Forget the surf, this is a rivalry forged in apparel, commerce, and sustainability.
With the arrival of Florence Marine X and JJF Funformance boards, frenemies John John Florence and Kelly Slater throw a hot coat of chemicals on the layered competition of their lives; this time, in the form of apparel, commerce, and sustainability. A collaboration between John John and shaper Jon Pyzel, the new JJF Funformance boards may foreshadow offerings from John John’s Florence Marine X, forging a messy relationship with a trending mission: sustainability.
John John’s bet on himself echoes the 2015 launch of Outerknown, Kelly Slater’s beachwear collection. Like Marine X, Outerknown also boasts alternative materials to counteract an industry dominated by petroleum products, from surfboard blanks to textiles. The rhetoric of both brands, fueled by two of modern surfing’s most iconic professionals, demonstrates an alternative economic path in an industry wherein accepting sponsorships from environmentally irresponsible brands is the primary mode of earning an income. In a sport that should create no byproducts, surfers are often tasked with choosing between income through environmental exploitation or championing sustainability and finding a day job. While the new path Slater and Florence are forging represents an important intervention, talking sustainability is easier than going straight on a Wavestorm in knee-high whitewater. Selling sustainability, on the other hand, is more complicated than pulling into a Code Red Tavarua barrel on a lunch tray.
Surfing’s dalliance with sustainability began, in some ways, in 2005. That is when Clark Foam, the surfboard blank manufacturer with a global monopoly, shuttered to avoid environmental sanctions and fines. In response to an outraged public clamoring for Clark’s environmentally unsound business to continue enabling production of surf craft, Clark explained the shutdown in a letter. The letter addressed the litany of environmental violations, including the handling of toxic chemicals, with matter-of-fact nonchalance: “The main concern of the state and the county government is a toxic chemical we use called Toluene Di Isocynate commonly called TDI…. We are emitting TDI fumes in the air,” before wandering towards an apathetic conclusion: “The only apology I will make to customers and employees is that I should have seen this coming many years sooner and closed years ago in a slower, more predictable manner. I waited far too long, being optimistic rather than realistic.” After a period of mourning in response to the dollars-and-cents explanation, the surfboard shaping industry was challenged to reckon with inner demons.
Blanks had been revealed as toxic artifacts generating waste at each step; from creation to shaping to glassing to breaking and reincarnating as two large pieces of trash. For some blank manufactures, the fact of toxicity was ignored in favor of fretting over the future of surfboard building (an industrial sigh of relief saw production sent abroad to countries with “environmental protections” that are the subject of nature documentaries for the various ways they ravage the environment). Other manufacturers recognized that a less harmful alternative had to exist, and they pursued less toxic innovations. The further the Clark Foam shutdown fades into history, the more companies pop up alleging sustainable practices inside and outside of blank manufacturing; they’re like groms doing air reverses in wave pools.
With the sale of Hurley and restructuring of contracts, Florence found himself with three data points: first, the consuming public is turning towards more thoughtful consumption; second, working for someone else means representing products and practices that may not agree with a surfer’s personal beliefs; third, a contract to work for someone else does not guarantee earnings any more than running a company does. Backed by that information, Florence followed Slater’s lead in creating a personal brand to turn barrels into bucks.
The intimacy of a personal brand in a moment when environmentalism is trending sees these stars striking their most remarkable balancing acts in a sport predicated on preternatural balance. The difference between success and failure is not as straightforward as becoming either Patagonia or Clark Foam. Failure is not always as lucrative as the Clark Foam experiment.
Both parties seem intent upon becoming Patagonia, but the cracks are already showing. Although Kelly Slater said of his surf apparel brand, Outerknown: “Sustainability is why this company exists,” and Outerknown’s sustainability tab celebrates the use of organic cotton, conspicuously absent is mention of the 35% polyester used in the new Nostalgic Sweater. Polyester production hurts the environment. “Organic” and “sustainable” are buzzwords obscuring the fact that Outerknown tasks the earth with creating more petro-trash like any other brand.
The mission statement for John John’s forthcoming Florence Marine X brand says: “We’re building things that motivate us to get outside and thrive in the elements, while doing our best to protect the ocean and the land.” Florence could one-up Slater and focus on recycled materials and avoid polyester, but the release of a line of JJF Funformance boards with recycled foam core and dubious EVA deck covering seem to indicate that while Florence’s heart may be in the right place, capitalism’s dubious petrochemical coat may be tough to hang up.
While Florence and Slater are stroking for clean water, petroleum filth is tough to wash off. Actualizing Outerknown’s “2030 Sustainability Plan” and reporting concrete outcomes will require more than rhetoric. And achieving that goal represents just one clean bird amid a global industry swathed in more petroleum tar than the Exxon Valdez spill