Kyle Thiermann, a 20-year-old professional surfer from Santa Cruz California, stood in a clothing factory in Sri Lanka amongst the commotion of the sewing machines, fabric cutters and conveyor belts as workers bustled to make sporting wear that would be distributed in the United States and Europe. A large orange sign at the end of the work line read, "The next person to see this item will be the consumer."
"It made me realize that although I may be 16 hours from home, on a tropical island in the Indian Ocean, I actually have a very close relationship with these workers," says Thiermann. "This sweatshirt came from the hands of someone in Sri Lanka, to my local surf shop and onto my back," he says, indicating the sweatshirt he is wearing. Thiermann, who is an activist along with a surfer set out on a three week trip to Sri Lanka this past August to track down exactly where his sweatshirt was made and to see the conditions in which it was created.
"I originally expected that I would see worse working conditions than I did, sweatshop like. But as soon as I started meeting with the factory owners and talking with the workers they let me know that conditions have really improved over the past few years in Sri Lanka's garment industry due to consumer pressure abroad." Theirmann took that information to heart and since his return to the States has been on a mission to get the word out to the public, specifically the surfing community, that consumer choices and consumer pressure can have a big impact on the lives of people all over the world, from the workers in Sri Lanka to the baristas in your home town.
A key tool in spreading his message has been the short film he made with surf and water photographer Daniel Russo on their journey to find the origin of his sweatshirt. The film features activist Annie Leonard of Story of Stuff, Company Representatives from Patagonia and Sector 9 Skate Company, all emphasizing the ways an individual can have a significant impact by consuming responsibly.
"Consider buying a product like making a donation to the company that made it. You have a lot of influence on that company, if you say, 'Hey I don't want to buy a shirt made in inhumane working conditions,' you'd be surprised how much they respond to that," says Thiermann.
Public Relations Rep, Jessica Playton of Patagonia, one of Thiermann's sponsors, says in his video, "Purchasing from a company that, say, is doing right by the environment sends a huge message to the industry, and trust me companies are paying attention."
"Everybody wants to help the world in someway, no one wants to be a part of the problem. People just need a way to engage with the solution," says Thiermann. Thiermann puts forth three simple ways to make a difference, "Pay attention to what you are buying, communicate with the companies and buy locally when you can."
"Shopping locally is an important part of responsible consuming and is an ongoing solution people can participate in everyday. It's about making a simple decision. I understand that most people aren't going to be full time activists, but this is a way someone can really make a change in their community." Annie Leonard, from Story of Stuff, explains, "Of every $100 spent at a locally owned store, $45 remains in the local economy, compared with about $13 per $100 spent at a big box."
But Thiermann acknowledges the complexities of a rapidly globalizing markets and understands that a lot of products sold in local shops are made abroad, "That is why it is important to also engage with large companies and let them know what type of products you support and which ones you don't. You can tell the local shop owner or communicate with the company directly."
Daniel Russo, who was the photographer on the trip and has traveled the world photographing surfers, says, "Going to Sri Lanka and seeing how much influence what we buy here has on the people making the product abroad was so eye opening to me. I have been on a lot of trips all over the world and we mostly just land, surf and leave. But this trip was different. This trip makes me want to use my camera to capture more than just surfing and to share the stories of the people who live in those surf destinations with surfers and people around the world."
All the positive feedback Thiermann has been getting from his video is what he says keeps him going, "Over the past week people have paddled up to me surfing and told me that they now think about their impact on other people when they buy something. Those experiences inspire me to keep going with my work."
Look out for an extended story of their trip and Russo's photographs coming up in surfermag.com.
Kyle Thiermann's website: http://kylethiermann.com/
Daniel Russo's website: http://abstractlines.tv/