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World Surf League: ‘Inspiring, educating and empowering’ ocean lovers on sustainability around the world

August 17 2023

Since 2016, the World Surf League has championed sustainability.

Drawing on its close connection to the natural environment, the organisation has set out to ‘inspire, educate and empower’ ocean lovers around the world, and has recently been celebrated as a leader in the field of sport sustainability and environmental stewardship.

But how exactly has the World Surf League addressed Global Sustainable Sport’s seven sustainable pillars of sport— and how will it continue its work in the future?

Addressing the impact of ocean sports

The World Surf League, which was established in 1976 and is headquartered in Santa Monica, California, is the international governing body for professional surfers. The WSL organises the annual tour of professional surf competitions across the world, including the WSL Championship tour.

As an ocean-based international sport, surfing has both an intimate connection to the natural environment and the potential to make significant environmental impacts, particularly through travel and at its tour stops. The WSL World Championship spans locations across the globe: tour stops in 2022 included locations in Hawaii, Portugal, Australia, South Africa, Brazil, and French Polynesia.

Locations used for WSL’s major events are often more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. For example, the Pipeline surf break in Hawaii, which served as the first tour stop for the 2023 Championship, is at risk of extreme flooding, storm surges, and rising sea levels.

The close connection to the ocean means that surfing, alongside other ocean-based sports like sailing, has both an opportunity and a responsibility to act to protect the environment.

“The ocean is quite literally our arena, our office, and our inspiration,” says Emily Hofer, Chief People & Purpose Officer and Executive Director at WSL PURE. “We want to ensure the ocean is healthy for generation of surfers and aspiring athletes to come.”

To do this, WSL has developed a three-stranded approach: its own internal sustainability commitments; a non-profit grant-giving organisation, WSL PURE; and a global sustainability initiative, WSL One Ocean.

WSL PURE and WSL One Ocean

In 2016, the World Surf League established its non-profit partner WSL PURE (Protecting, Understanding, and Respecting the Environment). In April 2021, WSL PURE launched its grant programme, which supports non-profit organisations that are working on issues related to climate impacts, biodiversity loss, and marine plastic pollution.

By working with a non-profit partner, the WSL can fund organisations that do important on-the-ground work in the communities where the WSL Championship is active.

Recipients of WSL PURE grants include Nā Kama Kai, an Hawaii-based organisation that works with children to teach ocean safety, conservation, and stewardship; SeaForester, an organisation based in Portugal that focuses on replanting seaweed forests in oceans across the world; and JBay Surf Alliance, an ocean conservation charity in South Africa.

At the same time, WSL’s central sustainability initiative, WSL One Ocean, focuses on both environmental and social responsibility, including equality, diversity, and inclusion. WSL One Ocean is designed to be incorporated into every aspect of the business.

In 2019, WSL announced a series of sustainability commitments. These commitments included becoming ‘carbon neutral’, eliminating single-use plastic, and restoring coasts. WSL applies these commitments and sustainability standards each of its World Championship Tour stops.

Planet: WSL’s environmental achievements

Since 2018, WSL has measured its own carbon emissions, worked to reduce them, and offset any remaining emissions from staff and athlete travel, events, and business operations in order to meet ‘net zero’.

WSL reached ‘net zero’ at the end of 2019, and by the end of the 2022 season, the organisation had reduced its emissions by 49% and waste by 70% from the 2018 baseline year. The WSL offset its remaining emissions using certified offsets from STOKE and One Carbon World.

Issues with offsetting programmes have been well-documented, and the use of offsets to reach ‘net zero’ emissions is not without controversy. To go some way towards addressing this, WSL have focused on on-the-ground, local carbon offset projects that directly engage and impact the communities they work in.

The organisation has supported projects in Australia, South America, Asia Pacific, and Africa, working on initiatives including Vida Manglar, a blue carbon project.

People and Participation: WSL’s social achievements

WSL’s environmental sustainability work also encompasses education and engagement with athletes, fans, youth, and local communities, as well as an emphasis on diversity and inclusion. In 2019, WSL were the first US-based global sports league to offer equal prize money to men and women.

Over the course of the Championship Tour season, WSL engages in initiatives at each stop that promote social and environmental sustainability. Activities include school programmes, beach clean ups, and collaborations with local community organisations.

By the end of the 2022 season, WSL had educated over 35,000 young people on cultural and environmental stewardship, collected 100 tonnes of plastic from rivers in Indonesia, and conserved 347,291 hectares of land.

An important central pillar of WSL’s sustainability work is its focus on engaging with Indigenous and First Nations communities. The WSL has committed to acknowledge and work with the Indigenous communities where its surf events are held, and to celebrate the Indigenous knowledge and work that has sustained these coastal areas over generations.

“We believe it’s crucial to elevate the work and acknowledge the experience of the communities who host us across the globe,” says Hofer. “If we want to continue to see the community and sport of surfing thrive, we need to protect our oceans and help elevate the work of environmental stewards and Indigenous communities at each tour stop that have been doing this conservation work for centuries.”

Partnerships, Profile and Power: building connections

Partnership and collaboration are two other central qualities of WSL’s sustainability programme. “We have many global and regional sustainability partners that engage in our environmental and social impact work,” says Hofer.

In 2018 the WSL was an early signatory to the UNFCCC’s Sports for Climate Action Framework, and the organisations work is aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Meanwhile, WSL One Ocean was developed through extensive collaboration and partnership with more than 90 NGOs, businesses, conservationists and ocean scientists. Activities and initiatives held at each tour stop always engage with local partners and Indigenous and First Nations communities.

Working in partnership with so many organisations, and with such a global platform, the WSL also has an opportunity to use its profile to keep sustainability on the agenda.

The organisation regularly publishes news and updates on its sustainability work, and the WSL also engages its athletes to raise awareness of sustainability topics and ocean literacy. Surfers including five-time women’s champion Carissa Moore and 2022 men’s world champion Filipe Toledo have both taken part in conservation work at tour stops.

With such a wide range of activities—through WSL PURE, WSL One Ocean, and WSL’s own sustainability commitments—it can be difficult to keep track of the organisation’s work. The WSL’s yearly Impact Report, which is accessible to the public on their website, goes some way to addressing this, but more detailed reporting might help the WSL to target their work even further.

Image copyright World Surf League

Image copyright World Surf League

Plans for the future

The WSL is now firmly established as a leading voice in sport sustainability. Through its multi-stranded sustainability work, the organisation has carefully addressed the impact of surfing both on the planet and on the local communities that the WSL works with.

In future, the WSL hopes to stay in this role. “We plan on continuing to be a leader in sports sustainability by aligning with the UN Sport for Climate Action Framework and developing a climate transition action plan, in addition to aligning to the Sport for Nature declaration,” says Hofer.

Critically, collaboration with Indigenous and First Nations communities will continue to be a central element of any sustainability work. “We also want to continue to learn from and collaborate with Indigenous and First Nations communities,” Hofer says.

Recent soaring temperatures and ocean heatwaves have clearly shown the urgency of the climate crisis and the critical need to protect our oceans, both for sport and for our communities. “The future of not just professional surfing, but all surfing, is directly tied to the health of the global ocean,” says Hofer.

If the world is to address this in time, all sports will need to take responsibility for their impacts and take advantage of their connections to nature. By following the lead of organisations like the World Surf League, sport can make this change happen.

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    Read moreBethany White