The Sustainable Fiber of Kelly Slater’s Being

With his clothing brand Outerknown, Kelly Slater aims to close the loop to be fully circular by 2030

Look at what you are wearing right now. What is it? No doubt it might be something you put on because it was comfortable, but what about beyond that? Where did it come from? Who makes it? Not like what is the name on the label, but who stitched the seams? How was the fabric made? Where are the factories?

When is brand messaging not just a brand deciding what they are going to tell people they stand for and more a brand saying what they actually stand for? Well, we got a good look at that when Outerknown founders Kelly Slater (who you might know as a guy who surfs a little) and John Moore kinda casually video chatted about the latter this Earth Day. It’s not many brands that would offer consumers quite this astonishing level of transparency, but if you watch the video recording of the meeting, which seems to have caught the 11-time WSL world title holder at breakfast, you will see right away that John and Kelly are two guys that looked at the things they were wearing and said, “Hey, maybe we can do better by the earth and better by the ocean?”

We won’t belabor the Babe Ruth of surfing analogies—but how did Kelly Slater who did so much to advance the sport of surfing and has surfed professionally at the most elite level for basically his entire life, come to start a clothing company? Well it makes perfect sense if you think about it. Despite all those years at the top of the sport, most of Kelly’s earning came from sponsorships and most of those sponsorships were clothing companies. So, despite being the most elite professional surfer in the world for so long, Kelly Slater has been making a living from clothing companies his whole life. He realized that the thing that accounted for the bulk of his income from surfing, he really didn’t understand. And he started to ask those questions of himself that we started with here. From those questions, he embarked down the path that led to the founding of Outerknown.

On the call, which sure, has the air of the Zoom meetings we are all getting more used to—except with Kelly’s side gig keeping him on the road, John and he are used to meetings like this—the cofounders outline how, five years on, they are reaffirming their commitment to sustainability.

Sustainability is why we are in business.

This doesn’t just mean Outerknown buys some carbon offsets once a quarter, or does a beach cleanup here and there, or makes commercials with slow piano music playing over a montage of waves crashing while a narrator intones about how much they care. It means that Outerknown clothing might sometimes cost a bit more than your typical surf sweats, but it’s traceable back to their Fair Labor Association accreditation, their partnerships with factories that have high sustainability standards, and their use of recycled, regenerated, and organic materials. “Without those things in place, yeah, we could make a product that is much cheaper and more accessible to absolutely everyone, and we are trying to get there,” said Kelly, “We’re just starting where we can.” The prices are gradually coming down, he and John say, but not at the expense of the product, with the goal always being making high-quality clothes that people will like and will last a long time.

The mission of the company could not be more clear.

“Sustainability is why we are in business,” Kelly says. The plan, and one Outerknown has just published, is to become completely circular by 2030—which means eliminating all waste and pollution in the manufacturing process, expanding fair labor practices throughout the supply chain and production process, and closing the loop so that not only do the materials and fabrics come from sustainable sources but they also don’t end up in landfills and come back into the system to be used again in a meaningful way. A tall order.

“If more people have this in mind when making something, it’s not that you can or can’t do it,” says Kelly. “It’s just the how, and trying to figure it out.”