Surfer Tom Kay is grappling with a dilemma.
‘A lot of people are in the sea the whole year round – even in February mid-week – but the gear they’re putting on out of the water is expensive, non-durable and not ethically made,’ he says. Which is why, in 2002, he set up Cornish surf clothing company Finisterre. Whereas many of the well-known surf-inspired clothing brands follow the high street business model, Finisterre is more in tune with the Patagonia and Howies model – top-quality products with the lowest environmental impact.
Finisterre’s line of waterproofs, jackets, hoodies and sweatshirts is not made in China but by nuns in Colombia as part of a 15-year-old social regeneration program, or in Portugal in a facility ‘that has the top ISO accreditations’. And, if all goes to plan, the company will soon start manufacturing some of its line in the UK. At the core of the brand is a sustainable design philosophy that means they ask themselves questions at every stage of the process – questions such as ‘Does the red dye use more heavy metals than the pink dye?’ or ‘Is this fibre easy to recycle?’
At first, Finisterre was a one-man project, run from a laptop in Tom’s attic bedroom in St Agnes, Cornwall. To stay afloat, he taught surfing and did shifts as a lifeguard. Now they are a team of four, the company has been going for six years and has a line of six products. Finisterre clothing has been worn by the Special Forces and the British Mountain Rescue Teams in some of the world’s harshest conditions. Most impressively, designer Tom Podkolinski says every stage of those products’ life cycle is accounted for: ‘Transparency is the key. The company is small so I’m involved in sourcing and developing fabrics, designing garments all through the chain. It’s so important to understand the implications of your actions as a designer.’
Making eco-clothing for cold-water surfers and other outdoor enthusiasts braving the elements is more complex than organic cotton t-shirts. Jackets, for instance, need to be warm and in some cases waterproof and windproof; they need to be breathable, durable and made to last. Finisterre currently has 20 different textile development projects on the go, focusing on natural and man-made fibres. Biomimicry (imitating or copying features of plant or animal design) is an important part of its current development. ‘There is a huge amount of value to be gained environmentally and in performance terms,’ says Podkolinski. This season Finisterre has developed ‘biomimetic’ waterproof jackets that use a fabric system inspired by animal fur.
‘It’s the first step in a long-term plan that’s allowed us to move away from the solvents, lamination techniques and heat-sealing so common in the outdoors market,’ explains Kay, ‘and they’re warmer, drier, tougher and more comfortable.’ The outer ‘shell’ is made of closely woven microfibre that’s water-resistant and windproof, breathable and soft. The ‘biomimetic’ lining keeps you dry by actively moving moisture away from the body. Extensive testing has apparently shown the wearer remains drier this way (due to the lack of condensation build-up) in eight out of 10 situation environments. Once a jacket has been bought, its owner can, at any point send it back to be reserviced, thereby extending the product’s life, and even when it has reached the end of its practical life, thanks to the lack of any laminations, solvents or gluing in the manufacturing and a reliance upon 100 per cent polyester (the most easily recyclable synthetic fibre) it can be easily broken down or recycled.
Other garments make use of recycled polyester (the super-warm, ultra-light garment Etobicoke) or beeswax for weatherproofing (the Matanuska). Hoodies and sweatshirts are made from high-quality merino wool with a degree of loft. The fabric works with your body, keeping you warm when it’s cool and cool when it’s warm. The down side is that it’s sourced, at present, from New Zealand.
‘The problem is there’s only one place in the UK, in Devon, where you can get the merino/Shetland mix we’re after,’ says Podkolinski. ‘So we’re working on sheep breeding programmes. If you’re dealing with raw fibre you have to go back such a long way.’ With the aim to localise more UK production – the company has projects in development with several factories – Finisterre will soon be able to control more of the production, from the raw fibre to the spinning, processing and weaving.
‘I’m determined to make it possible, even if it means buying a flock and starting a Finisterre farm,’ Podkolinski adds. ‘Over the next few years you’ll see the results of what we’re developing, textiles-wise. This is just the first stage.’
Board of not being green
The original Hawaiians surfboards of 200 years ago were made from native trees such as the koa and wiliwili, but since 1950 the surfboard industry has been heavily reliant on petrochemical-based materials. Surfboards are petrochemical-based, they don’t last (most people have a board for one year) and they’re impossible to recycle.
Ninety per cent of modern boards – a million every year – are made using blown polyurethane foam, wrapped in fibreglass and coated in petroleum-derived resin. Dumped in landfill, they won’t break down for millennia. On top of this is petroleum-derived surf wax, used to add grip to the surfboard, and neoprene wetsuits, a stretchy synthetic rubber material.
The dawn of the eco wetsuit has yet to arrive – although Finisterre’s designer Tom Podkolinski is itching to have a go at designing one – but there are now several ‘eco-boards’ boards on the market.
Homeblown and Sustainable Composites are two Cornish companies that, with the backing of the Eden Project, have created an ‘Ecoboard’ – a core made from 40 per cent vegetable foam that’s wrapped in hemp cloth instead of fibreglass, and is set in a new 96 per cent vegetable-based resin. See www.homeblown.co.uk or www.suscomp.com
Ocean Green, based in Nicaragua and the UK, has created an EcoFoil board based on a hollow, sustainably sourced, balsa wood construction wrapped in organic hemp or cotton cloth. See www.oceangreen.org
For the colder waters of the UK, Hill’s Organic Surf Wax make a specially formulated wax using beeswax, virgin coconut oil and pine resin. See ww.hillsorganicsurfwax.org.uk
This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2008
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