Buy Local, Surf Global

Kyle Thiermann's Single-Handed Quest to Evoke Change

After spending time in the garment factories in Sri Lanka, Kyle Thiermann and a local surfer catch a few before dark. Photo: Russo

Last year, 20-year-old Kyle Thiermann took a surf trip to Southern Chile, where he planned to spend a few weeks sampling the pointbreak perfection of Constitucion. But soon he realized it would become more than just a carefree jaunt through the lefts of South America. In the small town where he stayed, in an area whose livelihood depended upon fishing, a coal power plant was proposed that would potentially decimate the fish in the area, among a slew of other environmentally detrimental consequences. Rather than sit idle, Kyle researched the situation and found out that Bank of America was funding the project. He started a campaign called "Claim Your Change" which emphasized the power that surfers in particular have to keep their money in a local banks, an effort that will help grow the local economy rather fund things like coal power plants. According to Kyle, "over $110,000,000 worth of lending power has been moved out of Bank of America and into local banks around the country." Now, Kyle has embarked on another cause aimed specifically at the surf community, so we caught up with the young Santa Cruz local to find out about it.

How has your success with the "Claim Your Change" project led you to your most recent project?
Well I got sponsored by Patagonia and Sector 9 and they supported me to travel this September to Sri Lanka to visit a clothing-manufacturing factory. I was planning to make a video on sweatshop conditions and how what we buy here has an effect on someone's life in a place as far away as Sri Lanka. But while I visited there, I actually found out that a lot of conditions in this factory have improved a huge amount because of consumer pressure. The story was totally twisted. It was really good to see the effect surfers have at home on people as far away as Sri Lanka. I learned a lot about how every time you buy a T-shirt you are sending a message to the industry that it's okay or not okay to use your money in a certain way.

Kyle and the local groms. Photo: Russo

So what can people do to continue sending this message to the industry?
When you put your money into buying from a locally owned business, more money stays in your community. So if you spend $100 at a locally owned business, $45 continues to circulate in a local economy, as opposed to buying from a chain store where only $13 continues to circulate in the local economy. The film I made is about the power surfers have to effect change in a really easy way. I totally get it--most surfers are not going to become full-time activists, but there are really simple things we can do, like banking locally and shopping locally and shopping from responsibly run companies, that have a huge effect on our neighbors locally and across the world.

Will you talk specifically about how the Sri Lankan clothing manufacturing companies you visited were directly affected by consumers in America?
Essentially what I found when I interviewed workers is that the conditions are better because they're now being paid living wages and this is just because of pressure from consumers in America. Through our purchasing decisions, we are saying to the companies that we want to buy our T-shirts from a company that's going to be paying their workers a living wage. That's not to say that everywhere is Sri Lanka is fine and that Sri Lankans are great, but this factory I visited is a really good example of that, of the positive effects surfers can have in America on the rest of the world.

According to Kyle, conditions in the factory he visited had drastically improved in recent years due to consumer pressure from the U.S. Photo: Russo

So is the point for people to demand from their companies that they're fair to their workers and that they're using recycled products? Is it our job to do that?
That's great and that's how change happens, but I believe when you go to your surf shop and ask those kinds of questions that's how change happens, but just from simply supporting responsibly run businesses and buying form locally owned businesses that also creates a huge effect. Even if you're not saying anything, you're voting with your dollar every day.

What kind of press you've received about this project?
We actually got an article in The Huffington Post two weeks ago, and an article on the Discovery Channel recently. The local newspapers in Santa Cruz did article on it. I've talked to all my old junior highs and my high school.

Kyle Thiermann has spoken at high schools and other local venues, but it's clear public speaking isn't his only strongsuit. Photo: Russo

So now what? What future projects do you have planned?
I'm going to go to Oahu in about three weeks to make another short video on solutions to plastic pollution. I've just been learning a lot about it and I think it's a really big cause and there are a lot of potential solutions. That's going to be coming out in March. Then I'm going to go to South Africa in June to do a project on the proposed nuclear power plant right by J Bay. The theme of my projects is just that there are simple things we can do. I really don't want what I'm doing to be seen as that negative environmentalist stuff, because I think it's way more inspiring to talk about the huge cool impact that we are having every day. Each one of us has the power to affect the world and just recognizing that and using that in a positive way is really simple, and it feels really good.