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Shoulder to Shoulder | Environmental Leadership at the Global Wave Conference

For those that missed it, the 5th Global Wave Conference was held in Santa Cruz in early March 2018. It brought together 250 international delegates to hear over 60 speakers, the leadership of the environmental surfing community. It also marks an emerging trend for effective collaboration between activists, charities, scientists, politicians and business. I caught up with Surfers Against Sewage CEO Hugo Tagholm (HT) and Finisterre Founder Tom Kay (TK) to learn more about the purpose and impact of the conference and what it might mean for the future.  

How did the Global Wave Conference come about?

HT: It started as an academic conference out in the Canaries. Tony Butt (former trustee and SAS advisor) worked on it. Surfrider Foundation France organised a dual event in San Sebastian and Biarritz, bringing together the enviro-surf groups and the scientists, but it was still a talking shop among our community. SAS organised it in 2015 to connect how the environmental surf groups were affecting the mainstream groups and bigger public and political picture. That was a pivotal moment which brought together activists, politicians, the media and leading brands for a three-day conference.

The most recent Global Wave Conference built on that. It helped to show that the surf community can be hugely influential on these issues. This year saw saw bigger groups such as Conservation International attend and some great environmentalists, like Julie Packard of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

And Tom, you were at the first UK one?

TK: I was at the first one Hugo organised at Watergate Bay which was a step change. It brought together conservationists, scientists, big-wave surfers, brands. People really connected from it. It was great to go to Santa Cruz and reconnect with a whole community who are on the same kind of journey but in different fields, see some old faces and meet some new ones, it felt like a movement that has momentum. In just three years great progress has been made. On the back of that, it’s attracting a lot of new people and starting to gather pace. It was a real privilege to be part of it.

Do you think that environmental awareness in surfing is increasing?

HT: I think that it’s definitely increasing, but there’s a lot more that can be done. There’s a lot of emerging leadership from it, from brands like Finisterre and environmental groups like Surfers Against Sewage, Surfrider Foundation and Save the Waves. It’s starting to get some traction now. The investment that these organisations have put in for years and years is now starting to pay off in terms of momentum. Those groups and brands that are committed to the environment are starting to reap the benefits of wanting to protect the environment, of using that as a powerful tool for their mission to safeguard our environment together for the long-term. It’s a collaborative effort that connects NGOs and environmentalists with great, progressive businesses, with media and politicians in the right way. There’s some clear leadership and those are the people around the table at the Global Wave Conference. It’s great for Surfers Against Sewage and Finisterre, being stable mates at Wheal Kitty and growing our organisations in tandem. It’s great to be there at the top table of this international community, coming from this fairly remote, rural part of the world. We are creating international impact and making waves out there in a big way.

TK: There isn’t a straight line correlation between being a surfer and being an environmentalist. At the Global Wave Conference the people there were doing their thing first and they were surfers second. Surfing is the glue that holds them together and we all love it and we are passionate about it, but the interesting part of why people are there is because of what they are doing aside from being a surfer. I think that’s a leading mindset and outlook to have. The idea that surfers are in tune with nature is pretty dated. It does exist to some extent but it’s not equivocal.

HT: It’s also not your badge of honour to say you are an environmentalist because you happen to be in the water with a few dolphins and seals around you. You might feel spiritual and like you’ve done your bit, but actually it’s the action that counts, that should be the trigger that says I now want to do something. That’s the most important part of it, whether it’s building lower-impact products or running campaigns to recycle more plastic bottles. How has it motivated you to do something? That’s what matters.

So what happened at the conference? What came out from it?

HT: The face to face at these things brings a sense of solidarity, of making progress together. For all of the online connections we have and this massive overload of media we get, you cannot replace shaking hands with people and looking at them in the eye, sharing time or a wave or a beer to build trust for future collaborations and partnerships. All of that side of things is vital. The collective connections were huge. Everyone at the conference presents where their challenges are and where their projects are going - there’s a lot that comes out of that time spent together, where people might overlap, support each other and do things better. It’s often about making the commitment to go and meet people and make things happen.

Save the Waves Coalition were a co-organiser and are doing some really interesting work around marine protected areas with Conservation International, bringing this idea of surf reserves with marine protected areas together. They sing from the same hymn sheet. As Tom was saying, I was pleased to see the fingerprints of our UK conference all over this one. I want this sector to be an ambitious sector, I want to prove that we can do more. Tom’s doing it at Finisterre with all of their sustainability commitments. To see those ripples going out that far is an amazing thing.

Tom, do you find that people are ready to be critical of brands operating in the interests of sustainability?

TK: I’ve got used to it. We are 15 years old now. When you first start out you are more sensitive to it. But in our case at least the majority of those opinions are from misinformation or no information. If you are starting from nothing and being challenging, in an industry that can be quite cynical and slow to change, it’s to be expected. We are confident about the journey we are on and what we’ve put in place.

Do you want to talk around any of those initiatives?

TK: The one I’m really excited about is the Wetsuit Recycling Programme. We make wetsuits and we’ve approached it really carefully. We did a Wetsuit Tester Programme and made the production suits based on the feedback, which was an innovative approach and it was great. We had such a good dialogue with our community out there on the ground. There’s been some really great evolutions with natural wetsuit rubber. We’ve been working with Yulex on our summer suits. Every surfer has a pile of wetsuits rotting somewhere. People probably buy a new wetsuit every eighteen months if not once a year, two winters worth of six months and then it just gets left. If there are half a million surfers in the UK there could be 380 tonnes of neoprene each year ending up in landfill. Should wetsuit companies be doing a similar thing to the Bottle Deposit Scheme SAS have been championing? If you put a product out to the consumer you need to be able to collect it back at the end of its life and repurpose it or recycle it, creating closed-loop consumerism. That’s the thinking. But there are practicalities, we’re not scientists in here and it’s a technical material, neoprene. So I made a position here for a full time wetsuit recycler. I think it’s the only one in the world! They are mentored by a Professor of material engineering at Exeter University.

What’s the vision?

TK: At the end of a life cycle of a wetsuit, just when it’s starting to go downhill you bring it back to us, we give you a new one and we repurpose the old one. That’s the ultimate scenario and it may take longer than a few years. If we see a big problem in the industry, we can use our view on the world as a brand to do something about it, supported by the university.

The exciting thing about the Global Wave Conference in Santa Cruz, and what I felt had moved on a lot, was the collaborative nature of people coming together towards similar causes. When you get scientists, local politicians and environmentalists supported by brands and businesses that’s a really powerful combination to effect change. That’s my biggest take home from the conference. It’s very empowering. The power of collaboration is a great force.

How many people came?

HT: Probably about 250 people in the audience. There was a lot of speakers, sixty plus over the three days across the whole spectrum of brands. A real smorgasbord of opinions and causes. A little bit of surfing thrown into the mix. What jumped out at me was there is such authenticity among the group of people at the Global Wave Conference. They are all motivated by the same factors wherever they come from, everyone shares this love and they’ve all got a direct visceral experience with the ocean.

We ended the conference with a paddle out together. There’s something in that, we really are the living, breathing voice of the ocean. We as a community were some of the first people to see the hemorrhaging of societal systems that put plastic on our beaches. We were talking about this 10, 15 years ago. The public was blissfully unaware. I feel like surfers are at the leading edge because of their connectivity with the environment. That’s why we’ve got such an authentic and powerful voice. It’s one that we have to shape and enhance more and more. The whole community has to be more committed to bring people with it. The threads of the Global Wave Conference are fanning out. It really is, as Tom said, a building piece of momentum and I’m really proud that I stand shoulder to shoulder with him on these things. I’m proud that from Cornwall we are able to create this unique voice.

What were the highlights for you, Tom?

For me the main highlight was the feeling of what could be possible if we work together to tackle the issues.


Given the south westerly wind and a dropping spring tide, a glance over the cliff marked the end of our conversation. Down through the old mining land to greet a new swell. As surfers we often place our voice behind that of ‘serious’ water users, as if our connection with the ocean is frivolous. As Hugo said, the connection we have can be a powerful spark. It’s up to us how we use it, to bring positive change into whatever we do and become environmental leaders. The Global Wave Conference unites this movement, driving collaboration to confront environmental crises head on. That’s a powerful thing.

Interview by Dan Crockett | Photo by Abbi Hughes

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