Substance Abuse

Words by Dan Crockett

As the surf industry reels from the downfall of Clark Foam, the need to hunt out cleaner, greener ways to make boards has never been more apparent, and Cornwall is leading the way...

“What will I be doing in the near future? There is a very good chance I will spend a lot of time in courtrooms over the next few years and could go to prison. I have a tremendous cleanup expense to exit my business. I have the potential for serious fines. My full time efforts will be to extract myself from the mess that I have created for myself.” Gordon ‘Grubby’ Clark.

December 5th 2005: Gordon Clark, the boss of Clark Foam and one of the fathers of the modern surfboard industry, pulled the plug on his business. Ninety percent of the world’s polyurethane blank supply dried up instantly, leaving an enormous vacuum. The closure was described as everything from “a looming wipeout” to a “wave of despair” by the mainstream press. Substantial impacts on the shaping industry throughout America and the wider surfing world have been reported. Perhaps then, this is the wake-up call we all need: to concentrate on the environmental sickness of the traditional board-building industry and seek an alternative. Companies will step up to meet the demand for blanks, but how long can it really be before legislation catches up with them again? Surely now, more than at anytime previously, Cornwall should be considering where it can fit into a board industry that must become sustainable?

Firstly though, how to fill the void left by Clark Foam? Domestic blank builders such as HomeBlown have experienced a massive upswing in their market. Since early December, their domestic orders have gone up by 40% to 50%. They consider their process far cleaner than Clark Foam. Everyone wants a piece of their expertise, and their plans are to set up franchises across the world.

In terms of the domestic shaping market, those shapers using Clark Foam exclusively have felt the sting of their departure. The impact of the closure is reflected in the figures. Clark Foam produced around 350,000 blanks per annum, whereas all other manufacturers accounted for just 35,000. The shaping industry had settled into a comfortable bubble in which Clark Foam, whatever their environmental flaws, dominated the market. That bubble has now burst. The closure of Clark Foam was a move that shocked the shaping industry, and may go on to shock the consumer as increased prices for blanks force shapers to raise prices for boards.

Gordon Clark provided a letter of explanation entitled ‘Ceasing Production and Sales of Surfboard Blanks’, but refuses to be drawn further on the subject. The letter is long and meandering, and implies that the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) in California was closing in on him. Extracts such as “large fines, civil lawsuits and even time in prison”, and “I have been advised by my attorney to say as little as possible” strongly hint that a prosecuting state body is involved. The reality of the situation is clear. The polyurethane shaping industry as practised by Clark Foam had simply become too sick for the mounting legislation against it. So, with Clark Foam dead, and shapers around the world suffering for it, where does the future lie in terms of alternative materials?»

A division of the Eden Project, headed by Chris Hines (founder of Surfers Against Sewage), has been working towards the creation of a sustainable surfboard for some time now. They are confident that an eco-board is close, and are constantly refining and redesigning their techniques. Their initial eco-boards, made from balsa blanks and laminated with hemp cloth, have received mixed feedback. The weight is an issue, and that is before one even encounters the cost. They are currently at the second phase of production, with three new boards being tested. However, the balsa blanks put a limit on the performance of the boards, and in a surfing environment obsessed with performance, this forecloses their popularity.

« With research ongoin g, Hines predicts that in six months a 50% vegetable-based blank will be a reality.»

Adapting to this setback, Hines foresees the creation of a completely or partly sustainable surfboard blank, lighter and more responsive than wood. As an analogy, he uses blown popcorn to illustrate how this could work. With research ongoing, Hines predicts that in six months a 50% vegetable-based blank will be a reality. The key in this evolution will come when a board developed from sustainable resources that may be grown in this country arrives. That way, indigenous resources may be employed, and in the long-term each country will be able to make boards from their natural and sustainable resources.

Currently, the cost is prohibitive to the average surfer, and it is only through larger-scale manufacturing that these costs can come down. However, between the first and second phase the cost of the boards has fallen by two thirds. Hines questions the dominant idea in surfing that to ride well a board must be gleaming white. He believes that perhaps one day it will be less fashionable to ride a white board. He in fact imagines that each shaper will gradually incorporate ecologically sound boards into their range, and eco-surfboards will become a reality for the consumer.

Across the Southwest, the momentum behind alternative and sustainable ideology is gradually growing. For instance, Loose-Fit in North Devon are working towards becoming the first ‘carbon neutral’ surf shop in the world. For every surfboard they sell, they will be planting one tree to offset the impact of manufacturing and shipping. Offsetting the ‘carbon footprint’ left by your individual or business actions is growing in notoriety and subscription. If every surfboard manufacturer could be persuaded to do the same, a valid start to sustainability would be underway.

Ocean Green surfboards are sourced in Nicaragua and shaped in Cornwall. They have three principle aims, and are working on a range of balsa and hemp boards. Firstly, they want to produce a bio-derived range of surfboards by substituting environmentally friendly materials. Secondly, they do not wish to compromise on performance. Finally, they recognise the need to produce the boards at a low enough cost to penetrate the market.

HomeBlown implies that environmental change must come from the top: “Basically there’s no way to justify the impact a surfboard has on the environment. The whole process has to move on; it has to be market led which puts the onus on pro surfers to demand more of the materials in their boards and reject the disposable board mentality.”

« “There is no way to justify the impact a surfboard has on the environment. The whole process has to move on.”»

The future of sustainability in surfboard design essentially depends on two separate factors. Firstly, the ability of the environmentally-minded manufacturers to produce a sustainable surfboard that is cheap, aesthetically pleasing to the masses and most importantly can be surfed like a performance shortboard. Secondly, the ability of top surfers to think outside the box that competitive shortboarding is firmly stuck in, and to embrace new ideas that change the market. As Chris Hines stated, the departure of Clark Foam should serve as a wake-up call, “For all of us.”