"I loved the ‘we have the best weed in town’ tag line we used to launch the suits when we used Guayule plant for our rubber..."
It’s fair to say Gabe Davies has already fitted a lot into his life so far.
Originally from Newcastle, in the North East of England, he became a professional surfer at the age of just seventeen, embarking on a career that took him around the world and pick up four British surfing titles, numerous English titles and represented his country at World and European Championships. But that’s not all. Gabe also has extensive experience working in television, film and printed media and with brands such as Quiksilver, G-Shock, and GoPro amongst others. He is also a Chair for the regional reps of radical marine conservation charity Surfer Against Sewage.
And now in his role as European Surf Manager at sustainable clothing company Patagonia, he is part of a movement to make surfing and its apparel better for our planet. It should be no surprise that surfers are leading this charge. Whilst most of the public has only recently been made aware of the damage that is being done to our seas by our addiction to plastic, for those regularly in the water, they see its effects every day. Plastic pollution has become an expected part of surfing. Our Editor, Luke Upton recently caught up with Gabe, for this exclusive interview on how Patagonia are making a change to this sad state of affairs.
Luke Upton (LU): We are talking today in your role as Europe Surf Manager at Patagonia, but you used to be a pro-surfer. What did you learn travelling the world competing in competitions that you are using with Patagonia?
Gabe Davies (GD): The surf industry has changed so much over the years. I was always passionate about the environment, and radical ground breaking NGOs like Surfers Against Sewage, but the traditional surf industry was more focused on contests or just selling product. Competitions come and go every weekend around the world, year after year. It’s a bit of a circus. I had an incredible career as a pro surfer and ‘big wave rider’, but now I have the fantastic opportunity to work and help influence surfing in Europe from the perspective of the most forward thinking companies in the world. It is fair to say that almost everything the traditionally surf industry did, Patagonia does the exact opposite.
They continue to throw the rule book out of the window. The focus is on product performing when you need it the most. Looking in detail at how our clothing and wetsuits are made, how we do business and constantly improving our supply chain. Lastly it is how we can support environmental groups and inspire other companies to improve the way they do business, from an environmental perspective.
LU: It seems that the public are increasingly aware of the damage that plastic is doing in our seas and on our beaches, are the team at Patagonia feeling a similar uptick in interest?
GD: Yes, the world has eyes on this problem right now. Patagonia are supporting many environmental NGOs via ‘1% For The Planet’ funding member. Patagonia has donated over $89 million in cash and in-kind support to grassroots causes around the world.
One of the NGOs we support in the UK Surfer Against Sewage, is pushing the UK government for a ‘deposit return scheme’ for plastic bottles. Patagonia’s Tin Shed Ventures is a corporate venture Capital fund to support start-ups that offer solutions to the environmental crisis. It has invested over $20 million so far and is another avenue that Patagonia uses to support environmental solutions. There are two companies we have supported from the Tin Shed Ventures that come to mind. Both specifically have products that will help reduce micro plastics in the water ‘Guppy Friend’ is a product that you can uses to trap micro plastics leaving your synthetic garments via your washing machine. ‘Bureo’ is a USA company using discarded fishing nets from Chile, as a raw material to upcycle into amazing skateboards and sunglasses.
LU: With surfers seeing the environmental problems every day, tells us more about Patagonia’s work in this area?
GD: Back in 1993 Patagonia was the first Outdoor company to divert waste plastic bottles and turn them into product. There are many other products we make that use from natural fibres (Hemp and Organic Cotton), recycled (Down, Nylon or Polyester) or reclaimed (Cotton and Wool). We also look at best in class dying processes, Fair Trade and traceable down feathers.
When it comes to wetsuits, a product every surfer needs, it is a product that is traditionally made from petro-chemical or limestone, we knew it was dirty and we could do better. Working with Yulex Corporation over many years, we worked on materiel tests that could help replace traditional ingredients with a natural Rubber alternative. Over 8 years and 4 cycles of product, we have improved our suits which are now the world’s first ‘neoprene-free’ wetsuits on the market. They have reduced our CO2 footprint by ~80% compared to traditional suits. We also invited the rest of the industry to the party. By openly sharing our technology we hope that more brands would come on board with us. We all have a part to play and to educate the end user that the natural rubber alternative was better than the less environmentally older version.
The Yulex process started using Guayule based rubber and then moved onto FSC Rainforest Alliance Certified Rubber, sourced in Guatemala and Sri Lanka. The sourcing of the nature rubber turned out to be a critical part of the story. Using non FSC sourcing would have given us a dubious product, as clear cutting of rainforests is a well-known practise by in natural rubber production.
LU: What have been some of the challenge in developing this neoprene-free wetsuit?
GD: Educating the end consumer (and an industry, which is resistant to change) to the benefits. Also, being transparent that no wetsuit is perfect, that they all contain products that we need to try and clean up. The industry is coming around, some brands are faster than others, but we will always face resistance form the lowest end of the market, that is always just pushing for price over quality.
LU: Have you had to market it differently? And what has been the response?
GD: We try to be as honest and transparent as possible, most of the world’s high performance wetsuits come from the same factories, so it is quite clear at what level brands care about the environment. I loved the ‘we have the best weed in town’ tag line we used to launch the suits when we used Guayule plant for our rubber, it caught the attention and drew people into a much deeper story about where their product comes from.
LU: What future plans do Patagonia have in the bio-based space?
GD: We are looking at improving our rubber performance. it has taken season upon season to fine tune the rubber to get what we need. Next season we have added more flex added to the foam fabrics. We also want to replace other ingredients that go into our wetsuit foam like ‘carbon black’, by using content from recycled tyres. We are also looking at end of life plan to upcycle old wetsuits that are notoriously difficult to recycle, to avoid landfill.
We are still sharing our technology with other brands to move the industry into the right direction, as well as internally seeing if the products we have created with Yulex can work in other categories, like our Fly-Fishing gear.
LU: As we’ve discussed, Patagonia are well known for a focus on sustainability, but do you have advice for those readers who want to make a change to how their company produces products, but perhaps don’t have as strong a green ethos?
GD: Whenever Patagonia came to a big cross roads decision, making the right choice for the environment has always proven to be the right choice for the business. People thought moving to 100% Organic cotton back in 1996 would ruin us because the prices would sky rocket. We made a committed decision to support healthy agriculture and ecosystems and people understood why we made that choice and sales went up. Taking time to test products and build trusting relationships with our supply chain has been an important process with long term goals, rather than short term gains. Providing a lifetime Ironclad Guarantee builds a loyal customer base. Building products that are repairable encourages repair rather than replace mentality and makes people value their own products. Within those scenario’s, everyone is a winner in the long term.
LU: Great thanks for the time today Gabe ( @gabedavies ) , it is pretty inspirational stuff! Keep up the good work!
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