Frank Scura’s green ideas are sick
Photo: Courtesy ASEC
With the recent profusion of green takes on everything from diapers to caskets, Frank Scura’s proposition might sound like more of the same: “We’re about greening the planet, one skateboard at a time.” But Scura, founder of the Bay Area-based Action Sports Environmental Coalition, isn’t your average environmentalist. And action sports — that heavily marketed package of adrenaline-infused competition undertaken on oceans of plywood — is a little different too.
For one thing, it has a cool factor so appealing that mass-marketers can’t keep their TV cameras off it. At the start of August, about 140,000 people saw X Games 12 in person in Los Angeles, and nearly a million households watched on prime-time TV. In fact, 100 million Americans consume some form of ESPN every week. Scura is sure he can use that type of exposure to transform action sports into the vanguard of green consciousness.
Photo: Courtesy ASEC
You play the cards the universe dealt you, and in Southern California in the 1980s, the universe dealt Scura BMX racing, skateboarding, surfing, and punk rock. It was a uniquely SoCal youth culture infused with a sunny but nihilistic rejection of suburban cultural norms. “I just basically used to do a lot of drugs and drink a lot and only date strippers,” says Scura when asked how he got from there to here. “But things snapped in me when the Rodney King riots happened. I was just like, ‘I’m over it. This is a joke.'” Scura went to Oregon “to be Grizzly Adams and reflect on what it’s all about.” He came back a changed man: “I left wearing leather pants and velvet shirts — rock-star boy. And I came back wearing sarongs and Jesus sandals and a beard and smelling like patchouli.”
Scura found that, while he was away, his beloved action sports had changed too. In 1995 ESPN discovered skating and BMX, and conjured up the X Games as a way to plug directly into the hearts and minds of the most coveted consumers on the planet: those impressionable and quick-to-jump-on-the-bandwagon 18- to 25-year-old males. “When I first saw the X Games,” recalls Scura, “I was livid. It was the bastardization of everything I held true. It was the media making action sports wussified.”
As action sports grew into a mass-market phenomenon, rejection of cultural conformity somehow turned into a way to sell Mountain Dew and Slim Jims. But something else happened too: the kids Scura knew from the ’80s who had been making custom decks and shredding backyard pools had become the captains of a new industry. “All my friends had come up,” he recalls with amazement. “Guys that were just groms before were owning $100 million shoe companies.”
Scura hit the scene like a mad prophet back from the wilderness, talking to anyone he could corner about his new vision of sustainable action sports: “At first, I was just kind of a tripper to them — it was a little too far-fetched,” he says. But he kept at it, and as his friends got older and had kids of their own, he says they had to confront the fact that they had become the Man. “People started to get a glimpse of their waste stream and ask, ‘Well, where does all this crap go when I’m done with it?'”
Scura began talking with athletes too, and in 2001, he formalized his effort to green the industry by creating ASEC. With a staff of three, the coalition has managed to bring together not just top athletes — including demigods like Jamie Bestwick, Darcy Turenne, and skater Jen O’Brien — but also a bevy of hip clothing and gear manufacturers, eco-products companies, and media companies. Advisers include members of the board of X Games and executives from HP and Whole Foods.
“ASEC is a common ground and neutral space,” says Scura, “where the greatest minds in our industry — the greatest guerrilla marketers in the world, in my opinion — can come together and figure out how we’re going to make this a global model.”
Right Place, Prong Time
Today, Scura’s ethic is rubbing off on both athletes and fans. “You get so wrapped up in what you’re doing that you tend to forget about what’s going on in the world,” says Bestwick, the world’s top BMX vert rider and a silver medalist at this year’s X Games. “Being around Frank, you stop being so selfish and self-centered all the time.”
If the fact that Bestwick pulled off the first ever Tailwhip Flair in competition a few years ago doesn’t impress you (and it should), consider that there are countless kids all over the world who have posters of Bestwick on their bedroom walls. It’s this access — not just to media, but to the kids the media targets — that really gets Scura excited. “The reality is the action-sports world is small enough to have a dialogue with one another,” he says, “but we’re big enough to influence the entire world because we’re involved with NBC and ESPN and FOX and everybody else.”
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Scura, who can talk about tripping with wolves in one breath and, with equal passion and conviction, corporate marketing strategies in the next, has charted a three-prong attack on business as usual. The first, and so far most visible, brings to action sports the kinds of green businesses and practices with which Grist readers are intimately familiar. Sponsors like Whole Foods, Stonyfield Farms, New Leaf Paper, and Guayakí are now visible at action-sports events alongside what Scura calls the “sugar water and toxic snacks” that have long owned the sector.
Many ASEC athletes happily forgo more lucrative sponsorships that conflict with their values: Scura says superstar skaters and ASEC members Bob Burnquist and Danny Way have passed up millions of dollars. And when Way (the Air and Bomb Drop world-record holder and gold medalist at this year’s X Games, and the only person ever to jump the Great Wall of China without a motor) is dropping in on a megaramp, or Burnquist (a fixture in the Tony Hawk video game series, and winner of three medals at this year’s X Games) is pulling off his legendary switch-stance loop work, chances are good they’re doing it on sustainably harvested, Forest Stewardship Council-certified plywood.
Olympic snowboarder and women’s skateboarding pioneer Cara-Beth Burnside, who is an icon to two or three generations of skaters and continues to dominate the vert pipe (she won her second consecutive gold at this year’s X Games with a run that included a Pop Tart Disaster and a Feeble to Fakie), says that Scura and ASEC are creating a critical mass that makes it easier for athletes to live by their convictions. “That’s what’s cool about Frank,” she says. “We can be involved with conscious sponsors, but stay fully in the mainstream.” And the industry, sensing a good thing, is embracing it too: this year’s X Games were carbon-neutral and powered by wind energy. Past X Games have used FSC-certified wood, and reused ramps whenever possible.
But this is just the first step. Scura’s master plan involves completely transforming the action-sports industry to make skate shops and surf shops into beacons of sustainable alternatives, the way natural-food stores are now. Scura is tight-lipped about the details — he plans to unveil it all at a trade show in September — but he hints that it will bring together existing green initiatives throughout the industry (including shoemaker Sole Technology’s comprehensive solar-power and recycling programs and Indian manufacturer Wearology’s organic and human-rights practices). Scura expects to announce that up to 20 of the top action-sports brands will be coming out with organic clothing lines, something he says will have immediate results: “By next year, we will have saved millions of pounds of greenhouse gases, pesticide runoff, water pollution from dyes, and air pollution.”
It’s the third prong of ASEC’s attack that reaches right to the core of the culture. Action sports come from a hands-on tradition in which kids get together to teach each other new tricks, trying them over and over until they’re bloody and exhausted — and nailing them. So Scura and ASEC’s marquee athletes are undertaking personal, face-to-face work at competitions and skate parks. “We understand kids need to be really cool, so we’re going to make this cool,” he says. “Want to be green? We’re behind you. You’ve got a posse.”
The Kids are Alright
While most action-sports stars are suspicious of celebrity, many do acknowledge the power they wield. “The country is run by television,” says Bestwick. “Using personalities and athletes is the only way that people will really, really stand up and listen.”
“I don’t preach to kids,” Bestwick goes on, “but I find that kids nowadays are generally interested in what you’ve got to say — they want to know about you and about your beliefs.”
Burnside concurs: “You can’t change the world overnight, but you can try to just send your messages. I don’t like to be really forceful — it kind of weirds people out. So I just try to set a good example.”
Photo: Lyn-z Adams Hawkins
One of those kids Burnside set an example for, Lyn-z Adams Hawkins, stunned the world in 2004 when, at age 14, she won the women’s vert at the X Games by landing a Kick Flip Indy Grab — the first female skater to pull it off. Hawkins is also involved in ASEC, and dreams of the day when everyone will be skating on FSC decks in organic clothes — although she hasn’t yet started to flex her celebrity. “I’m just a kid at the moment,” she points out.
But Scura — who says these extreme athletes’ mellow approach to advocacy is due to the yogic nature of their pursuit, in which “you have to be right there and you have to be aware of exactly where you are in that moment” — isn’t afraid to turn on the hard sell himself. “We basically get out there and bribe kids to learn,” he says of the public events ASEC puts on everywhere from Whole Foods parking lots to inner-city skate parks. “The reality is, I ask the kids a question about biodiesel, I give away some swag, and those kids are going to have that seed in their minds for the rest of their lives. What do you think Coca-Cola is doing when they’re passing out swag? They want you to learn about Coca-Cola.”
Scura says that solutions in the marketplace are critical to follow up any sort of education about green issues. “One of the most important messages in this is to vote with your dollars — it’s a vote that can’t be tampered with,” he says. “Triple-bottom-line companies that are going the extra mile should get your dollars, and the ones who aren’t should not get your dollars. Send them a message — that’s how they’re going to change. And if they don’t, they’re going to lose out.”
Ultimately, what Scura is doing plugs back into the roots of action sports, when rebellion meant more than buying a different brand of energy drink. “Kids want to be armed with knowledge that their parents don’t have,” he says, “and this is that vehicle for them. The beauty of it is it’s exactly what action sports needs, because the ultimate punk rock rebellious act to fuck the Man and fuck the system is to be environmentally and socially conscious. That’s exactly what they don’t want you to do.”
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