(Bloomberg) -- Christian Meissner grew up far away from the ocean in Germany’s financial hub of Frankfurt, which meant long journeys to the coast to pursue his passion for surfing. But changing consumer preferences and demands for more sustainability within the surfing community are allowing him to bring his focus closer to home.
The 51-year-old, whose day job is in construction, started making boards 9 years ago in the landlocked city of Offenbach, near his hometown. The idea was born after he helped his son craft a longboard for skateboarding, who was then able to earn extra pocket money by selling similar boards to a local skateboard shop.
Unlike conventional surfboards, which rely on harmful materials such as polyurethane foam, resin and fiberglass, Meissner’s business Mio — which stands for “Main Ingredients: Organic” — uses wood from fast-growing paulownia trees. In a sign that the material still does the job, professional foil surfer Alex Soto won second place in hydrofoil freestyle at the Global Kitesports Association’s World Tour last year using a Mio board.
“Sustainability and high-performance can go hand in hand,” Meissner said.
The sport’s heavy ecological footprint jars with the nature-loving image of most surfers, and a growing number of boardmakers are trying to cater to their greener preferences. It’s a small step in what is likely to be a long journey to reduce the ecological impact of surfing, which for many requires long-distance plane travel to far-away destinations such as Hawaii, Indonesia or Australia.
While there haven’t been many attempts to quantify the sport’s exact effect on the environment, one researcher in 2009 said a surfer’s carbon footprint was likely 50% higher than the average person’s, with the lion’s share of emissions coming from travel to the surf, and only 2% from board manufacturing. With the ease of travel having increased significantly in the last decade, carbon emissions linked to surfing may well have risen further.
Austria’s Woodboard, located on Lake Neusiedl at the border to Hungary, is making similar efforts to Mio’s, drawing on FSC-certified wood in its products. Australia’s FCS Fins, one of the world’s largest makers of surf board fins, uses recycled materials, while France’s Yuyo utilizes plastic trash to 3D print new boards.
Many of those companies argue that the toxic petrochemicals used in conventional surfboards can harm workers and the environment while they are made. They also have the potential to release harmful foam particles into the earth and the ocean after they’re abandoned on a beach or in a landfill.
“The dust from shaping petrochemical material made me sick, so I started experimenting,” Meissner said, who started out making boards with traditional polyurethane-based foam, before switching to paulownia wood four years ago, made from a tree that is native to Asia but has been grown across parts of Europe and North America.
Paulownia trees can grow 10 to 20 feet in a single year and reach maturity within 10 years. They produce lightweight and warp resistant wood – perfect for kite boards and a range of other products, including musical instruments. They also have stronger drought tolerance and carbon-capture properties – making them ideal for countries looking to offset CO2 emissions as they face the consequences of global warming.
“The surfboard industry has been one of our main consumers since we started commercializing European-grown paulownia wood,” said Anja Hartelt, a representative for iPaulownia, a Spanish paulownia wood supplier. “The demand has kept increasing over the years since surfers become more conscious on sustainability.”
With surfing rising in popularity — both globally and even at Germany’s rugged northern coasts — sustainably-sourced alternatives will help to supply a water sports equipment market that is expected to surpass $13 billion this year, according to research firm Statista.
Prominent surfers are throwing there weight behind efforts to make the industry greener. Lucy Campbell, a seven-time British women’s champion, told the BBC in a recent interview that top brands “need to change” and that she has turned down sponsorships from brands she didn’t consider sustainable.
“You do want to encourage people to get outdoors. But at the same time — at what cost to the planet?” she said.
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