Environmental justice, as opposed to simple environmentalism that can be co-opted by corporate consumerism to drive sales in the mode of greenwashing, understands that all forms of oppression are interconnected. That is, oppressions of race, sexuality, gender, class; oppressions that privilege heterosexuality and certain body types over others; oppressions that encourage (often in complicity via ignoring) homophobia and transphobia; oppressions that privilege consumers over producers.
A deep understanding that “Nature” is not simply defined as environments that do not include humans or include humans in sparse amounts, or as external to nature (because of our cultures), or is some type of wilderness that has not been structured by human technology into a kind of triumphant albeit damaging submission, but includes humans in all their various cultural expressions is essential to environmental justice perspectives. We are nature. We are naturecultures in all our various biological exuberances and expressions.
The difference between environmentalisms that are simply rhetoric and those that achieve lasting, meaningful results, is that there must be a commitment to actively eliminating the forms of oppressions listed above in addition to the tremendous work of educating consumers through greening campaigns. This is especially true with industries that have institutionalized oppressions, such as those found in the surf industry.
Environmental justice includes human oppressions along with non-humans and their naturecultures’ oppressions. In other words, an environmentalist who is buying “green” products made by children via forced labor is antithetical to environmental justice, but may be an acceptable mode of consuming for environmentalists. The environmentalist consumer does not change her consumer habits, she simply exchanges “green” (whatever that means) or organic products for her old products. This is particularly salient in US/European conversations with environmentalists who value population control in other (often southern hemisphere) countries over altering their own and their country’s consumer habits.
California, specifically Southern California, is ground zero for the surf industry. In fact, Quiksilver was Huntington Beach’s second largest employer after defense contractor and aerospace giant, Boeing until just recently. (Krista Comer, p. 188)
The consequences of taking up residence in the 12th largest economy in the world can translate to demands placed on its corporate citizens that require transparency like that of the recently instituted SB 657.
“[SB 657] would enact the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010, and would, beginning January 1, 2012, require retail sellers and manufacturers doing business in the state to disclose their efforts to eradicate slavery and human trafficking from their direct supply chains for tangible goods offered for sale, as specified. ” (see note 1)
This is an effort to tackle the alarming amount of goods that are produced through child labor and forced labor and to cut the supply/demand lines that allow predation via human trafficking.
Specific goods associated with notably high concentrations of child and/or forced labor include cotton (17 countries), garments (8 countries) and footwear (5 countries). The region that has the highest quantity of forced laborers (55%) is South Asia. The child and forced labor found is consistent along lines of long-standing patterns of discrimination against ethnic minorities (e.g. certain Indian castes, religious minorities in Pakistan). (see note 2)
Cotton is an especially difficult commodity to track in the supply chain because of its demand and for regulatory complications (mostly, countries, fields, factories, etc. don’t want to reveal information), and because it is a commodity that is shipped around to different factories where clothing is made. (see note 3) Despite this difficulty, it is essential to track cotton from field to store, given that governments like Uzbekistan continue to drive children to labor in order to harvest cotton crops. These crops are not always spun or made into textiles in the same regions our “Made in…” tags indicate.
California law now requires retailers and manufacturers, who make upwards of one million dollars annually in worldwide gross receipts, to have a developed, instated and disclosed plan of action to tackle these issues down their supply chain.
The institution of the law by surf companies ranges from solid to laughable (if it wasn’t for the seriousness of the issues). Leaving aside for the moment the efficacy of these programs as enacted by companies, Billabong and subsidiaries with their SA8000 Standard get top honors. (see note 4) This is an internationally recognized certification standard developed by NGO Social Accountability International. Unfortunately, even this standard does not guarantee the safety of those making surfing’s products.
Quiksilver decided to create its own Ethical Standards of Trade which it calls QUEST and though I couldn’t find the actual QUEST document, I was able to view the 2 page (compared to the 10 page SA8000 document of Social Accountability International) Supplier Workplace Code of Conduct. This is Quik’s version of social compliance with SB657.
On the polar end, at ridiculous, O’neill has complied with the SB657 law by stating that it is making an effort to disclose it’s forthcoming effort… to make an effort:
Coming soon… and “we plan to” and “will do such” because, ostensibly they are being forced to. Though laughable, this effort is actually a more accurate portrayal of surfing-as-a-business than its peers for its honest lack.
The reality is that many of these companies lack the will to follow through with their ethico-social responsibilities (despite greening campaigns) and anyone who is associated by being sponsored and/or purchasing items from these companies is likewise absconding their responsibilities as conscientious human beings in order to heighten their profile. The question “to what end?” is pertinent here. What exactly is it that is most important to these people? Certainly it isn’t environmental justice.
Elizaveta Doubossarskaia explains how the SB657 bill fails consumers by not tackling labor issues deep enough. (see bibliography note)
The main problem with the surf industry is that it does not have the will to tackle human rights issues in the production of its products in its rush to globalize, profitize and Olympicize the “sport”. This has much to do with the lack of concern and pressure from its consumers.
I have also tried to publicly highlight the connections between the industry and labor rights violations in order to encourage those who are environmentally disposed to shift their gaze toward a more environmental justice standpoint (especially focusing on those who make surf products).
Deconstructing the image Big Surfing has created for the world, disentangling it from surfing-the-activity, and then reclaiming a space for dialogue about new directions for smaller surf businesses that are local, responsibly sourced and/or DIY has been key up to this point.
For many surfers, this has meant walking away from the big brands, the ASP and Big Surfing altogether. To decrease money flow into Big Surfing is the most powerful voice consumers have. Yet it is also important to explain to the companies why the money flow is decreasing, that is, why you as a consumer have chosen to spend your money elsewhere (see contact list below).
In order to reconstruct surfing, we must first recognize that the image that Big Surfing has constructed is more than false, it has been and continues to be damaging. Those who are associated with this image are continuing the damage: harm that impacts actual human beings and their families who suffer in order to produce the products that surfers use. This is so far from environmental justice that when the rhetoric of “environmentalism” is used in the industry we must baulk. This is not true environmentalism, regardless of the faces and campaigns used to sell such greening.
Next, we must look to the standard holder of the industry, Patagonia, and ask what they do and do not do as a company. They do not sponsor surf events, they have a “no growth” business plan (despite amazing growth during the 2008-current slow-down in the industry), they do not invest in competition or “cool” media marketing. Their products are more expensive, but they last (products do not fall apart so consumers buy less… less consumerism is the key) and the money Patagonia makes is redirected in a responsible manner and converted into more environmental justice programs. I have no ties to Patagonia, but the research I have done consistently shows that they have a superior mode of doing business to others in the industry that they often do not report. I have also found that they have reached out to surf brands… to no avail. I have to wonder why.
I am anti-consumerist but my position is unworkable for most people. Instead, we ought to work towards aligning surf business with a new ethos that is anti-competition, values-based (rather than “personality/lifestlye” based) and transparent all the way down the supply-chain.
Solutions? Look to Patagonia. Otherwise, BOYCOTT buying surf gear and clothing from Big Surfing. Especially from Quiksilver, Roxy and subsidiaries since they have received the worst grades from NGO groups around the globe. Tell the Big Surf brands and the retailers that sell surf products that you are concerned with how the products are made and by whom. This change must come from the ground up.
Email contact list:
Contact Quiksilver here.
Contact Roxy here.
Contact Billabong here.
Contact Vans here.
Contact Volcom here.
Contact RVCA here.
Contact Oneill here.
Contact Reef here.
Contact Vans here.
Comer, Krista. Surfer Girls in the New World Order, 2010.
Doubossarskaia, Elizaveta. CA Transparency in Supply Chains Act: Can It Stop Worker Abuses Among Suppliers in the Developing World? 2012
(accessed online May 30, 2013)