Moss Research founder and shaper Jake Moss explains how Eco-Flex has evolved, his influences in opening a fully eco-friendly surfboard manufacturing facility, and his vision for the surfing industry moving forward. Interviewed by surfer Evan Luth.
EL: Can you tell me about the concept for Eco-Flex and how it came to be?
JM: In 2009 I decided to stop making Polyurethane surfboards. I didn’t like the conclusion of disposable surf-crafts and how it made me feel in the context of being an environmental ocean lover. I also didn’t care for the health side effects of building a polyurethane surfboard. I decided to start experimenting with more eco-friendly materials; mostly using non-VOC plant based epoxy resin and different foams that offered recyclability that were in some part repurposed during their construction. So to me sustainability is an evolution and not an end point. The art of crafting surfboards is constantly changing and refining, with the intention of always getting to a better place.
How did you begin that process?
The process started with just researching and looking at other materials. Our first “eco-surfboard” was made from sugar cane foam, glassed with hemp, with bamboo fins and Bio-Epoxy resin that was around 73% plant base concentration. That thing is still around today and remains probably one the best boards we’ve made in terms of sustainability. I then went ahead and got some guidance from people who are doing life cycle analysis and have founded research on surfboard manufacturing from Cradle-to-Grave, and also the chemical constituents that are found in the construction process. Utilizing these resources and actually formulating a company sustainability report (CSR) was a hugely important part of this whole process.
Were there specific people you were working with at the time, or were you mostly on your own at this point?
I was on my own until about 2010, when I pursued a sustainability report from Tobias Schultz, of SCS Global and who wrote Surfboard Cradle-to-Grave. I had the opportunity to get my product in front of him and have an evaluation done, so that’s what I did.
How did the process and the brand itself evolve for you over time?
As more time went by I just became less interested in producing surfboards the “standard” way. The way they’ve been made for over 50 years from virgin petrochemical materials that at the end of the day are all completely non-recyclable. I decided to go on a path away from that at all costs and not stop until I figured out how to make a better board. Now we’re going on 2015 and the boards are feeling and looking better than ever!
You had some people who served as test pilots and experimenters with the equipment early on. What benefit did that offer in refining the technology and perfecting its performance?
At the time I was kind of into doing a bunch of different experiments, working with people like Ryan Burch and Cyrus Sutton. We were designing finless boards; using veneers, Paulownia wood, really flexible sugar cane foam, and using styrofoam cores with wood paneling laminations. We were doing all kinds of off-the-wall stuff and really focusing on getting weird with what can be ridden and how different materials can be utilized. We were testing the limits of finless design and exploring a whole other way to ride waves and the material processes involved in doing so.
It seems as if the work you were doing was highlighting the more rudimentary aspects of shaping and performance in order to understand the basic principles of hydrodynamics and the interaction of the materials used with the water. How did that shape the process of putting the pieces back together for you when you began working towards more advanced performance designs?
It was a good experiment because all these different materials we were testing: from wood to styrofoam to sugar cane foam; and by using bio resins that were super flexible, we could make finless boards that were super flat and figure out what the flex characteristics would be, and how the whole design itself would behave in the water. Taking a lot of notes from that, it later evolved into crafting eco-boards of all different kinds of fins. Essentially it was like taking the whole thing apart down to the essentials and basics; then building it back up, with all these weird outcomes along the way. In 2008 we were making the first boards with sugar cane foam, hemp decks, bamboo and bio-epoxy resin. Those materials later evolved into recycled styrofoam and plant based epoxies as the main materials found in Moss Research Eco-Flex surfboards.
And really, it was all about working with all kinds of surfers. From the professionals to the kind of underground rippers and experimental surfers, through to the all around average surfers. Our goal was to pin-point an equilibrium between flex, performance and sustainability in crafting the ultimate surfboard.
It looks as though you’ve had a lot of success in developing a high-performance shape that utilizes all of the basic principles you guys were trying to experiment with. How do you see this pertaining to your average surfer, who is typically uneducated and unaware of both the harm that the industry is causing currently, and also the prospective benefit of utilizing these materials and processes your talking about?
One main factor to consider is that up until now, any surfboard that was labeled “eco” was associated with being heavy and may compromise performance, so those were the hurdles that I had to overcome first. I was actually creating a board that functions better and more reliably in terms of how it holds up. I think that factor is paramount in terms of getting people to switch over. There are so many things that have come and gone; so many gimmicks and trends. I think part of it is slight complacency on the surfers part, to cling to this antiquated way of making surfboards for the last fifty years – A process that is known to be toxic and disposable. It’s about consumer education. I personally wouldn’t ever try and put something out there that wasn’t better than what came before it, and now it’s just a matter of showing people that and demonstrating the benefits.
What kind of vision do you hold for the future growth of the company as it scales upwards?
We’ve just expanded to our new Eco-Board building facility that will eventually be fueled by solar power, meet or exceed the LEED Platinum rating and continue to produce the highest quality product. We are also helping other shapers to build their own eco-boards. In the next couple years we’re going to see the environmental standards tighten up and basically you won’t be able to build a board the traditional way anywhere near the ocean or residential areas. More and more board builders are going out of business, downsizing, or worse; they’re just moving their manufacturing overseas to places that have very relaxed to no existing environmental standards at all. It also doesn’t do surfers or surfing any justice because inexperienced shapers craft your boards.
By partnering up with these other shapers and individuals your talking about, not only are you educating and spreading awareness about the added benefit of the technology and its role in the environmental sustainability, but you are also empowering them to utilize this technology. How do you foresee that contributing an added benefit in the big picture?
I think it will help keep surfboard manufacturing in America for one, which helps our local economy. Ultimately, we don’t need to be producing more disposable materials. I’d rather eventually take the approach of open sourcing the eco-boards building process, in order to help everyone make really good boards, that benefit everyone in the industry, the surfers and the environment too.
You’re kind of setting an industry standard in this way, placing yourself ahead of the curve…
I’m self financing the whole operation. I don’t have tons of money and I’m not a big corporation; so if I can do it, they can too.
That being said, what role do you think this will play in the future of the surfing industry?
I’d like to see a world title or a CT contest on an eco-board, one of mine, or somebody elses, either way it would be awesome! That’s the kind of story that needs to be told: professional surfers using high performance surfboards made from sustainable materials.
By implementing the wide use of these materials and this process, you are talking about inducing a cultural shift in the surfing world.
Yes, and for me in my business, it’s all or nothing. I don’t see any reason at all to be making toxic and disposable surfboards, especially when the newer materials out-perform, outlast, are more reliable, more resilient and they’re so much better to work around and with. So it’s like come on, get on the program! We’re a surfing community of upwards of 20 million now. At that scale, the irresponsible toxic manufacturing no longer makes sense. Like anything else, you have to break through the status quo. Of course this is something that undermines larger companies practices and advertising campaigns. So the social acceptance of this will take time and you obviously have to appeal to the larger companies in the industry in order to really make that shift, but I know we can do it!