 7.7 billion people made small changes towards a consumption that is greener? Primary steps towards a greener consumption may begin by eliminating single use plastics from your everyday life. A few purchases that may aid this transition include:

- A reusable water bottle

- A reusable coffee cup

- A reusable shopping bag (or a few!)

- A metal lunchbox

- A metal, reusable straw

- Beeswax wrap

See Freyaʼs post named ʻsix tips to a greener wardrobeʼ to see how you can break the damaging cycle of fast fashion.


A personal interest in this topic of ocean sustainability led me to conduct research with over 200 surfers for my undergraduate dissertation in Human Geography. The research aimed to gauge whether surfing had the capability to evoke sustainability and if so, why. After wide academic reading on the topic, I conducted in-depth interviews and distributed a questionnaire online in order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the relationship between surfing and sustainability. The inspiration for this research followed a surfing trip to Indonesia that really highlighted just how much plastic is affecting our oceans. Below are a few photos from this trip.

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My research concluded that surfing had a positive correlation with sustainability. Gender, duration of surfing and surf ability were all explored as variables that may influence response to the statement ʻsurfing has raised my environmental awarenessʼ. Results found that the longer participants had been surfing for, and the more advanced their surfing ability, the stronger they agreed with the above statement. This suggests that the more time spent in the water, the more environmental awareness is created.


Interestingly, it was found that surfing influenced womenʼs relationship with sustainability more than menʼs. A reason for this was that studies show women have more altruistic traits than men which is the value most closely associated with proenvironmental attitude and behaviour. In other words, women are more likely to value sustainability, sorry guys. In addition to the findings already outlined, 80% of surfers in the study stated that discarded food and drinks packaging were frequently found at their local surf break. While 99% of surfers identified plastic as the main contributor to marine pollution. Although these findings are bleak, the research did suggest that surfing had the ability to positively inspire environmental stewardship as surfers possessed local knowledge of their changing local marine environment.


Environmental charity ʻSurfers Against Sewageʼ (SAS) is a leading example of the power surfers have to initiate change at the national level inspired by their experiences with the ocean. Since their launch in 1990, SAS have successfully encouraged 403 communities to achieve a plastic-free status, with Canary Wharf being the latest to make a pledge. Just last week, SAS headed to Parliament with a 15ft model of a sea creature to make their mark for World Environment Day. The sea creature represented the unknown species present in our seas that are yet to be discovered but still experiencing the damaging effects of plastic pollution. The creature featured in a campaign film by SAS earlier in the year that urged politicians to support the fight against plastic pollution, climate change and the protection of our oceans (Watch the video here.) .


This illustrates just one example of surfers having an influence on both awareness and policy making within the topic of ocean sustainability. With surfers continually exposed to the changing marine environment, it is apparent there is a degree of responsibility to share such experience with others in order to inspire positive change.




Hi! I’m Izzy; an ocean lover and environmental advocate, usually found barefoot on a beach or lying on a surfboard somewhere in Cornwall ...probably wishing I was in Hawaii. My love for the sea came naturally following a rogue decision to leave home in favour of living in a caravan by the beach. Paying 50p for a cold shower and learning how to cook with just a microwave seemed a small price to pay for waves on the doorstep. After finally persuading my family to pursue the Cornish lifestyle, I’ve upgraded from caravan to farmhouse and now teach surfing in between University studies. I study Human Geography in Cardiff and fingers crossed I won’t have too many questionable tan lines from my wetsuit at graduation this summer.

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