A company with a mission: Fourth Element
With World Oceans Day 2019 coming closer, we interviewed Jim Standing, co-founder of Fourth Element. Together with Paul Strike, he initiated Mission 2020, aiming to gather pledges from dive industry stakeholders to make a fundamental change by World Oceans Day in 2020. A story of being the change you want to see!
At the start, our behaviour was driven more by the need to survive! But at the core of our brand is the ocean and we were always very aware of the need to protect a precious resource. There has always been the sense among divers that the ocean is in decline and the refrain “it’s not like it used to be twenty years ago” is commonplace. I think as people who literally see the effect of our activities on the ocean, we are also those with a responsibility to act and we felt this keenly from the very early days.
Our initial conservation activities were in support of environmental charities and projects: from t-shirts designed to raise money for the Shark Trust to providing gear and some financial support for the team producing the Plastic Ocean documentary. We aligned ourselves with organizations who we felt had the ability to make a bigger impact, and attempted to spread their messages along with our own. Our "Shark SOS" and "Sharks don’t grow on trees" designs are still among our best sellers.
Putting conservation at the heart of the brand grew from these early collaborations but became fundamentally rooted in the business through a chain of events which propelled us into a different way of thinking that can be summed up with a simple rhetorical: if we could make something that was better for the ocean, would we? Or perhaps that should be why wouldn’t we? And it began with the chance discovery of teams of divers bringing up Ghost Nets from wrecks and reefs around the world to be recycled and that recycled yarn was something which we could use in our product. This was our light bulb moment: make a product for divers from recycled materials brought out of the sea by divers and we began the development of the OceanPositive swimwear.
Your OceanPositive swimwear and new wetsuits are made from recycled material. Did Fourth Element invest in this procedure as a company and what is the impact on your sales?
The collection and recycling procedure was already up and running when we found out about it, but what we did was to offer equipment and some financial support to some of the teams running these recovery operations. Where we felt that we could bring our influence to bear was in making a product from this recycled nylon, tell the story of what was going on and begin to educate our customers and others that this was possible and help create awareness and demand for this product. It was an eye opener for us and really this was the point from which there was no return.
We began to look into the packaging and to find alternatives to the plastic we had been using. This process produced a kind of paradigm shift in Fourth Element. It was no longer enough to make the best performing products in diving, we had to make them better, not just for our customers but for the ocean and that is now as important a central tenet in our operation as making the best performing gear. We continued to innovate, redeveloping our Thermocline neutrally buoyant wetsuit system using this material and also began working with other recycled materials, and this process is ongoing. In 2018, we showed our sustainable wetsuits concept at DEMA - a bio-rubber (sustainably sourced from plants) in place of neoprene, and we believe that this represents the future for us.
How did it influence our sales? Well, it probably nearly ruined us at first as we struggled to get the products made and our focus was taken up on these projects - they are so much more expensive that the current easy options, but the reaction that we had from the dive industry in terms of the positivity towards the brand and our ideas was fantastic. People could see what we were trying to achieve and the messages we had. Now, several years later, with a product line which includes much more recycled content we can see that the risk was worth it, as people are beginning to wake up to the problem - thanks mainly to Blue Planet II and the impassioned pleas of Sir David Attenborough, Sylvia Earle, and many other unsung heroes around the world. We are now part of a growing group of companies who are putting the planet if not the ocean at the heart of their business, and the consumers are choosing to support those organizations.
Some companies decide to wait to convert to a greener image until "green" becomes cheaper. You decided to invest in something you believe in? Would you do it again and why?
It's not a question of choice. This is it - crunch time - and it's not just companies and corporations: we all need to make changes and the little ones DO add up, like not using plastic straws, always making sure that you recycle, carrying a reusable water bottle and coffee cup. The small changes add up. Imagine a world where you simply could not buy bottled water in countries where drinkable water was available from the tap… that world would be realized almost overnight if there was no demand for bottled water in those areas. It is simple economics, but the big companies are not going to stop bottling water until no-one is buying it. The power is in the hands of all of us.
If you are asking would I go back and do it again, no. I am pretty sure Paul would agree with me, we’d go back earlier and change sooner. And shout louder. And risk more.
What has been your biggest challenge with Fourth Element?
Frankly, the biggest challenge was in the early days - getting a dive shop owner to take a risk on an unknown brand run by two guys who dreamed they could make a better product. Imagine a very simple version of the conversation if you will: "Hi! I know you have never heard of us, and our thermal products are a quarter of the thickness of what everyone is using right now, but they will change the way you feel about diving". I was shown the door many many times. Persuading the divers, and later other users of our products was easier, and now we have grown worldwide, and our products are used by the leading explorers in our sport and professional divers worldwide, but there is still work to do. Some of these challenges still remain in the face of competition from the huge companies in our industry, a couple of whom choose to copy our ideas, but I guess that’s flattery, right? And it keeps us pushing our own envelope. Nowadays, the challenges are keeping a view on it all, continuing to innovate and at the same time maintaining our vision.
Almost 2 years ago you started Mission 2020? What does it stand for and what do you hope to achieve?
At the start, Mission 2020 was simply about eliminating single-use plastic packaging from our products by 2020 and our pursuit of more solutions using recycled materials. It represented the direction of travel for our business and gave us something ambitious to aim for. The idea resonated with our customers and we found that more of our colleagues in the industry were taking note and wanting to discuss some of the plastic free solutions we had developed. It became pretty clear to us that all of us in diving who cared about the health of the oceans wanted to do something, so rather than there be a myriad of differing, but essentially analogous campaigns, we decided to try and open Mission 2020 to become something bigger than Fourth Element, Mares, Aqualung, PADI, Scubapro or many others.
Mission 2020 has become a dive community project in which anyone can participate by making a pledge to change their business in a significant way for the benefit of the ocean by 2020 World Oceans Day. The principle focus is single use plastic, and this has seen organizations such as Aqualung pledging a 70% reduction in single use plastic, PADI pledging to reduce its plastic footprint and encourage its 6000 dive centers to do the same, Suunto has pledged to eliminate its use of single use plastic entirely and others go even further, pledging to clean the oceans and beaches and remove plastic from the sea.
Imagine if every organization in the dive industry eliminated or even reduced its plastic by 70%. That is a significant step. Paul and I hope that Mission 2020 is able to be a catalyst in this change - an entire industry making a commitment to the ocean. This may be dreaming, and certainly some people have said as much to me, but if we don’t dream, and we don’t try, we’ll never change anything, and we are not prepared to accept that. So please, visit mission2020.org and make a pledge - together, we can make a difference.
(Interview by Ellen Cuylaerts, images provided by Jim Standing)