STEVE ENGLAND CHATS TO NEWCASTLE'S GABE DAVIES ABOUT SURFING, WORK AND ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVISM
Gabe Davies has transitioned from full-time pro to industry insider seamlessly. Steve England pinned him down for a catch-up.
Newcastle's Gabe Davies followed the surfing dream after being shown the way by legendary east coast surf Veitch, who ended up winning national titles and surfing third reef Pipeline. After 20 years of being a professional free surfer, leading the big wave charge in Ireland with tow partner Richie Fitzgerald, getting involved with SAS and winning a British title he got a job; European surf category manager for Patagonia. It involves organising tours, surfers, and he’s played a part in the wetsuit development, eco and Fair trade programmes. Interesting stuff!
Steve England caught up with him to ask if he still manages to surf, and more.
How long have you been at Patagonia now?
Nearly five years now.
Was it a smooth transition from pro surfer to like, well, proper work!
Haha, well it was the right time, and it was the dream job, but I’d never say the transition from full-on pro surfer to any normal position is going to be an easy one! At that time, I was still surfing Mullaghmore, and I had been at Quiksilver for over 20 years, and now I am on the laptop more than I am in the sea. I’d always looked with admiration at what Patagonia was doing, but I had to bide my time for an opportunity to open up.
What have you been most proud of in that time?
I think the most exciting aspect for me, right now, is the ability to help people make a change and to inspire activism amongst surfers. No one at Patagonia is going to pat you on the back for selling more T-shirts – but having the right conversations about Fair Trade and Yulex could help swing both the surfers themselves and the surf industry into a more positive future.
I heard someone say Patagonia is a billion dollar, privately owned company that acts like an environmental NGO. Is that what it feels like?
Yes, I think so. In the most basic terms, the more money Patagonia makes, the more it can donate to NGOS through its 1% For the Planet contribution (1% of turnover, not profit). That is just necessary sums, and the business’s goodwill and good work go well beyond the reach of that 1% For the Planet funding of grassroots NGOS.
By becoming a more successful company, it also wields more power, influence and inspiration to other brands, be they startups that are inspired to do great work, or established brands who need to clean up their act. The world is smaller and more transparent than ever before, which means you can’t hide anymore and consumers are starting to ask more testing questions about business, the environment and space we all exist in together.
You have been quite heavily involved in testing out the Yulex. How are you finding the suits now?
As a surfer (from the sub-tropical northeast coast!) I judge our suits with as much of critical eye as anyone and my feedback is direct to the point in person. Right now, we have the most socially responsible and environmentally sound suit going, and most important of all, it surfs great. The new suits are incredible compared to what has gone before. In autumn 2016 Patagonia launched the world’s first neoprene-free wetsuits made with Yulex® natural rubber, from sources that are Forest Stewardship Council® certified by the Rainforest Alliance. This reduced CO2 emission by ~80 percent, compared to our old suits, but they did not perform like the new suits, so we are in a new place right now.
Yulex is a market leader formula that has taken 10-years to get to this point. We helped by running 200 material tests - and many iterations and tweaks have taken place between 2014 and the new formula we have now. To be clear, making suits from limestone, petrochemicals or non-fsc certified rubber is not the future: they are not good for the environment, and there’s more evidence mounting that the emissions caused by neoprene production can have harmful effects on people’s health. The process is filthy and wasteful of natural resources and energy.
Must be tough trying to lead in and test products in a very young market?
We are pushing forward, but, luckily, Patagonia can invest in R&D, to make the changes that others won’t - be that due to risk, or cost. However, we are always up for having open conversations with all brands about doing the right thing. The more brands that come on board with innovations such as Fair Trade and Yulex, the better the future will be for the surf industry and the end consumer.
And also Patagonia is pushing the Fair Trade Certified™ programme pretty heavily.
Fair Trade Certified™ wetsuits is another massive step forward for the surf industry, and it is a way of supporting the very skilled people that make all our gear. Almost all the surf wetsuits are made in the SHEICO Factory, who we worked with to gain the certification. Once the factory is Fair Trade Certified™ – any of those brands who have their suits made here, can now choose to pay the Fair Trade premium (or not).
The Fair Trade premium payment is a small extra percentage of the cost price of a wetsuit. That premium goes back directly to the workers who make our suits. The Fair Trade premium is spent on essential items such as childcare facilities or other ways to try and bring up the standard of living for these workers, with a very competitive garment industry. Beyond that quite simple financial bonus which goes to the workforce, the factory owners are also required to open a dialogue with the workers who decide how they spend their premium, and this can often lead to other benefits for the workers, who had maybe not discussed with the owners the day-to-day issues they face.
In addition to wetsuits, Patagonia gained Fair Trade Certification™ for its whole swim and boardshort line in Spring 17. We now have 15 Fair Trade Certified factories and over 480 styles of gear – that’s 38 percent of the line.
What is an average day in the life like for you? Are you always on the road?
Lots of travel, phone calls and emails. I work with
I judge our suits with as much of critical eye as anyone and my feedback is direct to the point in person
some incredible humans across Europe, some of them surf, others climb, ski, ride bikes or are just passionate about what they do.
Do you get much time to surf?
Haha. It’s not quite the ‘Let my people go surfing’ dream, but it’s damn close! I’ll try and jump in quickly if I see waves, but it’s all about finding the balance.
Do you think we will see any east coast surfers coming out and doing the pro surfer thing soon? In the '80s Veitch ended up at Pipe. You also lived the dream following his example, as did Sam Lamiroy. Elouise Taylor did well as did Gordon. Now Sandy is on an ambassador programme, so there have been role models. But there seems to be a gap in the east coast talent pool while we have good kids from Scotland and Wales coming through and making a mark outside the regular talent pools of Bude, Croyde and Newquay.
The east coast has always had a solid crew who can handle themselves in most lineups around the world. I guess my generation chased the competitions and a radical dream from the crew above! There is Louis Thomas-hudson, who surfed as a Junior for Team GB and competes in longboard. I think most kids up here these days are more about travelling and surfing abroad, or up in Scotland rather than driving to chase the southwest contest scene. I wonder about who the next east coast ‘pro surfer’ will be, but I think the world of pro surfing has changed and perhaps the glory years for the UK guys are going to be harder to find. I feel the level around the world is stretching away from homegrown talent. I’d love to be proved wrong of course. Also, I question the need for kids competing these days, I know the kids love it, thrive from it, and it’s as much about camaraderie and friendship, as it is about win or lose. I’d argue there is an opportunity for surfers to shine outside the vest, and be creative in their surfing and their actions, that could be the answer to finding their own space within the surf world. Contests certainly push the level of surfing up, but on the east coast, there isn’t that grassroots support for the junior contest or grom surfers in general. I look back and think that was probably my driving force during the contest phase of my surfing, was more to prove to myself, that I was good enough, rather than chasing an endgame plan. I feel fortunate to have gone on that journey.
On plastics and business ethics we are in the midst of exciting times politically, but in general, it seems like we are facing a sea change on material use and circular economies, realising that we are living in a bubble in a vast uninhabitable space. Do you feel that up there?
I think the world is crazy right now. Patagonia is not taking it laying down and encourages employees and partners to stand up, vote and engage. If we don’t do it, who will? In the US, Patagonia is part of a group filing lawsuits against the White House! We want to protect public land from development after Trump illegally reduced national monuments and allowed change of use away from national parks.
We don’t have time for climate deniers or any of that BS. Closer to home, In Europe we launched Save The Blue Heart of Europe, a
campaign, in partnership with some NGOS we support, telling international banks to stop investing in the destruction of the last wild rivers of Europe. Over 3000 proposed hydro schemes threaten the wild places, species, communities and eco-systems of the Balkan region. Very few of these gives any benefit to local economies or people, and once the concrete is down, this unspoilt natural area will be damaged forever. Rather than their perception as a green energy option, all dams are dirty and so is the hydropower they create.
As a brand, we have no Balkan's stores, nor any other commercial reason for focusing on an issue in the Balkans. Many people don’t even know where the Balkans are or still think that hydro equals green. However, it’s something that we feel is too important to ignore and that’s why this is our first global environmental campaign focusing on a European issue.
In April we launched the feature-length documentary Blue Heart, produced by Farm League. In Europe alone, we have screened it in 30 countries, 146 cities and even within the EU Parliament. Added to this, over 120,000 people, worldwide, have signed the petition telling international banks to stop investing in the destruction of Europe’s last wild rivers. Watch it online here or find your nearest screening here. https://blueheart.patagonia.com/truth
What exciting things are you working on at the moment?
We just launched the first European Worn Wear Surf Tour, starting at an event in Newquay featuring Lauren and Keith Malloy (who came up with the Worn Wear concept in the first place). Over the next few months, we will hold 27 events in the UK, France and Spain, where we will repair any brand of suits, or clothing, for free. Check the FB page for details.
It’s a natural progression from the Black Friday ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ advert we ran in the New York Times in 2011, challenging consumerism and asking people to think before they buy, only to purchase what they need and then to take care of their things so that they last as long as possible.
We now have the largest repair facility in North America and in 2017 we repaired over 70,000 garments globally. According to WRAP UK, using clothing an additional nine months reduces the carbon, water and waste footprints by 20-30 percent each. Also, repairing and reusing requires typically fewer resources than the energy and chemicals needed to recycle a garment, or creating a new one!
I met the cigarette butt board boys this summer. It seems like a lot of surfers think they can change the world. Why do you think that is?
If you look back at surf heritage, our forefathers were all trailblazers, and I hope that DNA still exists in the kids flying around the line-ups today! These guys are the embodiment of that. I mean picking up 10,000 cigarette butts off the beach would be rank, but creating a surfboard from them is rad!
Do you think we are winning?
I think surfers are by nature very antiestablishment, or, at least, dream of being. I was inspired by the radical side of surfing - not the guys who could do the best turns, but the colourful characters who thought outside of the mainstream. Those radical guys and girls started Surfers Against Sewage, went on the pro tour, travelled to the four corners on a shoestring. So, by nature, surfers are at the forefront of society and are hopefully the first to go against the grain. In this day and age, we do need activists, and a surf activist is someone who gives a shit, who stands up and makes a difference, doing the right thing. It’s someone who leads by example and, if we as surfers or the folk who run the surf industry don’t do, this, the right thing, then we are all screwed!