Protecting the Ocean Playground with Sustainable Surf’s Kevin Whilden

April 24, 2015

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to another edition of Green is Good Goes Hollywood. We’re here today with my good friend and co-host, Debbie Levin. She’s the President of the Environmental Media Association. Our next guest is Kevin Whilden. He’s the Executive Director of Sustainable Surf. Welcome to Green is Good, Kevin. KEVIN WHILDEN: Thank you, John. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Thank you so much, Kevin. This is a topic that’s not only so important right here in southern California and beyond, around the world, to our listeners, but it’s a topic we’ve never covered on this show in seven years, so we’re so thankful for you coming today and sharing this great advocacy about what you’re doing and all the great work that’s going on right now with regards to Sustainable Surf. KEVIN WHILDEN: Thank you. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Before we get talking about Sustainable Surf, and for our listeners out there, to follow along and look online and see what Kevin’s up to, you can go to Talk a little bit about the Kevin Whilden journey and story leading up to Sustainable Surf. How did you even get here? How did you have this epiphany and how did this all start, this whole journey? KEVIN WHILDEN: Sure, some geologists. I studied climate change in Antarctica back in the 90s, and that was my passion, to help find solutions for that. I’ve done pretty much everything you can think of in that sport – carbon offset development, energy efficiency, renewable energy and solar, even did clean tech, carbon capture technology. I was in San Francisco during the clean tech boom around 2007, doing that company, and it actually started to die, because there was going to be no policy around climate change. So all the VC funding for carbon capture dried up, and I learned how to surf and wrote about that in Cut a Wave. I realized surfing’s got power. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You learned to surf as an adult. KEVIN WHILDEN: I did. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And you got into it. When did you form Sustainable Surf? KEVIN WHILDEN: That was in 2011. DEBBIE LEVIN: Why did you learn how to surf out of nowhere as an adult? Why didn’t you learn how to surf when you were a teenager like everybody else? KEVIN WHILDEN: I was in San Francisco driving by the beach. It was a sunny day, which is rare in the summer in San Francisco, and there were 200 surfers in the water. I pulled over, rented a wetsuit and a board, and jumped in the water. JOHN SHEGERIAN: First time. No one teaching you, you just did it on your own. KEVIN WHILDEN: Yeah, I taught myself. It’s hard to learn. I grew up near the beach. DEBBIE LEVIN: You grew up near the beach, and you didn’t surf. You waited until you were an adult in a really cloudy place, and you learned how to surf. KEVIN WHILDEN: That’s my wasted youth. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s 2011. You fell in love with surfing. Talk a little bit about forming Sustainable Surf. How did you put together geology, now your new love of surfing, and wanting to change the world and make the world a better place? KEVIN WHILDEN: My partner, Michael Stewart, a good buddy of mine, he taught me how to surf. He and I started the company together. We realized that surfing is a sport where people think surfers are environmentalists. They must be. They work in the ocean. The reality is they’re no different than anyone else. They drive cars, they use energy, they don’t think about their waste, they don’t recycle. But there is an ethos in surfing to be a sustainable sport. The ancient Hawaiians were the original sustainable surf culture. They had an amazing side. They did permaculture, they did watershed management, they did aviculture, all these amazing lessons from ancient Hawaii that permeate surf culture, but have been forgotten temporarily by our Western surfing society. We realized, my partner Mike and I, that we could start a nonprofit that could actually transform this culture of surfing to be the strongest example of sustainability in culture. That’s what we did. It had to be a nonprofit, because we could work with every company that way. We’re not competing with anybody. We could actually help guide every company and every surfer and pro surfer and other NGOs and all that. We could work with them all to break those barriers. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so interesting that you came up with this because, Debbie, you and I know surfers. I don’t think you and I surf. DEBBIE LEVIN: No. JOHN SHEGERIAN: But I know my friends that are surfers, they all complain to me about the same thing. They get these ear infections, all the ways we’ve harmed our wonderful and beautiful oceans and environment, they suffer for it. But you had this epiphany with your partner to come up with a solution here. So, share with Debbie and I and our listeners because we’re new to this. This is all new to Debbie and myself and our listeners. What is Sustainable Surf, and what is your greater mission? KEVIN WHILDEN: Sure. Our mission is to be the catalyst that transforms surf culture into a powerful force to protect the ocean playground. You’ve mentioned that water pollution is a major issue. Any time we use water, flush the toilet or do laundry, whatever, that goes into our surf breaks, into the ocean. DEBBIE LEVIN: What’s the action that you want people to take from that mission? KEVIN WHILDEN: Sure. There are many different steps. One is you can choose a surfboard that’s more sustainable. We have the first ever labeling program for sustainable surfboards, just like organic food, but for surfboards. We have a recycling program for Styrofoam packaging, like when you buy a TV or a computer, that can be recycled into a new surfboard again. That’s the same foam that’s inside a surfboard. We have a program for surfers to live a more ocean-friendly life, and that’s taking all the steps that you’ve probably talked about thousands of times on this show, but putting them in the context of the surfing lifestyle and the larger ethos of a sustainable surf culture. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So you’re hitting every portion of purchasing a surfboard, recycling a surfboard, how it’s made, and also now certification. DEBBIE LEVIN: How did you get your certification? Who did you work with to create the standard? KEVIN WHILDEN: My partner has worked in sustainable product development and certification for a long time, and we were able to basically design our own program based on the best practices of the entire industry. That’s what we do. We take the best practices in all sustainable culture and business, and tune them up for surf culture, so it’s effective and powerful in surfing. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Are you guys both based here in Southern California, or where are you guys based? KEVIN WHILDEN: I’m based in SoCal, where most of the surf industry is, and my partner is in San Francisco, where the sustainable culture is very strong. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You mentioned at the top of the show the original Hawaiian surfers, who were really, truly sustainable in terms of their practices. Did you bring them into this whole new venture of yours and your mission and messaging? KEVIN WHILDEN: Yes, we’re in the process of getting more involved as far as ancient Hawaii. I was just over there a couple of months ago for the Wanderlust Yoga Festival and was meeting with some of the elders and some of the Westerners who are now teaching that stuff and figuring out how to make it. We got a recipe for a canoe plant smoothie. The canoe plants are the 24 plants that the Hawaiians brought from Asia into the Polynesian islands. They’re the most valuable plants. They provide food, medicine, water, resources of all kinds, like banana and coconut and taro. A lot of those are superfoods. There’s a recipe that we have for superfood canoe plant smoothie. DEBBIE LEVIN: What do you find is the most consistent in the surf culture for surfers, other than, obviously, surfing? What do you find that unifies that culture? KEVIN WHILDEN: It is surfing. It’s love of the ocean. When you hear about issues that threaten it like plastics or climate change, surfing is on the front lines of all those issues. Coral reefs are going to be extinct in 30 years. That’s an awesome thing to think about. DEBBIE LEVIN: Do you think surfers are really aware of all these issues, or do a lot of them just kind of go in and surf and leave? KEVIN WHILDEN: There’s a pretty strong awareness, but there’s the same barrier to action that everybody else has. The actions don’t seem easy to do. Nobody looks at climate change and says, “That’s going to be fun to solve.” DEBBIE LEVIN: How are you reaching your surfers? KEVIN WHILDEN: We reach them through our website, through our partners, we work with a lot of the brands, they make videos for us, we work with pro surfers to help them do it. But to get back to your question on how we reach them, and this is really key, solutions to these problems, like plastics and climate change and all that, don’t seem fun. They seem hard. The one thing surfing can do, and this is a joke I like to make, it can make anything look cool and fun by putting a surfer next to anything. Just look at advertisements on TV and the radio and magazines. You’ll see surfing next to cars and insurance and computers, because it’s a lifestyle everybody wants, especially in the middle of winter in Iowa. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Surfboards, historically, were toxic and now you’re making eco surfboards? KEVIN WHILDEN: Sure. We don’t make; what we do is certify. We work with partners who are innovating ways to make a more sustainable board. A plant-based resin is one of the products that’s in our standards, and it’s made from the waste of biodiesel production. It has half the carbon footprint of a normal resin and no toxics. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What percentage of surfboards now are being made with your new standard? KEVIN WHILDEN: It’s a very low percentage because we just launched it a year ago, but it’s growing exponentially. DEBBIE LEVIN: Are any of the large companies doing this? KEVIN WHILDEN: Yes, one of the large companies, Firewire Surfboards, made a 100 percent switch to making plant-based resin boards. All the other major companies are now offering it. You have pro surfers winning contests with these boards. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So they perform just as well as the old style. KEVIN WHILDEN: They sure do. They win contests. DEBBIE LEVIN: Are they talking about this on their social media? KEVIN WHILDEN: Yes, the surfers are, the surf media is. We won an Agent of Change award from Surfer Magazine this year for being the nonprofit that’s making the most change in surfing, and that’s a big part of it. Like everybody is saying, why wouldn’t I do it? It just makes sense, and that’s what sustainability is at its core. Why wouldn’t I do this? It makes sense. It saves money, better lifestyle. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And certified boards are called eco boards? KEVIN WHILDEN: Yes. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha. People that want to learn more about eco boards can go to, and they also can find out where to buy eco boards. KEVIN WHILDEN: Yeah, we have a list of all the manufacturers that offer eco boards. They also can go to their shaper and ask them to do it too. It’s one of the neat things about surfboards: It’s the last custom-made sport equipment left on Earth, really. Think about it. There aren’t a lot of custom golf club makers that make golf clubs for average people; you have to be rich, you know? But surfboards, there are artists that work in their garage. Their whole career is just shaping surfboards with foam. It’s actually a really interesting sport in that way. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Kevin, Debbie and I got to meet you because of our good friend, Allen Hershkowitz and the Green Sports Alliance. Talk a little bit about what your plans are with the Green Sports Alliance. KEVIN WHILDEN: Sure. We have another program called Deep Blue Surfing Events. It’s essentially a sustainable package for surfing contests. It’s the same thing the Green Sports Alliance does, but tuned for surf contests. We work with the brands to help the choose how to use locally grown biodiesel to power their event, how to do food composting and waste diversion. At Pipeline, which is in the Hawaii, the biggest contest of the year, all the food that’s produced at the event, the compost goes across the street to the farm that produces the food for the event, so it’s like a closed loop. The Green Sports Alliance, we’re excited to work with them to help bring surfing into the mix. Professional surfers, some of them have a really great story to tell on sustainability, and also show how surfing can do the same thing everybody else is doing and use our little star power of surfing being cool to show how all this actually is cool. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Have any of your professional surfers, celebrity surfers, are they now becoming ambassadors and evangelists for Sustainable Surf? KEVIN WHILDEN: Yeah, they sure are. Greg Long is the world’s best big wave surfer. He’s the most decorated big wave contest rider. He rides like 60 foot high waves. He’s one of our ambassadors. He’s actually speaking at the next Green Sports Alliance conference in Chicago. He’s got a great story. He almost died when he was held down for four minutes in giant surf off the coast of California. When he came back up, it’s a miracle he lived, but he realized he had to do more for conservation and giving back to the planet. Now he’s working with us to talk about that. In fact, there’s an article that just came out in The Guardian this week telling that whole story. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Four minutes underwater. Holy Toledo. KEVIN WHILDEN: That’s after getting the wind knocked out of you. It’s actually a powerful story. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Kevin, we’re going to have you back on to continue the story. For our listeners out there, what are your final thoughts you want to leave our viewers, and as Debbie asked at the top, action points for our viewers with regards to sustainable surfing and KEVIN WHILDEN: I’d say, if you’re a surfer, definitely check out how to get an eco-board, and ask your shaper to make you an eco-board. You can learn all about that on our website. If you’re not a surfer, realize that there’s a great history behind how to live a sustainable lifestyle, and surfing is a great example of it. All the steps that you would do to reduce your footprint on carbon emissions or water use all help protect the ocean. Living an ocean-friendly life is what we ask people to do. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s great. For our listeners out there, again, to learn more about Kevin’s great work, go to You can also learn about his great work and also where to buy and how to buy and eco board and who’s certifying their boards and now and who’s not. Buy and eco board and do something good for the ocean today. For Debbie Levin, my co-host, I’m John Shegerian. Kevin Whilden, you are truly living proof that green is good. KEVIN WHILDEN: Thank you.