The Boiler House

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An Honest Conversation...
How Europe’s Largest Action Sports Retailer is Saving Our Oceans from Plastic while Operating on 100% Renewable Energy

Our oceans are drowning in Plastic, and surfers are on the front line to save their natural playgrounds. But some of them are not doing so by “simply” cleaning up beaches… they’re creating and running businesses that operate on renewable energy, eliminating plastic and changing the way the whole industry works.

Last month, I had an Honest Conversation with Adam Hall, surfer and Head of Sustainability at Internet Fusion Group, a fast-growing, e-commerce business that retails sports equipment and lifestyle products, and Surfdome, Europe’s largest action sports retailer.

Surfdome was used as a case study for the ‘World Business Council for Sustainable Development’ and earned a mention in the ‘New Plastic Economy’ documents presented at the ‘World Economic Forum’ in 2015. It is ranked as one of the top 14 fashion and beauty brands that are helping to save the oceans from the 8 million tonnes of plastic that are currently invading our waters. 

Welcome to The Boiler House, Adam.
Thank you.

I think that my favourite quote from you is that you “pay your rent on this planet by striving to look after it”. I find that brilliant, although’s not the most common thing you expect to hear from a business owner. Do you think there is a general misconception that you can’t make money if you run a green business?
Yes, absolutely. There’s an article in the Financial Times that says it’s a very general trend that businesses that are based on purpose tend to make more money than businesses that are based solely on profit, although obviously the latter do exist, and are those who run very well because they run on a very strict money-making machine.
What I find interesting in regards to this is a case study by Philip Cottier, one of the most important marketers of our time, who claims we’re moving into a 3rd-phase marketing. The first phase was product-centric marketing, whilst the 2nd phase it was consumer-centric marketing. We’re moving into the 3rd phase, where it’s value-driven marketing, and it’s become the case that consumers are choosing those brands that reflect their values. 

If you’re not playing that game, you will be left behind, 100%.

Very Interesting. I read the Unilever report, it said their sustainable brands are growing at a much faster rate than their “traditional” brands.
Unilever even made a statement recently that they are going to sell-off or walk away from any brands that do not have a high level of sustainability credentials. And Unilever is one of the biggest companies in the world… so to say that Sustainability is this new counter-culture happening in business isn’t true… it’s rapidly becoming the new norm. If you are not making a conscious effort to give back to the communities and society and the very environment we live in, you’re a dinosaur that should be left to the industrial revolution.

I guess the reason why people say that is that in terms of numbers, it’s not always that clear cut…compared to other processes in business, sustainability is still in its infancy, so not everything can be quantified or monitored. Or is that a myth as well?
It’s difficult to track the goodwill of a business, but there are lots of elements that can be monitored or “quantified”. For instance, when investing in renewable energy you have meters that will say how much you are saving. If you are recycling, you can compare what cost you were paying for general waste, compared to the rebate you are earning from your recycling. Actions are easy to monitor, and in most cases, they are beneficial to businesses.  The first rule of sustainability is obviously to reduce. But when there aren’t any measurables, that’s when you start almost marketing what you are doing. The evolution of sustainability is bringing about more practical measures that have practical consequences, and sustainability professionals are much more highly regarded, as their jobs are aimed at steering businesses towards the pragmatic solutions to take i.e. access a certain government scheme etc.

You mentioned that new technologies can help businesses reduce carbon footprint. What technologies do you employ at Surfdome to tackle climate breakdown?
The biggest impact is given by Solar panels, which we’ve quadrupled this year …

I think the main narrative behind solar panels is that they are too expensive and don’t allow to store energy for non-sunny days.
Well, generally payback period for installing solar panels is 5 or 6 years, and that’s a win in anybody’s book. But if buying solar panels is out of the question, there are funders out there willing to fund your solar system and then sell you the energy it produces with a lockdown rate for 20/25 years, at a PPA (Power Purchasing Agreement) of 8p/kW instead of 14p/kW.
We also have heat-recovery systems, LED sensor-led lighting, and we are looking into battery storage, that is, how to store any energy that we’ve produced over the weekend when we are shut down.
The thing I find the most frustrating about sustainability is that when we come to the first hurdle, people seem to give up a lot easier than if it was anything non-related. But the exciting part of becoming sustainable is precisely that of having to use our creativity to overcome obstacles and finding solutions.

Internet Fusion Group’s video explaining how they offset 405 tonnes of carbon every year by using solar energy… a mix between high tech science and magic, seeing England is one of the least sunny countries in the world!

In 2018, the group which Surfdome is part of has 12 other businesses which collectively boast 95% plastic-free outbound packaging. What does that mean?
Well, we get merch delivered from other brands, what we call inbound packaging, which we don’t have much control over. But out-bound packaging of the merch that we send out to our customers was, in the first six months of 2019, 99.1% plastic-free.

Internet Fusion is now working closely with the 750 brands and suppliers to assist them to reduce their plastic use. In what way are you assisting these brands?
We’ve started influencing the amount of plastic we receive in inbound packaging by coming up with a delivery policy.

What does that entail? Did you encounter any resistance?
We’ve had big brands say, “If we change for you, we have to change for everyone” and that’s a pretty positive effect for a first-time policy! More importantly, the overwhelmingly constructive response we’ve received from our suppliers is that they knew they had to take action, but didn’t know how to. So by giving them a framework, we actually empowered to take action, which was already on everybody’s mind.
What I appreciate the most about the process is when honest conversations are spurred from challenges. When people say: we are struggling to meet these criteria, so then we have to come up with a creative solution. I think to be in a position where you can influence an entire industry is the most desirable position to be in when it comes to sustainability. 

A short clip on how employing new technology has helped Surfdome save 11,000m3 of cardboard each year… that’s 5,600 trees.

 According to your Linkedin profile “you grew up in the rolling hills and gentle surf of the South West of England, which shaped your passion for Surfing and an appreciation of the natural world”. Do you think your own childhood experiences of nature shaped your “ecological conscience” as an adult?
Well, anything that happens in childhood is deeply rooted, so yes. But there are a huge variety of different environmental triggers that elicit people’s “environmental conscience”. For instance, in the outdoor sports world, people go out into nature to get something from the environment…whether it’s an adrenaline rush or just a sense of peace. So when people go into nature to practise their sports and see it’s been trashed, that opens a window onto the subject…it’s still a pretty selfish motive, but at least it has spurred a change in the culture, appreciating the natural environment, seeing the changes we are making to it… realizing it’s not ok and that changes have to be made.

What is the #2MinuteBeachClean challenge?
We needed a plastic-reduction strategy that would engage our customer base, so were the founding supporter for the movement. We found that talking about the plastic catastrophy made people switch off because they get so overwhelmed by this catastrophe of global-proportions.  But 2-minutes… everyone’s got two minutes! And there’s no scheduled plan, there’s no one telling you off for not showing up at the right time, or for not cleaning up. It’s something that has changed people’s mindsets by empowering them!

A couple of last questions for the surfing aficionados like myself…What’s your favourite sustainable wetsuit brand? And is there such a thing as a sustainable surfboard?
My favourite sustainable wetsuit is Patagonia’s Yulex (made from 100% sustainable rubber, but definitely pricey- editor’s note)
As for boards, Maluku Surfboards, our own brand, is the most sustainable, commercially viable surfboard to ECO Board Gold standard.

Looking after our home planet must come first, otherwise, everything else is built on sand.

Adam Hall

“An Honest Conversation” with Sylvia Helen Goodrick
from the Boiler House, London. 

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