Present Tense

Titiro whakamuri kia anga whakamua

 Look to the past to see the future

When OuterKnown was launched last month, a furore erupted over the price of Kelly Slater’s men’s line. Long suffering supporters of surfing were disappointed to discover what they considered to be outrageous pricing over items like hoodies and board shorts. This is not an analysis of Twitter, but a look at comments on websites and social media sites of surf industry publications.

In response to these claims, Cori Schumacher posted an eloquent and detailed analysis of the supply chain for OuterKnown and its pricing. In this analysis she makes clear that a start up company like OuterKnown will have excess costs in research and development that add to its prices, and that the prices displayed are ‘spot on’. She further explains that the suppliers in the chain, far from being exploited, are paid fair prices.

In short, what we see in OuterKnown is nothing we have ever seen from any surfing company- acknowledging that Patagonia is influential but not like Quiksilver or Billabong. There is an effort of supply chain transparency with OuterKnown, openly displayed on their site, and the companies they deal with are also making an effort to be transparent. One of the supply companies for OuterKnown, Econyl, openly invites journalists to its factory. Their process is world class. They aren’t being secretive to maintain their edge but deliberately building an interest in sustainable processes. Sure, they’re establishing market interest for business but they’re doing it by helping to save the planet and communities surviving on it. That’s convincing marketing because, well, there sincerely isn’t anything more important.

The lack of surf industry sustainability is a spectre many do not wish to examine. A 2013 article questions why an industry like surfing isn’t using Econyl in its products. That’s a good question- and it’s ignored now, as it has been for decades.

In fact information supplied by companies like OuterKnown and Econyl are met not with a practiced eye and some comparisons with established benchmarks, but with anti capitalist rhetoric. Quite how sustainability becomes the poster child for the continuing exploitative practices of capitalism is simplistic at best.There are multiple ways of subverting, changing or erasing these practices- sustainability and fair trade being concepts that are slowly gaining traction. There are also many people currently working in the surf industry who are attempting to do good, without quite having the impact that Kelly Slater has achieved in creating OuterKnown.

Rather than hauling the big surf companies over the coals for not being sustainable, surfing’s audience appears to have decided they are entitled to ‘affordable’. As no other surf brand bothers to be sustainable, I have to wonder what surfers think they’re comparing affordable with. I don’t think surf gear is affordable to begin with, especially given its lack of sustainable and ethical process. Enough about me, though. Let’s discuss Kelly.

As Kelly Slater is the face of the brand, conversations around sustainability are derailed by attacking the character of the man himself. In rhetoric terms, this is called ‘ad hominem’, where the environmental stand being made by Kelly Slater is ignored in favour of questioning his personal virtues and character, not just now but over his sporting history.

This is not because sustainability can’t be proven, but because the average surfing audience simply does not care about supply chains and ecologically viable business practice. It’s not sexy enough. We’d rather delve into some gossip and allegations from the past instead.

Some of this has been centred on surfing’s dirty secrets: the tragic death of Andy Irons; the awful revelations of Sarge. While surfing’s culture of silence has been discussed expertly by Cori Schumacher, and Fred Pawle has courageously ventured where other surf media did not dare to tred, the argument is that for the supply chain of OuterKnown to be transparent, the face of the brand must let us in on surfing’s secrets to be trustworthy.

The irony of using community tragedies to silence the discussion on sustainability is dramatic. Where we do not understand- whether it be homosexuality, drug culture, sexism, indigenous culture- sustainability- it is common to claim surfers are ‘apolitical’ and that people who do speak up are out of place for doing so; unless we need someone to blame, in which case they need to speak up so we can pretend it was someone’s fault and not symptomatic of perhaps our ignorance and community at large.

It is a ridiculous notion to suggest that Kelly Slater’s opinion is required to validate the experiences of people involved in these tragedies. His status then, as a world champion, does not singlehandedly circumvent systemic structures that disempower surfers, and while privately I am sure he has had extremely difficult conversations around these issues, it is not his validation and opinion that needs to be amplified. He is not the issue. His place is not to rush in on a white horse and scoop our community out of its misery.

Nope. He’s riding in on a luxury men’s clothing brand and slapping our common everyday excess with a price tag it deserves. That’s right. We complain about the cost of a hoody and how we could, for that price, swoop in on that country and pay a pittance to exploit their waves, their culture, and their weakened economy instead. Sustainability? I’ve got an opinion waiting here on my device worth more than the annual earnings of some of the people changing my hotel bed. I’m a surfer though, so I automatically inherit a commitment to the environment, without actually ever having to do anything about it.

You need only look to the past to realise that in the end, it is not one leader or one decision that decides our future. If OuterKnown fails, it will not be simply because it was too expensive. It will not be because Kelly Slater is a poor human being. It will not be because capitalism, or because Sarge, or because Andy Irons, or because there was an argument on Twitter and the entire paradigm of the universe shifted. It is not one brand’s prerogative to change our consumer habits. It is not our job to ensure OuterKnowns viability or success.

But thank goodness for Kelly Slater. For once, surfing has had to consider the cost of excess. It is our everyday consumption, apathy and ignorance that is destroying the planet.